Just when you thought the biggest story of the weekend might be the Ezekiel Elliott suspension, the Bills decided to flip their roster overnight with a pair of out-of-nowhere trades.
The Bills made a pair of deals Friday, sending WR Sammy Watkins and a sixth-round pick to the Rams for CB E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick. Buffalo also acquired WR Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick from the Eagles for CB Ronald Darby.
Despite the departure of Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, players and coaches for the Buffalo Bills believe the team is still headed in the right direction. Coach Sean McDermott said he has “ultimate trust” in GM Brandon Beane.
In trading Sammy Watkins, the Bills did little to justify Tyrod Taylor’s faith. Friday’s trades look to be about acquiring draft picks and rebuilding.
Buffalo’s new regime of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane inherited a roster that appeared to top out short of the playoffs, so it’s no surprise they’ve spent most of the offseason trying to undo deposed general manager Doug Whaley’s mistakes. The Bills repeatedly traded down during the 2017 draft, grabbing an extra 2018 first-round pick from the Chiefs for their troubles, before firing Whaley the day after the draft.
On Friday, they added to their haul by acquiring a pair of 2018 picks as part of deals with the Eagles and Rams. Those trades amount to the following:
Buffalo Bills get: WR Jordan Matthews, CB E.J. Gaines, Rams’ 2018 second-round pick, Eagles’ 2018 third-round pick
Philadelphia Eagles get: CB Ronald Darby
Los Angeles Rams get: WR Sammy Watkins, Bills’ 2018 sixth-round pick
The dust is still settling, but at first glance, let’s run through the winners and losers from these three deals:
As the Rams try to build some sort of offensive infrastructure for the 2016 first overall pick, it’s hard to imagine their acquiring a better receiver to work with than Watkins, who averaged 80.5 receiving yards per game while healthy in 2015, good for what would be nearly 1,300 receiving yards over a 16-game campaign. While Watkins hasn’t lived up to the draft-day trade that saw the Bills deal two first-round picks to move up and acquire him ahead of Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014, injuries have been the problem, not talent.
This was always going to be a huge season for Watkins, who was set to hit unrestricted free agency after the Bills declined to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal for 2018. Last year was a lost season for the Clemson product, given that the Bills repeatedly pushed Watkins onto the field with a clear foot injury before Watkins finally underwent what ended up as two surgeries on his left foot. It seemed likely that the Bills would part company with Watkins after the year regardless of what happened.
It’s hard to see how Watkins will be in a better situation for either his short- or long-term future. After being traded to the Rams, who gave up a starting cornerback and a high pick to acquire him, Watkins is likely looking at the franchise tag if he breaks out in 2017. It’s not clear that would have been the case in Buffalo, and the tag will cost him millions of dollars versus what he could get on the free market.
He’s also now set to play out his contract year with Goff, who was one of the worst quarterbacks in recent memory during his debut season, as opposed to the criminally underrated Tyrod Taylor. Goff should be better during his second season, especially with the arrival of Sean McVay from Washington as coach, but there’s a chance Watkins is relying on a replacement-level quarterback to make him millions of dollars.
Speaking of the Bills quarterback, Taylor also finds himself in a make-or-break year, even if that career might not be in western New York. Taylor just lost his top receiver, and while he’s getting a viable weapon in Matthews, remember that Matthews was the focal point of a wide receiving corps that was seen as one of the worst in the league in Philadelphia last season. Even if you argue that Matthews has a higher floor than Watkins by virtue of missing a total of just two games over the past three seasons, it should take some time for Taylor to develop a rapport with his new No. 1 wideout.
The Broncos were comfortably a three-wideout team under new Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, going three-wide as high as 72 percent of the time in 2014, per Football Outsiders, which was the fourth-highest rate in the league. At the same time, though, the Bills just paid $8.4 million over four years to sign fullback Patrick DiMarco this offseason, suggesting that their organizational plan was to roll a fullback onto the field more often than not.
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The presence of DiMarco (and Mike Tolbert) suggests that Matthews will be spending more time on the outside than he did in Philadelphia, where he was primarily a slot receiver. That could be a positive if he succeeds on the edge, given that some teams still discount the work done by receivers out of the slot.
More than anything, though, it’s clear that Matthews is going to get far more targets in Buffalo than he would have in Philadelphia, where he was competing with Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Darren Sproles and a bevy of tight ends for targets. Now Matthews will be the primary focus of a receiving corps that includes second-round pick Zay Jones, the newly signed Anquan Boldin, a limited Charles Clay and LeSean McCoy. The Vandy product has a great shot at topping the 117 targets he racked up a year ago, which could get Matthews paid this offseason. It’s also possible that the Bills give him a sweetheart deal in an attempt to smooth things over with their fans in advance of what looks like another rebuild.
Who saw that one coming? Agholor was basically left for dead after two frustrating seasons in Philadelphia, but after training camp reports suggested Agholor looked like a new man in the slot, the Eagles cleared out a spot for him by trading away Matthews. Coach Doug Pederson might not go three-wide all that often — Philadelphia was there 60 percent of the time last season, 26th in the league — but Agholor went from looking like a likely trade candidate to securing a roster spot with an outside shot at meaningful receptions.
Philadelphia was looking downright bereft at cornerback for the second consecutive season, having cycled again through middling veterans while using second- and third-round picks on Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, the former of whom is likely to miss a chunk of the 2017 season after rupturing his Achilles at his pro day. While the Eagles had long-term hope at the position, this is a team that should be capable of competing as early as this season. Cornerback was their biggest weakness.
Now they have a promising option in both the short term and long term in Darby, who was stunningly effective during his debut season in Buffalo before slipping badly last season. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has done excellent work with undersized corners in years past, notably launching Cortland Finnegan’s career in Tennessee. It’s too early to suggest Darby’s a reclamation project, but dealing a wide receiver the Eagles were unlikely to sign for a likely starter at cornerback is a totally logical move, even if it did hurt to give up a third-round pick in the process.
So much of what the Rams do on a year-to-year basis seems to be about erasing or accounting for the mistakes they’ve made in the past. Here again they’re addressing their disastrous investment and reinvestment in the badly miscast Tavon Austin by shelling out another draft pick and what is (in the best case) going to be a huge contract to retain Watkins for years to come.
You could understand why the Rams would want to take a shot at Watkins, but the 2018 free-agent wide receiver class is staggering, including players like Matthews, DeAndre Hopkins and Allen Robinson. Some of those guys will re-sign with their current teams, of course, but maybe the Rams end up giving someone like Jeffery or Terrelle Pryor a big deal. That wouldn’t be the end of the world.
What’s frustrating about this move is that the Rams had to give up a second-round pick to acquire Watkins. Given that they’re unlikely to be very good — ESPN’s FPI projects them to finish with the league’s fifth-worst record — chances are they’ll be sending a high second-rounder to the Bills to acquire a player who hasn’t been healthy for most of his career.
After trading away a bevy of picks to acquire Goff, the Rams can’t be in the pick-trading business. If anything, they should be looking at trading down and acquiring selections. (I realize they’re getting a sixth-rounder, but per Chase Stuart’s chart, even the top pick of the sixth round is worth just 12 percent as much as the fifth pick of the second round, the selection the Rams project to send to Buffalo.)
Even if Los Angeles’ bet on Watkins works out in 2017, the Rams are going to be stuck using their franchise tag or making a long-term bet on a player with a history of foot injuries. They could recoup a compensatory draft pick if they let Watkins leave, but that assumes Watkins will have a big enough year to justify a serious deal in free agency while the Rams themselves mostly sit out, which seems like a very unlikely proposition.
They’re also going to be in serious trouble at cornerback, where they just traded away Gaines and won’t be able to afford franchising Trumaine Johnson for a third time after the season. Wade Phillips is a defensive genius, but the best guy on Los Angeles’ depth chart for 2018 appears to be Broncos import Kayvon Webster, who played 58 defensive snaps last season and has spent the past several years buried underneath a stacked depth chart in Denver.
As frustrating as this must be for Buffalo’s fans, who are stuck undergoing yet another rebuild, the Bills are making the right sort of moves as they try to build a team to (eventually) make noise in the postseason. It’s clear that the organization had soured on Watkins and had serious concerns about his ability to stay healthy; otherwise, they wouldn’t have passed up the wideout’s fifth-year option. And if the Bills don’t have a lot of faith in Watkins staying healthy enough to pass a physical in 2018, it’s difficult to imagine that they would see signing Watkins as a wise decision in the long term, either.
If you’re going to move on from Watkins, then, this is a reasonable haul. You might argue that the Bills make a slight downgrade at cornerback by swapping Darby for Gaines, who has struggled with his own foot injuries. It’s pretty clear Watkins has a higher upside than Matthews, although the higher floor for Matthews might offer some level of certainty the Bills prefer if they’re handing out a long-term deal.
What’s really crucial, though, are those extra draft picks. As projected by FPI and using Stuart’s chart, the Bills trading their sixth-round pick for Los Angeles’ second-rounder and Philadelphia’s third-round pick to trade the Rams pick (37, fifth-lowest FPI projection) and Eagles pick (80, 16th-lowest FPI projection) for pick 190 (the Bills have the sixth-lowest projection and that was the sixth-lowest pick of the sixth round, obviously the exact pick will pend specific compensatory selections) is roughly the equivalent of acquiring the 16th overall pick in a typical draft (17.1 points, closest to value of 16th pick, 16.9 points).
That gives the Bills what essentially amounts to three first-round picks in the 2018 draft, given that they’ll have their own pick and Kansas City’s selection from the Patrick Mahomes II trade. They can add a third-round compensatory pick for Stephon Gilmore if they cut three players from the group of DiMarco, Vladimir Ducasse, Andre Holmes and Steven Hauschka before Week 10, a move I would strongly encourage. Draft picks alone aren’t a solution, but the best way to build a sustainably effective team isn’t to trade up for a stud wide receiver or an inside linebacker, as the Bills did by sending multiple picks to acquire Reggie Ragland last season. It’s to acquire draft picks and build a core of cheap, effective talent. As the Bills try to chase the juggernaut Patriots, they’re wisely taking a page out of Bill Belichick’s book.