One of the worst-kept secrets in the NFL over the weekend was that this was going to be the last draft for Bills general manager Doug Whaley in Buffalo. The GM who was seemingly in perpetual purgatory, and whose tenure nearly came to an end several times in the past, was truly nearing his final days with the team.
And a little more than 12 hours after the draft concluded on Saturday night, Bills owner Terry Pegula made the decision official. By then it was anything but a surprise. As we've long reported, new coach Sean McDermott is in control in Buffalo, he wields the power and he now has the owner's ear above all else. He will have a strong voice in determining whom he works with in a front office capacity, and numerous league sources continue to point to Carolina assistant general manager Brandon Beane as the top candidate to replace Whaley. Fellow Panther exec Don Gregory, and Titans personnel man Ryan Cowden (formerly of the Panthers) are among those in the mix as well. McDermott has strong ties to both from his tenure as the Panthers defensive coordinator.
While the smart thing to do would have been for owner Terry Pegula to begin his GM search in January when he terminated coach Rex Ryan and his coaching staff, the days immediately after the draft is when many scouting changes are made, and Pegula wasted little time making the switch now. Whaley was a divisive figure in Buffalo. His drafts and signings and interpersonal relationships were under critical review, and this move was a long time coming, as has been reported here and elsewhere in recent years.
Just as the relationship between Whaley and former coach Doug Marrone was rocky and just like the relationship between Whaley and former head coach Rex Ryan was fractured, the relationship between Whaley and McDermott never really took hold. If anything, Pegula's repeated procrastinating on a decision that many smart people advised him to make years ago set the franchise back, and his tendency to blow up coaching staffs but stick with a front office continually making evaluation and contractual blunders caused many of the issues in that franchise.
When Marrone left in 2014, Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian heavily considered taking over. Had he, Marrone would have been retained and Whaley would have been replaced. Others Pegula turned to outside his organization suggested a similar path, but when Polian balked -- he didn't want to set back the clock on his eligibility for the Hall of Fame -- and Marrone walked (to the tune of a $4M payment parachute), Whaley survived. But it was never good for long with Rex, either.
Blown picks of EJ Manuel and over-paying to trade up for oft-injured Sammy Watkins and botching the contract with Tyrod Taylor and throwing ridiculous money at mercurial Marcell Dareus kept the front office in a perilous plight, and the longer McDermott had to contemplate this roster and assess the contractual mishaps and salary-cap issues, the clearer it became he wouldn't be working with Whaley for long.
Losing top corner Stephon Gilmore in free agency, to the hated Patriots, no less, did not set well with the new head coach, but he inherited too many other bad contracts to truly compete. The Taylor affair was unnecessarily difficult, given the bizarre structure agreed to a year ago (before the new coach arrived) and the heavy-handed tactics the front office took with Taylor late last season. Then, for the second year in a row, the Bills put too low a free-agent tender on an emerging skill player, and for the second straight year the Pats plucked him away, with Mike Gillislee joining Chris Hogan as part of the New England dynasty. Time was getting short for Whaley.
By Thursday night, when the Bills traded down a whopping 15 spots -- half a round -- to accrue 2018 draft picks, it was clear around the league that Whaley would be out. And by Saturday night -- when scouts and execs are tied up in the dizzying haze of trying to sign priority un-drafted free agents -- numerous sources told me the Bills would be making big changes on Sunday, with front office staff advised to be in the building early Sunday morning with Pegula set to announce news.
While the decision to pass on some elite defensive players and move deep down the first round may prove to be best for the organization in the long term, those aren't the moves of an under-duress GM who must win now. But McDermott has time on his side, and an owner firmly in his corner, and very soon he will have a new GM with him who shares his vision and knows how he thinks and already has a working relationship with him.
The only question is how sweeping the changes will be and how many other positions change through the personnel department. The Bills have been too middling for too long, and Pegula has been too loyal, but now has finally exacted real change to the top of the decision-making paradigm. McDermott would do well to reach back to other evaluators from his past to rebuild the infrastructure of the Bills, with the franchise in need of an internal culture change as well as an evaluating transplant.
Reaching back to the Panthers only makes sense for McDermott. He'd do well to call back on some personnel men from his time in Philly before that, as well. And, with concerns swirling about the health of Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and that team in line to go up for sale whenever he passes -- which invariably means overhaul -- Pegula and McDermott may find no shortage of qualified candidates eager to listen.