The Bills have had their share of first-round busts since the common NFL Draft started in 1967.
By then the National and American football leagues had agreed to a merger that was to begin with the 1970 season. In the three preceding years (‘67-’69), though, there would be one draft involving both the NFL and AFL.
Over those 52 seasons, it could be argued that Buffalo has wasted its first-rounder 18 times, though most Bills fans will argue that it was 19. I disagree, as a recent circumstance got me recalling that mischaracterized player. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
WHEN EXPERTS do their lists of biggest busts in NFL Draft history, a prominent name is invariably Walt Patulski, a defensive end from Notre Dame whom the Bills chose with the No. 1 overall pick in 1972. He played four seasons with Buffalo in relative obscurity.
The franchise did considerably better with its other three No. 1 overall picks. Running back O.J. Simpson (1969) and defensive end Bruce Smith (1985) are both in the Hall of Fame. The Bills’ other top selection was Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau. He came courtesy of Simpson being traded to San Francisco for five draft picks, one of which became No. 1 in the 1979 draft. Buffalo chose Cousineau, who declined to sign with the Bills and instead chose to play in Canada. When he opted to return to the NFL, Cousineau still refused to play in Buffalo, which then traded him to Cleveland for three draft choices including a first-rounder in 1983. That choice turned out to be Bills’ Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly.
It was an inspired selection, but also pointed out the vagaries of the draft. Buffalo’s own pick that year was No. 12, and it was used on Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter, a bust who played in the NFL only four seasons, two of them with the Bills, who took Kelly two picks later.
The second biggest first-round bust for Buffalo, based on where he was picked, came in 2002 with the selection of Texas offensive tackle Mike Williams at No. 4 overall. But, in fairness, the Bills took him exactly where he was projected to go and most other NFL teams picking in that spot would have made the same mistake. Williams, whose undoing was lacking a “mean streak,” had a seven-year career, four with Buffalo.
Of course, the Bills’ unending post-Kelly search for a franchise quarterback produced a pair of first-round busts: E.J. Manuel, No. 16 overall in 2013, and J.P. Losman taken at No. 22 in 2004 after trading back into the round (wide receiver Lee Evans was drafted at No. 13).
Then there was the galling failure of two players picked at No. 11. Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin (2009) lasted only two years in Buffalo, and cornerback Leodis McKelvin, a year earlier, had a nine-season career, seven with the Bills, but never performed to the level at which he was picked.
First rounders are expected to be starters, but the hope is that they’re also difference-makers, and most of Buffalo’s other opening-round failures haven’t been.
THE BILLS traded back into the first round in 2006 to take defensive tackle John McCargo at No. 26 overall. He started one game in six pro seasons, five with the team that drafted him. Defensive end Erik Flowers (2000) was also a 26th selection and had six starts in five years with three teams.
Cornerback James Williams, taken at No. 16 in 1990, started 30 games in six seasons with three teams, four with Buffalo. The previous player whom the Bills selected at No. 16 was Iowa running back Ronnie Harmon in 1986. He actually had a mediocre 12-year career which Thurman Thomas helped terminate in Buffalo. But Harmon is most remembered for dropping a touchdown pass in the closing seconds of a 1989 playoff game in Cleveland that cost the Bills a victory.
Wide receiver Perry Tuttle, the 19th pick in 1982, was supposed to be the second coming of fellow Clemson alum Jerry Butler, Buffalo’s star first-rounder three years earlier (taken at No. 5). Instead, he lasted three seasons in the NFL, two with the Bills, logging a mere four starts with only 24 catches and three TDs for Buffalo.
In 1977, the Bills drafted the late Phil Dokes with the 12th pick. In his two pro seasons, he started 10 games with minimal impact. Ditto for Nebraska linebacker Tom Ruud, taken at No. 19 in 1975, whose five-year career included only four starts in three seasons with Buffalo. Tight end Reuben Gant was the No. 18 selection in 1974, and in seven years as a Bill he averaged a mere 18 catches and two touchdowns.
The story goes that O.J. convinced the Bills to draft his USC buddy, defensive end Al Cowlings — he of “white Ford Bronco” fame — with the No. 5 overall pick in 1970. “AC” had a very average nine-year NFL career, three of them in Buffalo.
Finally, there was safety John Pitts, the Bills’ first-ever common-draft selection, No. 22 in 1967. In six-plus seasons with Buffalo over a pedestrian nine-year career, he had eight interceptions.
AND THAT brings me to the Bills’ “bust” first-rounder who really wasn’t … that is to say, he was merely an unlucky mistake.
In 1981, with the 28th overall pick, Buffalo chose Penn State fullback Booker Moore.
Shortly after the draft, tests indicated he was suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system.
He played four seasons for the Bills, after taking a year off, but was never the same player he was in college. His career total was only 420 rushing yards, though he averaged nearly four yards per carry, impressive for a fullback. He added 75 receptions and finished with two TDs.
After retiring, at only 26, Moore became a deputy sheriff in Flint, Mich., and died of a heart attack in 2009 shortly after turning 50.
What conjured his memory was the Monday retirement of Cowboys’ center Travis Frederick, 29, due to his own struggle with Guillain-Barre syndrome. After making three straight Pro Bowls, he took 2018 off to fight the disease, then returned last season to be named All-Pro a fourth time. This off-season, though, he decided the battle had become too much.
It’s the decision Moore also reached and the Bills never got to find out whether he’d have been a brilliant choice or a bust.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)