PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Will Tyrod Taylor be the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback in 2018? Will Sammy Watkins remain his top receiver?
At this point, nobody knows for sure. Taylor is signed through 2018 but has a $6 million roster bonus next spring the Bills can avoid paying by releasing him. Watkins is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in March after Buffalo declined his fifth-year contract option this offseason.
The Bills’ lack of contractual commitment to Watkins and Taylor has created a level of uncertainty at two key positions that is nearly unmatched across the NFL. Only the Washington Redskins, who have continued their franchise-tag dance with quarterback Kirk Cousins while signing receiver Terrelle Pryor Sr. to a one-year deal, have as murky of an outlook.
One possible outcome is Taylor and Watkins failing to meet expectations this season, or being injured. That scenario would likely come along with a dismal record for Buffalo — in the four-to-six-win range — and a high draft pick. If the Bills package that selection with the first-round pick they own from the Kansas City Chiefs, a trade could net them one of the 2018 draft’s top quarterbacks.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? What if Taylor and Watkins combine for career-best seasons and — gasp — put the Bills in the playoffs? Could Buffalo afford to lock up both players long-term?
At least for 2018, the answer is yes. ESPN Stats & Information projects the Bills to have about $135 million in salary for 2018, a figure that includes Taylor’s $18 million cap number. With a projected league-wide salary cap of about $170 million, that would leave ample space to keep Watkins.
After the Bills decided not to pick up Watkins’ $13 million fifth-year option for 2018, retaining their top receiver for another season would mean assigning him the franchise tag (expected to be in excess of $16 million) or signing him to a long-term deal. Even if Watkins — assuming he bounces back in a big way from his injury-plagued 2016 — takes a hard line about a contract extension, the Bills can ensure Taylor and Watkins are under their control for 2018 by using the franchise tag.
Keeping both players beyond 2018 would become trickier. If continued production from both warranted extensions, the Bills would need to disrupt the financial balance of the rest of their roster in order to accommodate large deals for Taylor and Watkins. If agreements cannot be reached, the Bills would have to choose which player deserves the franchise tag. Taylor’s figure as a quarterback would likely be the range of $25 million, while Watkins would command 120 percent of his previous tag, or about $20 million.
Analyzing the Bills’ potential financial conundrum in 2019 with Taylor and Watkins is to dive down a wormhole, but the possibilities were surely considered by coach Sean McDermott, owner Terry Pegula and then-general manager Doug Whaley when the decisions were made in March to restructure Taylor’s deal and in May to decline Watkins’ option.
The Bills gave up their leverage with Watkins, 24, by allowing him to become a free agent after 2017. They also tore up an affordable five-year deal with Taylor, 28, when they slashed the 2019-2021 seasons off his contract as part of the restructuring. In a sense, both moves were the Bills betting against both players, allowing an easier path to the exit if Taylor or Watkins faltered in 2017.
Through a week of training camp, Taylor’s performance has been a mixed bag. There has not been a tangible step forward for the third-year starter, although he has dealt with learning a new system under offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, as well as constantly shifting personnel along his offensive line.
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The best news for Watkins has been his health. He has participated with nearly a full workload in all seven practices of training camp, showing no ill effects from a second foot surgery that kept him out of most offseason practices. The connection between Taylor and Watkins has not always been spectacular — the two weren’t on the same page late in Thursday’s practice, when Watkins ran a different route than the one for which Taylor’s pass was targeted — but more practice time together should yield better results as training camp progresses.
The key for Watkins is staying healthy. In 2015, he overcame offseason hip surgery to participate in the start of training camp, only to be slowed by glute and hamstring issues as the regular season progressed. Last summer, Watkins returned to training camp Aug. 8 to much fanfare before foot soreness landed him on injured reserve by mid-September.
If Watkins’ health over the first week of training camp this year is not a mirage, he has the talent to break out in 2017. His success would also mean success for Taylor, and the duo would almost certainly return in 2018.
But 2019? That is anyone’s guess at this point.