(WIVB)–On Thursday night, for the first time in a month, the nation will tune in to an actual live sporting event — the NFL draft. But barring any last-minute trades by general manager Brandon Beane, the Bills will be idle bystanders.
They don’t have a first-round pick in the league’s “annual selection meeting’ for the first time in five years. In fact, it’s the first time in 31 years that the Bills go into a draft without a first-rounder after reaching the playoffs the previous season.
The Bills traded their top pick — the 22nd overall pick — in a trade with the Vikings for veteran wide receiver Stefon Diggs in mid-March. They’re not scheduled to pick until 54th overall, which is the third time in franchise history their first selection fell outside the top 50.
“I’m going to play some videos of Stefon Diggs when 22 comes up,” Beane said during a video conference with the Buffalo media this month. “That’s our first-round pick.”
That little joke hit home with Bill Polian, the architect of the Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowl teams in the early 1990s. Polian used it in 1988, when he went into the draft without a first-round pick because of the Cornelius Bennett trade. They also traded their first- and second-rounder in the 1989 draft, to Indy in the deal, along with running back Greg Bell.
“We talked about it at the time we made the trade for Cornelius Bennett,” Polian said by phone from his home in North Carolina, where he’s sheltering in place and doing draft analysis for Sirius Radio. “He was going to be our first-round pick the following year. We were getting him a year early, that’s all. That one was a no-brainer at the time.
The Bills picked 40th overall in ’88. The waited fretfully while a running back coming off a serious knee injury fell to them. Thurman Thomas wound up in the Hall of Fame.
“I remember when Thurman fell to the bottom of the first round, I began to pace and Marv (Levy) began to jiggle the change in his pocket,” Polian recalled with a chuckle.
Polian said Thomas and Bennett, a supremely talented rush linebacker, were the last major pieces to the championship puzzle — albeit four AFC championships. In 1989, they didn’t pick until 82nd overall, the lowest ever for their first pick. The did pretty well, getting a solid wideout in Don Beebe.
By that point, of course, Polian and Co. had constructed one of the most talented rosters in NFL history, one that couldn’t possibly have stayed together in the salary cap era that soon followed. As Polian once said, there was a feeling within the team and among the fans that “we are ready to go!”
So he knows what it’s like to have a contending team on the cusp, one that has a deep roster in place and can do without a first-round draft pick. And while it’s pointless to compare teams over eras, there are similarities between this year’s Bills and the ’89 team that was a year away from the Bowl.
It was Year 4 of the Polian-Levy era in 1989, same as it is with Beane and Sean McDermott now. They had a rising second-year running back in Thomas, whose first-year stats were similar to Devin Singletary’s last season; they had several gifted young players on the defense.
Again, it’s tough to compare any modern NFL team with those Bills squads. But Polian does see parallels to the current Bills. He sees a team that could be poised for a serious run.
“Oh, I think that’s absolutely true,” said Polian, a supporter of McDermott who compared him with Levy when the Bills hired him in early 2017. “Go back and look at Sean and Brandon’s arrival. A, they had a plan. B, they carried it out without exception. And they both deserve great credit for that.
“Sean is the man of steel. He doesn’t deviate one iota from what his plan is. He doesn’t let outside pressure or even internal considerations change that. They’ve done it exactly the way we did. Establish the plan. As Marv said, ‘Plan your work, work your plan — and they’ve done that.
“Now they’re positioned to be highly competitive.”
Polian said that much depends on the development of quarterback Josh Allen in his third season. The Bills improved the surrounding talent in Allen’s second year and it’s even better now. They’re the only NFL team roster with two wideouts who gained 1,000 yards last season (John Brown and Diggs) and a third who had 60 catches (Cole Beasley).
“They need another back, obviously, because the little guy (Singletary) can’t carry the load by himself,” Polian said. “I’m confident they’ll find that. Diggs added a big piece to the offense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them add another receiver in the draft.”
Asked if teams draft to counter the strength of their biggest rival, Polian answered “Yes” without hesitation. That means the Bills have to deal with Patrick Mahomes, the superstar quarterback of the Super Bowl champion Chiefs. It woudn’t be a surprise to see the Bills go with an edge rusher at 54 overall to improve a somewhat inconsistent pass rush.
“Sure, you can never have enough of those guys,” Polian said. “And Jerry (Hughes) isn’t getting any younger. I drafted Jerry for goodness sakes (for Indy in 2010), which tells you something.
“If you’re in that situation in the AFC and you’ve got to go through those guys to get to the big game, you’d better have a defense. That’s the good news for Bills fans. They have a coach and coordinator who know defense inside-out and an organizational approach that values defense.
“In the end, that may be in the end what separates them from everybody else.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.