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Doug Whaley defends his bullish outlook on the Bills’ rookies

Why is Doug Whaley so confident the Bills’ top three draft picks will start right away? The GM explains the post-draft hype he’s building in Buffalo.

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Know this about Bills general manager Doug Whaley: No one will ever say he lacks the courage of his convictions.

The man who drafted EJ Manuel with the No. 16 pick in 2013, moved up five spots to draft Sammy Watkins in 2014, traded for LeSean McCoy and then signed the veteran running back to a huge contract, and backed up an M&T Bank truck to land tight end Charles Clay last year, came away from this year’s draft making off-season headlines yet again.

But the big surprise wasn’t the selection of outside linebacker Shaq Lawson, linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive lineman Adolphus Washington with his first three draft picks. All three seem like bona fide talents that address big needs for Rex Ryan’s talent-starved front seven.

It was what Whaley said, and continues to say, about them.

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Right after drafting Lawson: “He walks in, Day One, starter opposite Jerry Hughes. First day, coming in off the bus, he’s starting and [Ryan’s] mind’s going crazy on different ways he can use him.”

Then after taking Ragland, a pick that could have been perceived as a challenge to third-year linebacker Preston Brown: “Preston and him will be on the field at the same time.”

To top it all off a few days later, Whaley was asked by NFL Network how many starters he thought he got out of the draft.

“At least three,” Whaley replied. “Shaq Lawson is going to walk in off the bus starting. Reggie Ragland and then Adolphus Washington—all three of those guys will start right off the bus.”

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In a dozen years of covering the buttoned-up NFL, I can’t recall another general manager talking so openly about how his first-round pick (let alone his first-, second- and third-round picks) would come in Day One and start for his team. And forget about in recent years when draft prospects at just about every position (except for maybe along the defensive interior) have faced perhaps the steepest learning curve ever due to the ruinous influence of the spread offense at the college level. NFL people just don’t talk the way Whaley does. So I had to ask him, is this some sort of new-age psychological play to prop up his young talent, or does he really believe his top three draft picks are Week 1 starters without ever having seen an NFL playbook, taken part in a practice or emerged unscathed from the four-week dead period that starts next month?

“It’s not a philosophy,” Whaley says. “It’s just if you look at our roster, there are glaring holes there and we expect, if we’re doing our jobs right, for Shaq Lawson to come in and take over for Mario Williams, and Reggie Ragland to come in and take over for Nigel Bradham, and then Adolphus Washington … we really only have two D-linemen that have played in this league with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams and then we have Corbin Bryant. But if we’re right, this guy is going to push to start over Bryant, so I think it’s more the holes we have in our roster more than anything. Hopefully, if we’re right with how we scouted, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have three Day One starters.”

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These rookies really have no idea what they’re in for becoming professionals. They have all this money and free time for the first time. Stories about players cutting weight for the combine and private workouts, then getting fat and out of shape before their first training camps are commonplace. Players can get overwhelmed by the playbooks and long meetings, or the extra work required to match up with their veteran counterparts. There are injuries and fatigue. There are not enough padded practices to get used to live action at the highest level. And there are poor attitudes, fueled by complacency and entitlement, that lead to poor work ethic.

In short, there are a number of things that can go wrong for a rookie. That’s why you hear the accomplished coaches like Bill Belichick take a cautious approach: We’ll see what happens when they get in the building and have to compete. The NFL teams that have been in the playoffs over the past 16 years (so, everyone but the Bills) have largely understood that rookies have to earn whatever they get. If I’m Manny Lawson, an 11-year veteran outside linebacker, or Bryant, a former undrafted defensive lineman that has lasted five years in the NFL (four with the Bills), I’m pretty ticked off that there has been no mention of a competition. From the outside looking in, Whaley seems to be giving a spot to his draft picks immediately. He disagrees.

“If they don’t perform, then they’re not going to play,” says Whaley. “We’re going to play the best people. We think they’re the best people, and if they come in and don’t perform that well, then we didn’t do our job right. So that’s on us. I have no problem with that. We’re putting a lot of pressure on those guys. We believe we have guys that have come from winning programs, and they’re not going to be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. They come from basically pro programs that know how to win, and they’ve been successful in their past, and we expect that to continue.”

While the Bills’ first three selections seem like smart picks on paper, there are reasons to be cautious about all three.

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Lawson had a shoulder injury that scared more than a few teams off before the draft. He tweaked it in rookie minicamp and recently had surgery, putting his status for Week 1 in doubt. That surely won’t help him back up Whaley’s words.

“We don’t know about the timetable just yet because he had the surgery [Tuesday] but we felt, ‘Let’s get this done now so if anything happens later on, we don’t want to be in the middle of the season and have to deal with it,’” says Whaley. “Why don’t we just remove all doubt and get it done now? And when he gets back, he’s back 100% for the rest of his career. It was a combination of everything, from the information we had, we had a little incident and we just sat down and asked, What’s the best thing for everybody involved? And we came up with that.”

Ragland was a dynamite player at Alabama and figures to have a long career in the middle of Ryan’s complicated scheme. But there were whispers that Ragland could have a steep learning curve ahead of him with the playbook. This is from Bob McGinn’s pre-draft capsule on Ragland in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Administered the Wonderlic test twice, scoring 10 and later 15. “There was a little knock on him learning the playbook early,” said a third scout. “Talking to people at Alabama, you’re not going to throw an NFL playbook at him Day 1. But in time he will learn it. When he learns it he can retain it.” … “Great (expletive) kid,” a fourth scout said. “He’ll knock the (expletive) out of you. Fast, explosive, not very smart. That’s going to affect him on the next level.”

There might not be another scheme that demands more of their inside linebackers than Ryan’s. The guys who ran it the best with the Ravens and Jets, Ray Lewis and David Harris, were as football smart as they come. Whaley says the Bills have no concern about Ragland’s ability to assimilate.

“Whoever you got that information from must have not watched him play football at Alabama because they used him in multiple spots in multiple defenses, so for us, anybody that can do that in a defense that is the most similar to Rex’s defense in college, we didn’t have that concern,” Whaley says. “Ask them if they saw him play the dime, the nickel, outside backer, insider backer, rush package.”

And while Washington was probably a good risk in the third round considering his athletic gifts, he was known for being very inconsistent at Ohio State and was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl after being cited for soliciting prostitution.

Whaley knew all this about his top three selections in the draft, but he was still just fine with anointing them all starters off the bus in Buffalo. No, Whaley is not scared. Not at all. Time will tell whether he was right, or just whistling past the graveyard.