#1: Bruce Smith
“Bad things man.”
These were remarks stated during a Nike shoe advertisement that aired during Smiths’ hay days showcasing all the “bad things” he performed out on the field every Sunday. And for the most part, the ad rang true as the former first-overall pick in the 1985 NFL Draft would go on to set the league on fire.
Entering the draft, Smith was the consensus first-overall choice as the Bills wanted to continue to rebuild their franchise. Selecting Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly in the preceding 1984 NFL Draft, the attention turned to the defensive side of the game.
During Smith’s career at his hometown Virginia Tech, he reinvented the defensive end position. Recording 22 sacks in his breakthrough 1983 junior season was a sampling of Smiths’ powers as he would go on to become a consensus All-American and Outland Trophy winner as a senior. He departed Virginia Tech as the Hokies’ all-time leader in sacks with 46 and tackles for loss with 71, making him probably the finest defensive player in school history.
During his first season, Smith came into the organization at a playing weight that was not sustainable as it slowed him down. Weighing in at about 290 pounds, the Bills employed Smith much like Chicago’s William “The Refrigerator” Perry as a fullback in goal-line situations. Though he had a large frame carrying almost 300 pounds of weight, he still came after the quarterback. Recording 6.5 sacks in his rookie year, Smith would go on to almost treble that performance in his following years.
Following his draft season, Smith developed a love for fitness. Falling from his prior body fat percentage to his new playing % of 6.1, this radical shift in physique enabled him to be an even larger terror on the field. Improving from 6.5 sacks to 15 in the following 1986 season, Smith started to put the league on notice. Between 1987-1997, Smith has been in 11 Pro Bowls, was selected All-Pro 11 times, made 161 sacks and over 1,000 combined tackles and was a part of the Bills four Super Bowl appearances.
Following the 1999 seasons, the Bills cut ties with their links to the 1991 Super Bowl as Smith along with Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed were released. This provided Smith a chance to return home to a club near to his birthplace of Norfolk, V.A. as he joined the Washington Redskins where he would go on to establish the NFL sack record with 200 that still holds to this day, which won him an entrance into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.
Though it ended on a sad note, Smith’s legacy lives on in Buffalo but not only off the field but intermingled with the town’s community. To this day, you can still sit down at Smiths’ favourite Buffalo restaurant, Chef’s, and tackle the signature “Bruce Smith Chicken Parm ” just like he did during his many visits to the establishment with his teammates.
#2: Aaron Schobel
The 2001 NFL Draft was a monumental moment for the history of the sport as it saw larger than life names enter the league, of which many would re-write history.
Names such as the first overall pick out of Virginia Tech, Michael Vick and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, LaDainian Tomlinson. Another name worth mentioning of the ’01 draft class is defensive end Aaron Schobel out of TCU, who was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the second round with the 96th overall pick
While at TCU from 1997 to 2000, Schobel was a standout player on the Horned Frogs’ defensive line. He would go on to receive First-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors in 1999 and 2000, and was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year in his senior in 2000 before entering the NFL Draft.
During his first season in Buffalo, Schobel surpassed expectations yet again. As a rookie, he was again a stand out player on the Bills defensive line playing alongside defensive tackles Pat Williams and Shawn Price and left defensive end, Phil Hansen. He recorded six-and-a-half sacks all while racking up another 43 combined tackles.
Schobel would go on to progress each and every year he was in Buffalo, progressing up to his career-high single-season combined tackle number of 71 and recorded 12 sacks in the progress. In the following 2006 season, Schobel earned his first Pro Bowl nod as a result of recording the league’s third-most sacks with 14, the leagues sixth-most tackles for loss and also racked up an additional 35 solo tackles. Schobel would earn another Pro Bowl nod in 2007.
Over his eight-year career in Buffalo, Schobel rocketed up the Bills’ all-time sack leader board where he currently sits second behind Hall of Famer and Bills legend Bruce Smith. He was released from the Bills in 2010; he never signed with another team and instead decided to walk away from the game entirely, leaving behind an illustrious career.
#3: Phil Hansen
Over a decade-long career with the Buffalo Bills, Phil Hansen was and is one of the longest-serving players in team history, as well as one of the most productive.
After being picked by the Buffalo Bills out of North Dakota State where he established school records with 41 regular-season sacks and 32 pass breakups, Hansen had a rather sluggish start to his career. Though in retrospect, two sacks and 40 combined tackles are nothing to scoff at, it would be nothing compared to the stats and honours Hansen would earn as his career continued.
Coming off a rookie season when he was named to the 1991 All-Rookie team, Hansen became a critical element of the Bills front-four in their quest for a Super Bowl. In 1992, fans witnessed a quadrupling in Hansen’s sack total increasing from two to eight as the club made another Super Bowl run with Hansen being one of the key defensive players in the driver’s seat. Though they again came up short, and would do so two more times, Hansen remained planted on the Bills line.
Following another painful Super Bowl loss to the Dallas Cowboys in 1994, Hansen would go on to have one of his greatest seasons in a Bills jersey in 1995. Recording a career-high 10 sacks during the season with an extra 76 total tackles.
Though the organization would never again reach a Super Bowl during Hansen’s career, he played an important role as a veteran during a period of transition for the Bills.
Having played under then-head coach, Mark Levey, Hansen remained one of the few players who had known what it was like to win when the Buffalo Bills elected to bring in Wade Phillips in 1998 and Gregg Williams in 2001. Being a player who had been present for all Super Bowl appearances, Hansen was looked upon to be one of the leaders as the club pushed to go back to where they were.
Today, Hansen remains a significant factor as to why the Bills were able to reach the Super Bowls that they did. He, like other defensive players like Hall of Famer Bruce Smith and Darryl Talley live on as some of the most productive and famous Buffalo Bills of all time.
#4: Mario Williams
It’s extremely unusual that first overall choices enter the free market in the peak of their career, but for the Buffalo Bills, they lucked out when Mario Williams selected Buffalo to be his new home.
During his career at North Carolina State, there were very few defensive records Mario Williams didn’t shatter. After his career at NC State had closed up and Williams was called to the podium first in the 2006 NFL Draft, Williams owned a laundry list of honours. Including but not limited to NC State’s single-season tackles for loss record with 27.5 in 2005, NC State’s single-season sacks record with 14.5 in 2005, NC State’s career tackles for loss record with 55.5, NC State’s single-game record for sacks with four and is currently tied for the school’s single-season sack record with 25.5.
Williams moved from piling up sacks against university quarterbacks to NFL quarterbacks at a steady clip in a couple of months as he ended his debut season with 4.5 sacks as a Texan. The next two seasons saw an enormous rise in his sack output, totaling 26 in 36 games coupled with over 100 combined tackles, giving him his of his first Pro Bowl selections in 2008.
Williams’ career in Houston came to an end in 2012 after the Texans and he signed the Buffalo Bills in free agency on a six-year, $100 million deal.
In his first season in Buffalo, traveling from the bright skies of Houston, Texas to the windy, daunting cold of Buffalo, Williams did not miss a beat. He posted figures near to his 2008 Pro Bowl season with 10.5 sacks and 46 combined tackles under then head coach, Chan Gailey.
From that season onward, Williams’ stats would continue to improve, scoring 13.5 sacks in 2013, earning him another Pro Bowl mention and 14.5 in 2014 garnering him yet another Pro Bowl nod and his first All-Pro nod. His presence along the Bills’ defensive line alongside Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes scared opponents. Dubbed “The Cold Front” the Bills front-four ripped away offense’s pass game and decimated the run game more than any prior front four.
Just as all good things come to an end, Williams’ time in Buffalo did too. Concluding the 2015 season, the Bills chose to release Mario Williams and he traveled down south to Miami to join the divisional foe Dolphins on a two-year deal, but was released after his first.
Many people look back fondly on Williams’ time in Buffalo, he also has his fair share of detractors but no one can dispute the effort and passion he gave forth on the field while wearing the red, blue and white.