Leading up to the 2010 NFL draft, Buffalobills.com will be sharing the memories of some of the Bills most memorable draft choices as we ask you the fan to pick your top 10 all-time draft choices in team history. Was it a choice of incomparable value? Was it the top pick in the draft? Was it a pick that far exceeded anyone's expectations? Those choices are up to you the fan, and they can be made at the Buffalo Bills all-time draft site between now and April 22nd.
Every Bills fan likely remembers that wide receiver Lee Evans was a first-round draft choice in 2004. Labeled a "total receiver" by Bills Director of College Scouting Doug Majeski, Evans has proven to be that and more. But Evans was very close to being a top 15 pick in the 2002 NFL draft.
Coming off a scintillating junior season in 2001 in which he compiled 75 receptions for 1,545 yards and nine touchdowns, Evans thought long and hard about declaring himself eligible for the 2002 draft.
After much thought, he chose to return to Wisconsin for his senior season. Day one of the 2002 NFL draft ironically, was also the day of Wisconsin's intrasquad spring game. Evans naturally stood out in the scrimmage up until he made an acrobatic catch and all of his weight – and that of the defensive back draped on his back – came down awkwardly on his left knee, blowing it apart.
A torn ACL was the result requiring reconstructive surgery. Thoughts of boosting his draft stock in his senior year that fall were suddenly very much in doubt. Following surgery a short time later Evans committed himself to being ready for his senior season that September. Unfortunately as the 2002 season approached Evans knee was not coming around. It would have to be reconstructed a second time, and his senior season would be delayed a year.
Following rigorous training that entire fall, winter and following spring, Evans was prepared to reclaim his status as a top 15 draft pick. He was rusty at the start of the 2003 campaign having not played competitively in over a year, but following a Week 7 56-21 upset of 21st ranked Michigan State in which Evans had 10 catches for a school-record 258 yards and five touchdowns, it was official. He was back.
Leading up to the draft the prognosticators still projected him as a late first or early second-round pick, harkening back to the knee injury in 2002. Evans was hopeful things would turn out different.
"I felt confident in the knee coming off the injury and felt healthy, but you just never know how others look at it," said Evans. "You don't know what people say behind your back when they're not staring you in the face."
Evans had a pre-draft visit with the Bills along with a few other clubs like Pittsburgh and Detroit, but at no point did the receiver believe any team would move heaven and earth to land him in the draft.
"I didn't feel there were any frontrunners. I came to Buffalo and had a really good visit here with the coaches," Evans said. "I talked to all the teams at the combine. Buffalo said they liked me, but the talk was they were going to go receiver or defensive tackle. People were saying good things, but on draft day you never know."
As the 2004 NFL draft opened there were a handful of teams strongly considering wide receiver in round one. The first to take one were the Cardinals with the third overall pick selecting Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald. Four picks later Texas' Roy Williams went to the Lions. And two selections after that Washington's Reggie Williams was taken off the board 11th overall by Jacksonville.
Evans watching the draft on television at his parent's home in Bedford Heights, Ohio was getting a little antsy hoping that he'd be coming off the board soon too.
"There were a lot of bigger guys getting taken and I was the only one under six feet and I could run, but everybody else had size," said Evans. "At that point I was hoping and thinking I've got to be coming up soon. You never know for sure what teams are thinking, but receiver-wise I thought I had to be coming up… hopefully."
The Wisconsin prospect had left the gathering of family and friends in his parent's living room and retired to his bedroom where he could clearly hear his phone and still watch the draft on the TV in his room.
Not long after, his phone rang and Bills GM Tom Donahoe was on the line. After exchanging greetings, Donahoe asked Evans what he thought of his visit to Buffalo and if he thought he could make the Bills a better team.
"When the Bills called it seemed like they were still debating as to whether it was going to be me or another player," said Evans chuckling. "So I'm thinking to myself do they want me to make the decision for them?"
After Evans answered both of Donahoe's questions in the affirmative, the Bills GM told Evans they were turning their card in with his name on it.
"I was actually on the phone with him when it was announced on television. I was in the room by myself in my house and my family and friends are in the other room and they didn't know that I was talking to the Bills," said Evans. "They're watching it on TV, and I knew when it was announced on television because I heard my house erupt and that was cool."
Taken 13th overall, it took Evans two years to reclaim the lofty draft status that he had coming off his junior season in 2002.
"It was rewarding," said Evans. "It was a tribute to a lot of hard work. I always had a lot of confidence in myself and in terms of being able to do it that was very gratifying, but I only looked at it as a step. I got drafted at a high position, but I still had to play at a high level at the highest level of football. It was still just a process for me, and getting drafted was one step in the process."
Still, it's a day Evans will never forget.
"It's always going to be a special day because when you get to spend it with your family and your friends it's a great thing," Evans said. "My grand dad was there so all the generations of Lee Evans were present. "(Buffalo) is the closest place I can be to home without playing for Cleveland. It worked out well."