BUFFALO — Turn out the lights on the Buffalo Bills’ 2017 season, because it is over before it started.
In a shocking pair of trades Friday, the Bills traded their top wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, and their top cornerback, Ronald Darby, in separate deals with the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. In exchange, the Bills acquired Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews, Rams cornerback E.J. Gaines, as well as second- and third-round picks in 2018.
Even given Watkins’ problems staying healthy since entering the NFL as the fourth overall selection in 2014, he is a far-and-away better talent than Matthews. Darby, who finished second in defensive rookie of the year voting in 2015, had started 29 games over the past two seasons. Both Matthews and Gaines are entering the final season of their contracts, so it’s possible neither will have an extended future in Buffalo.
Instead of the players the Bills received in return, the key to whether this trade will be successful for Buffalo is the draft picks they acquired. Buffalo now owns six picks in the first three rounds of the 2018 draft. If they release a package of players later this month, they could add another 2018 third-round pick as part of the NFL’s compensatory draft pick system.
The Bills never bottomed out as badly as the Browns in recent years, but Buffalo’s impressive stash of draft selections rivals that of Cleveland, which is in full-blown rebuilding mode. First-year Bills coach Sean McDermott avoided using that rebuilding label for his team this offseason but it can be slapped on the 2017 Bills, who have clearly sacrificed short-term gain for potential long-term success.
Buffalo’s overall approach with these trades, and specifically the loss of Watkins, cannot sit well with starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor. By trading away his top passing target, the Bills are essentially setting up Taylor to fail this season. Mark down Aug. 11 as the beginning of the end of Taylor’s tenure in Buffalo.
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Taylor took a $10 million pay cut in March to stay with the Bills, saying at the time he was putting his trust in management to fill in pieces around him after dealing with a lackluster group of receivers over his first two seasons as starter. Instead, management has pulled out the rug on Taylor.
Buffalo can avoid paying $14 million of Taylor’s $18 million cap number next season if the team releases him before a $6 million roster bonus is due in March. After Friday’s transactions, that move seems inevitable.
With a war chest of draft selections, the Bills have chips to move around the draft board next April. If Taylor is no longer on the roster, expect the Bills to pursue one of the draft’s potential top quarterbacks — USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen or Wyoming’s Josh Allen.
The Bills’ main competition in trying to land their franchise quarterback will be the New York Jets, who have been engaged in tank mode since the start of the offseason.
After Friday, it looks like Buffalo is chasing the Jets in a race to the bottom this season — and the top of the 2018 draft.