Just days and perhaps even hours after the 2011 NFL draft came to its three-day conclusion, pundits all over commenced handing out grades to each of the 32 teams. While immediate reactions are always entertaining, I’ve long been under the assumption it’s borderline absurd to dispense grades to a team when not one of prospect has even picked up a NFL team playbook yet.
I learned the hard way about the humiliation that follows when you prematurely anoint or blast an organization based on 24 hours of digesting unknown draft picks. Back in 2006 while doing some contributing writing for Yahoo Sports and Scout.com, I instantaneously became a fanatic of the Bills’ 2006 under new general manger Marv Levy. I vividly remember stating in the days that followed that this would be the draft to turn Buffalo’s franchise around. I recall saying the trade-up with Chicago to land John McCargo was potentially a revolutionary move for the franchise. With the first five picks completely committed to defense, it was merely a matter of time before Buffalo would dominate the AFC East. I gave the Bills a Class-A grade and ranked the draft the best of all 32 teams.
Of course, turns out that class consisted of Donte Whitner, McCargo, Ashton Youboty and Ko Simpson being the first four selections. Only Kyle Williams going off the board in round five prevents that draft from being a massive fail.
Since then I’ve done my best to wait three years on a draft class before handing out grades. That means the alarm clock has officially went off on the Class of 2008.
Here’s how I grade the Bills’ draft class from three years ago.
1. Leodis McKelvin, CB (11 overall): Buffalo decided to go with McKelvin, the first cornerback to come off the board in the draft. As a rookie in 2008 McKelvin showed the organization plenty of reasons why he was worth the high selection. He picked off two passes as a rookie, including a 64-yard touchdown return against Kansas City. He also demonstrated explosiveness as a returner on special teams. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to carry momentum into his second year. McKelvin botched a kick return that probably cost them an opening night upset at New England, and his season came to an end two weeks later against New Orleans after breaking his leg. Last year McKelvin was terribly inconsistent. He started 14 games but had just two interceptions and was often victimized on long throws. He really needs to have a breakout season in 2011 to justify being the first cornerback off the board. To this point he’s been unmistakably outperformed by Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie; the second corner taken by Arizona five picks after McKelvin. Cromartie already has 13 career interceptions in three seasons and four have been returned for touchdowns. It also needs to be noted the Bills could’ve also drafted quarterback Joe Flacco, who went to Baltimore seven picks after McKelvin. Ouch. Grade: C- (McKelvin has ability and has shown it at times, but hasn’t been nearly consistent enough and at this point, the Bills would’ve been better off drafting Cromartie if corner was that big of a priority. He’s not close to a bust like former high Bills’ picks Mike Williams and John McCargo, but top dozen guys need to be better than mediocre. Fortunately, McKelvin gets at least another year to turn himself into an impact defender).
2. James Hardy, WR (41 overall): The classic definition of what a draft bust is, Hardy actually showed promise early in his rookie season when he caught the game-winning touchdown at Jacksonville in week two. Unfortunately he grabbed just eight passes the rest of the season and never had more than 35 receiving yards in a game. Hardy tore his knee up in 2009 and was limited to just one catch for nine yards in two games. If that wasn’t bad enough, things took a turn for the worse last season when he was beaten out at training camp by undrafted rookies David Nelson and Donald Jones, which led to Hardy’s release after just two seasons with the team. It’s hard to fathom a team spending a high second-round pick on a guy that would essentially be out of the league after just two years, but that’s exactly what Buffalo did. Hardy is now trying to re-start his career with Baltimore and meanwhile, you can’t help but wonder how much better Buffalo would be had they selected DeSean Jackson instead, who went to Philadelphia eight picks later. Buffalo drafted Hardy because of his size but sadly he became one of those “look like Tarzan, play like Jane” type of receivers. Grade: FAIL
3. Chris Ellis, DE (72 overall): Another guy the Bills had high hopes for as they revamped their defense, Ellis accomplished precious little in his 2.5 seasons with the club. He never dressed for more than seven contests in a season and accumulated one sack in 15 career games. He didn’t work out as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 linebacker and was released by Buffalo after week five in 2010. He toiled on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad over the last few months of last season but was never activated. Valuable Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles went one after Ellis to Kansas City. Grade: FAIL
4. Reggie Corner, CB (114 overall): Corner has become just about everything the Bills could realistically hope for in terms of value in the fourth round. He was a disaster as a starter in limited opportunities in 2009 after the secondary was decimated with injuries, but for the most part he’s been an excellent slot corner in the nickel and dime packages and a solid member of the special teams. He only has one career sack and interception but the Bills can and have done worse plenty worse in the fourth round. Grade: B (good value for a fourth rounder).
5. Alvin Bowen, LB (147 overall): The first Bills pick from 2008 that never panned out whatsoever. Bowen suffered a bad knee injury during training camp and was placed on Injured Reserve. He was among the team’s final cuts the following season and re-signed to the practice squad. That lasted less than three weeks before Buffalo released him again. He went to Washington and lasted a season there before getting waived, signed with Seattle for all of 10 days and spent most of last year on Jacksonville’s practice squad. Grade: C- (you can’t expect a lot from a fifth-rounder, but it would’ve been nice to at least see him become a decent special teams player).
6. Xavier Omon, RB (179 overall): Omon nearly became a Cinderella story for Buffalo as he parlayed an outstanding rookie training camp into a 53-man final roster spot. During the regular season however, he only carried the ball six times for just five yards. He didn’t progress in year two and developed a serious fumbling problem in the preseason. He carried the ball just five times in 2009 before being waived in November. Since then, he’s spent time on Seattle, New York Jets and San Francisco’s practice squad. Grade: C- (hey, at least he had a mini-run with the team).
7. Demetrius Bell, OT (291 overall): Isn’t it amazing how the Bills habitually seem to draft better guys late in the process? The son of former NBA Hall of Famer Karl Malone was regarded as little more than a long-term project, yet he was the starting left tackle by the start of the 2009 season after the Bills traded Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters to Philadelphia. As expected, Bell struggled in his first year as a starter with penalties and things culminated with a season-ending injury at Tennessee in the team’s ninth game. Bell played much better last season and has seemingly locked down the starting left tackle spot for the foreseeable future. Grade: A (you don’t find many starting left tackles in round seven of the draft. Granted, he may not be a starter on a lot of other teams, but the Bills have far worse problems than Bell).
7. Stevie Johnson, WR (224 overall): At first glance Johnson being a seventh rounder feels like a misprint. After spending two years in depth chart obscurity as one would expect with such a late round prospect, Johnson exploded onto the NFL scene last year, especially once Ryan Fitzpatrick became the starter. Johnson overtook former first rounder Lee Evans as the team’s primary receiver and by the time the season was over he amassed 82 receptions for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. Seemingly overnight, Johnson has become the organization’s most popular player and arguably, it’s most talented. Grade: A+ (once every 15 years you land this kind of production from the bottom of the draft barrel— if you’re lucky).
OVERALL GRADE: B (Among the eight picks from the ’08 crop, three are solid starters. Add in Corner and half this draft have been quality contributors to the Bills three years later. McKelvin has been a disappointment in that he hasn’t turned into a lock down corner, but he will still have opportunities. Only striking out on Hardy and Ellis keep this draft from being graded higher).
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