PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills were so thrilled with their 2016 draft class that general manager Doug Whaley declared in May that his first three selections -- Clemson outside linebacker Shaq Lawson, Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland and Ohio State defensive lineman Adolphus Washington -- would all start "off the bus" in coach Rex Ryan's defense this season.
Unless, of course, that bus broke down with two flat tires before it could even reach the regular season.
Lawson's shoulder surgery and an announcement Wednesday that Ragland tore his ACL and will miss the regular season have rendered Whaley's comment moot. Only one of his rookies is likely to start right away: Washington, who has taken most of the first-team reps at defensive end this training camp.
The Bills knew they were taking a risk when they drafted Lawson No. 19 overall despite widespread concerns over his shoulder, but there's no way Whaley could have foreseen what happened to Ragland in last Friday's practice. As the fourth-year GM and Bills owner Terry Pegula sat in a golf cart on the sideline during 11-on-11 drills, Ragland chased running back Reggie Bush in their direction, only to pull up limping and immediately go to the ground.
Center Eric Wood was among the first to trot over and check on Ragland, who laid with his back on the turf. The second-round rookie quickly told his veteran teammate that he had hurt "my knee, my knee" -- chilling words that were surely within earshot of Whaley and Pegula.
Whaley's "off the bus" comment two weeks after the draft said it all: The team was relying heavily on Lawson, Ragland and Washington to turn around Ryan's defense this season. These weren't rookies to be stashed as reserves and unleashed at some future date; the Bills thought they had two first-round talents in Lawson and Ragland, and they felt both could play right away because they came from high-level college programs.
Now the Bills are in Plan B mode before they have even suited up for their first preseason game. We'll hear plenty in the coming days about "next man up," and perhaps even about how the 2014 version of the Bills' defense overcame a season-ending knee injury to promising linebacker Kiko Alonso before training camp. But make no mistake: This one hurts for Buffalo.
Lawson is several weeks away, if not longer, from returning to the practice field. His replacement, veteran outside linebacker Manny Lawson, partially tore his pectoral muscle attempting to bench-press 415 pounds last month. That injury has kept Lawson on the active/physically unable to perform list, although the team's goal is to have him ready to play in Week 1. In the meantime, the Bills have given IK Enemkpali reps with the first-team defense opposite Jerry Hughes at outside linebacker.
Without Ragland at inside linebacker, the Bills moved quickly over the weekend to pick up two veterans, Brandon Spikes and David Hawthorne, to bolster their numbers at the position. Whether Spikes and Hawthorne provide quality depth remains to be seen. The fact that both players were unsigned into the start of training camp -- when clubs carry 90 players -- speaks to how the Bills are attempting reclamation projects with each.
Spikes and Hawthorne have both run with the second team in practice this week behind returning third-year starter Preston Brown and Ragland's replacement, Zach Brown. The latter Brown is a former second-round pick who never emerged with the Tennessee Titans, one of the NFL's most talent-devoid teams of the past several seasons. Zach Brown provides the Bills with more speed than Ragland, but Ryan's lack of hesitation to hand his rookie the starting spot over the free-agent pickup tells you all you need to know.
With Lawson, Ragland and Washington, this was supposed to be the draft that gave Ryan the tools he needed to turn around the Bills' defense. The unit finished 19th in the NFL last season -- far short of Ryan's prediction that it would be the top defense in football -- and seemed to be disrupted by grumbling from players such as Mario Williams who felt their concerns about the scheme weren't being heard by the new coaching staff.
In drafting Lawson and Ragland, Ryan thought he had the solution that would plug leaking holes on his defense, while also rebuilding the hard-nosed brand of the Ryan family name.
That will have to wait. The Bills' quick-fix draft has gone bust, and now it's time for Plan B.