Bills' Veteran Purge Led to Today's Mediocrity

Timothy Minneci@timminneciCorrespondent IDecember 19, 2008

In 2006, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson fired then General Manager Tom Donahoe and brought in former head coach Marv Levy to help return the Bills to the playoffs.  That has not happened, the Bills are 0-for-8 making the playoffs in the '00s.

While Donahoe's personnel decisions between 2001 and 2005 are often criticized with cause, the decisions since then under Levy from 2006 and 2007 are equally as suspect when it comes to retaining veteran defensive players who left via free agency, and how that impacted the draft strategy in following years drafts.

What follows are four examples, two from each era.  First, the Donahoe years...                

Antonie Winfield

Paired with Nate Clements, the two formed a fierce corner tandem during the early part of the decade.  Drafted by the Bills in the first round of the '99 draft, Winfield left via free agency in '03.

Since joining the Minnesota Vikings, Winfield has been a part of a dominating defense consistently ranking in the top ten, as well as making his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2008. Though there was not as drastic a drop-off with Clements still the number one corner from '03-'06 and McGee promoted to the number two spot, the Bills failed to find any suitable replacement, drafting the likes of Eric King and Ashon Youboty.

This would cause a more long-term issue which I'll address after the later departure of Clements.                                                     

                                                                                                                         Pat Williams

Along with Sam Adams, Williams set the tone for a intimidating defense not seen in Buffalo since the Bruce Smith days of the early nineties.  Signed as an undrafted free agent, Buffalo allowed Williams to walk after the 2004 season. 
Since then he's been to three Pro-Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings and established another dominant line with teammate Kevin Williams.
After the departure of Williams, the Bills unsuccessfully filled the spot with a variety of free agents and draft picks until trading for Jacksonville's Marcus Stroud prior to the 2008 season.
If the Bills had retained Williams, they would not have had to trade up in the 2006 draft to acquire tackle John McCargo to fill the void left by Williams departure.  While Adams was entering the twilight of his career, Williams had yet peaked.
McCargo has yet to make an impact and this season failed a physical, voiding a trade with the Indianapolis Colts. Instead of McCargo, the Bills could have also drafted center Nick Mangold, who went to the New York Jets two picks later, and currently anchors one of the most dominant lines in the NFL.
And under Levy...
                                                                                                                            Nate Clements

Though never considered to be in the upper echelon of so-called "shut down corners" with the likes of Champ Bailey, Clements has always been regarded as an excellent tackler.  In 2006, Clements became an unrestricted free agent.  

The San Francisco 49ers signed Clements to an $80 million contract, the highest for a defensive player at the time.  The Bills failed to pursue Clements, and in response promoted Terrance McGee to the number one corner slot while signing veteran journeyman Jason Webster for depth.  

While a strong returner, McGee has struggled in the two seasons since at the No. 1 corner spot.  Webster was a non-factor and is no longer with the team.  In 2008, the Bills drafted Troy State defensive back Leodis McKelvin.

If the Bills had retained Winfield or Clements, instead of drafting McKelvin, they could have selected offensive tackle Ryan Clady, selected one spot after McKelvin.  Clady has started every game for the Denver Broncos and is considered one of the top rookies of the 2008 draft class.

While McKelvin has established himself as a standout in the return game, McGee and undersized wide-out Roscoe Parrish have both performed well on special teams.

                                                                                                                        Lawyer Milloy

Signed as a free agent from the rival New England Patriots just prior to the start of 2003 season, Milloy never missed a game in a Bills uniform and provided veteran leadership during his three season in Buffalo. 

A salary cap casualty, Milloy left for the Atlanta Falcons in 2006, this time anchoring a young team through the turmoil of Bobby Petrinio's abrupt departure to the current resurgence under Mike Smith. 

To replace Milloy, the Bills drafted Ohio State's Donte Witner with the eight pick in the 2006 draft, who was expected to go in the mid to late first round and considered to be a reach at the time.  While Witner has played well, he has yet to establish himself among the elite safeties in the league.

If the Bills had retained Milloy, they could have drafted Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler, who went to the Denver Broncos three picks later.  Then General Manager Marv Levy considered Cutler to be the top quarterback prospect in the draft.

Instead, the Bills gave JP Losman the starting job, but after a disappointing 2006 season drafted Standford QB Trent Edwards in 2007.


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