As Tom Donahoe presided over his first draft as general manager of the Bills a decade ago, he knew a few things. His club was $25 million over the salary cap, he needed as many players as he could get, and his first draft pick had to be as sure as Niagara Falls.
Ten years later Donahoe nods with approval. The Falls are still steaming. Bengals cornerback Nate Clements lines up for his 154th NFL game and 148th start Sunday (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530) against that Buffalo team that took him with the 21st pick after Donahoe traded down from 14 that day in 2001. That Clements is still playing long after anybody who had anything to do with his selection is bittersweet for football men like Donahoe that must plan for the vagaries of the future and are held hostage to the reality of the present.
"A solid pick. We felt that he projected to be the kind of player that would play 10 years or longer and be productive and that's what you're seeing," said Donahoe, a casualty of the confusion in the Bills front office at mid-decade. "We needed a couple of guys at the top that could come in and play right away. He's exactly what we needed and he made plays right away. He's an all-around corner that just isn't a cover guy. And he's still got plenty left as Cincinnati is finding out."
Buffalo's spread and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's brains provide the biggest test of the season for a secondary that head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had to revamp in the devastating aftermath of cornerback Johnathan Joseph's free-agent departure to Houston just hours before training camp opened.
But their eyes lit up when the deal with Clements came together. At 31, he's four years older than Joseph but he may be an even better fit for Cincinnati's downhill scheme while making sure the Bengals still have two high-grade corners.
"It was sad and disappointing a little bit when we did lose J-Joe," said that other top corner, Leon Hall. "At the same time I think we got a great guy to fill his shoes, which we really needed."
Cincinnati's first choice was to keep Joseph, but Clements' hard-nosed style has softened the blow. He had been to just one Pro Bowl but brought a reputation of stable production. If there were fears that he can still run with fast receivers, they dissipated when the young guns from Cleveland and San Francisco didn't hurt the Bengals deep. And while Eric Decker got behind Clements for two touchdowns in Denver, one was because Clements had him so well covered that quarterback Kyle Orton's bad pass contributed to safety Chris Crocker knocking him off the tackle.
And there was never any doubt Clements would still hit anyone into next week on Sunday. Ask 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who journeyed into next month when he strayed out of the pocket last Sunday and Clements leveled him.
"He's fit in seamlessly," Hall said. "Everybody in the room loves him. He's always ready to play every week. He's smart and knowledgeable of offenses, and communicates it."
It's not the first time Hall had met Clements. He made his acquaintance on film several times as he watched other corners play in the slot, where Clements worked at various times during his four seasons in San Francisco after he left Buffalo following the 2006 season. Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle scours the league for teaching DVDs and Hall observes that "Clements had popped up quite a few times."
Clements stepped off the video in Wednesday's practice.
"He was making calls on the field relative to things we hadn't even covered in the game plan yet because he'd been studying so much film early in the week; that was really impressive," Coyle said. "He was making the alerts to people before we even went over it in the meeting by taking it upon himself to get into the tape and playbook."
It's what he's done ever since he came into the league. Clements says he had a great role models during his early days with defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and veterans Antoine Winfield and Troy Vincent. The Bengals almost ended up with Vincent twice, in the 1992 draft and before the 2004 season, but now they've got a guy just like him when it comes to dependable longevity.
Clements liked the idea of coming home to Ohio with three children and one on the way. A Cleveland native, Clements shares the same high school as Bengals president Mike Brown, Shaker Heights High, and they've chatted about the dear old alma mater. Clements is comfortable and Cincinnati reminds him of Buffalo, a place where he wanted to stay.
"Blue collar. People really love their football," said Clements, son of a retired firefighter and electrician. "I would have liked to have stayed in Buffalo. Now there are only a couple of guys still left from when I was there. Pretty much everyone is gone and there are no hard feelings anyway. I'm just looking forward to playing because it's another game, it's another week."
Jerry Sullivan, the long-time sports columnist for The Buffalo News, isn't so sure.
"They ended up never paying their corners like Winfield and Clements. They never put in the financial commitment," Sullivan said. "It was kind of tough for him here when they didn't win. He had a sign over his locker that said 'Playmaker,' and that's what the fans were always expecting. I'm not sure how much other teams threw at him and he'd quietly shut down the best guy. Once you talked to him, he wasn't like that sign. He was actually kind of a sweet guy."
Clements shrugs. Playmaker. He had 23 interceptions during six seasons in Buffalo and five went for touchdowns.
"If you go out there and do it," he said.
Clements has also been a fit in a secondary room that is looking more like a dad's night out. Safety Chris Crocker just had his first child on Wednesday. Leon Hall Jr., was toddling around camp during the summer tipping over while wearing his dad's helmet. Cornerback Adam Jones' daughter just turned one.
Hall was impressed that when Coyle had his annual open house for the DBs at his home before the season, Clements arrived with his 10-year-old daughter.
"And he had already been out doing some family things and going to dinner and yet he still came over to the house to hang with us after," Hall said. "And he had a good time. We usually do when we go over there."
Clements is enjoying the fit, too. An Ohio State guy, Clements is giving it to Hall, Michigan all the way, pretty good these days.
"Lately they've had our number and he likes to remind me any way he can," Hall said. "I get my things in on the side and he gets his in, and I'm sure we'll get into it deeper in November."
After the win in Cleveland, Clements celebrated the hometown victory standing next to Hall in the postgame locker room with, "Go Bucks." And the fit is just as good on the field.
"Their defensive scheme fits my style of play," Clements said. "Physical, aggressive corners. As far as the locker room goes, just be myself. You can't go wrong just being yourself around other folks."
Donahoe liked the fit all those years ago, too, and he can still project.
"He'll want to play well Sunday against those guys," Donahoe said. "And he will."