Three years ago, the Buffalo Bills gave up a king’s ransom in order to draft Sammy Watkins. Then-general manager Doug Whaley traded an additional first-round pick and a fourth-rounder to move up five slots to secure the receiver.
Now, after just 37 games in a Bills uniform, Watkins’ run in Buffalo is over. In a pair of surprising trades on Friday, the Bills sent Watkins and a 2018 sixth-rounder to the Rams in exchange for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-rounder; they also traded cornerback Ronald Darby to the Eagles in exchange for receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-rounder.
In a nutshell: The trades are just two more examples of first-year head coach Sean McDermott moving to clear players from the previous regime and shaping the roster in his vision.
Since he was hired, McDermott has carried more power than is often standard for a first-time head coach, a sign that the organization is throwing its faith behind him to turn things around and break a 17-year playoff drought.
Watkins was the most dangerous offensive weapon for quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He’s a unique talent, but injuries have limited his productivity through his first three seasons. He’s played a full 16-game season just once, as a rookie, and has just one 1,000-yard season, in 2015. Those injuries were, McDermott said earlier this camp, the only reason the organization decided this offseason not to pick up the fifth-year option on Watkins’ rookie contract.
The trade comes as a shock—Watkins was the most purely talented player on Buffalo’s roster, and obviously more valuable than Gaines, a starter for the Rams who struggled in his return from the Lisfranc injury that cost him all of 2015, and most likely whomever they choose with that second-round pick. But it reflects McDermott taking the long view more than past regimes did. If he thinks that they won’t end up signing Watkins to a long-term contract after this season, then by trading him now, he recoups some value for the player.
Earlier this month, Bills GM Brandon Beane hedged when asked what his timeline might be for addressing Watkins’ expiring rookie deal.
“I’m not making a decision that I’ve got to do it by this or that [date],” Beane says of addressing Watkins’ contract situation. “I think I will know when I know. I don’t want to put the pressure on me, I don’t want to put it on his agents, I don’t want to put it on him. That’s why I have just told our guys, let’s just go into camp, let him play … and it’s a two-way deal. He may want to just play the whole year and see how it is and feel me and Sean out to see if this is a place he wants to be.”
Bills brass, though, may already have had this date in mind to make a different kind of move. The trade came the day after the Bills’ first preseason game, Watkins’ first chance to get back on the field after his second foot surgery and make a public display that he was healthy again.
With the picks acquired on Friday, along with the first-rounder they acquired from the Chiefs when K.C. came up to get QB Patrick Mahomes in April’s draft, Buffalo now has two picks apiece in each of the first three rounds of the 2018 draft, draft capital that is essential for a rebuilding team.
Darby was a second-round pick under Whaley and former head coach Rex Ryan. McDermott found a trading partner in his former organization, the Eagles, both getting rid of an old-guard guy and bolstering the now Watkins-less receiving corps. Though not in Watkins’ class talent-wise, Matthews was productive in Philadelphia over the last three seasons. He’ll join second-round rookie Zay Jones as Taylor’s likely top targets.
As for Philly, with offseason signings Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, and with former first-round pick Nelson Agholor finally appearing to turn the corner as a slot receiver, the Eagles evidently deemed Matthews expendable. They gave up a top-100 pick in next year’s draft, but were able to address an area of need with Darby, especially as rookie Sidney Jones works his way back from the ruptured Achilles suffered at his pro day workout. Darby excelled as a rookie before struggling through an up-and-down 2016 campaign. And his skill set as a man defender would not be a point of emphasis if McDermott is running a zone-heavy scheme like the one he oversaw in Carolina.
As for Watkins, perhaps he will benefit from a move to Los Angeles. For the past three years, the bounty the Bills gave up in order to select him has been an albatross around his neck, made worse by the fact that Odell Beckham, Jr., was available at the spot where Buffalo was originally supposed to pick. “That’s not his burden to bear,” McDermott said then. But, it certainly had been. In L.A., Watkins will join ex-Buffalo teammate Robert Woods, a free-agent signee of the Rams, as rookie coach Sean McVay overhauls their offense. And he’ll provide a huge upgrade for Jared Goff, as the 2016 draft’s No. 1 overall pick tries to find his footing in the NFL.
Watkins gets his fresh start. And McDermott continues to clear the deck for his fresh start in Buffalo.
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