Opinion: Bills set their franchise back with questionable roster moves ahead of 2017 season

On Friday August 11 Bills fans woke up to a harsh reality. Sammy Watkins? Gone. Ronald Darby? Gone. In back-to-back trades, coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane traded away their number one corner in Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third round draft pick. They also, almost simultaneously (and this was key to both trades) traded away star wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the LA Rams for cornerback EJ Gaines and a 2018 second round draft pick. Trades like this, on this scale and magnitude, very rarely occur in the NFL and make the trades all the more dubious.

In assessing the trades one must view them as a package deal. I do not think the Bills brass would have made either of these deals individually. GM Brandon Beane intimated as much when responding to that question he said “It’s hard to say if I wouldn’t have. It’s funny, both of them were getting similar traction, similar momentum the last couple of days and once I saw both of them as far down the road as they were getting, I kind of said ‘I want to do them together if I can.’ The Bills were trying to get players back that would be of use to them in the upcoming season and possibly beyond along with the coveted draft picks. The draft picks were, by all means, the apple of their eyes. Since taking over in January as head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Sean McDermott has shrewdly and systematically gotten rid of players of past regimes and is assembling players that fit his mold. McDermott has often spoken of changing the ‘culture’ and ‘earning the right’ to win. Upon taking the job in his first press conference he notably remarked “I know what a champion and winner looks like smells like and taste like,” never mind he was on the losing side in the Super Bowl with the Carolina Panthers. That Panthers team featured a number one receiver by the name of Ted Ginn Jr. (granted first-round draft pick Calvin Benjamin was injured) so maybe McDermott believes he can build his ‘winner’ without a true number one wideout.

In any case, in early May, when McDermott elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on Sammy Watkins, the writing was on the wall. At the time, myself and others including Bills beat writer Joe Buscaglia, noted how that was perhaps McDermott’s first eyebrow raising move of the offseason. In today’s NFL, based on the collective-bargaining agreement, it is in a teams best interest to pick up the fifth-year option on a player that has produced and a player that the team would like to keep in their future long-term plans. It should have been widely apparent at that time that Watkins was not going to be in the Bills long-term plans. The reason why it wasn’t and why the fan base did not make much of it was because Sammy Watkins was coming off of his second surgery for a foot injury that lingered from last year. That injury cost Watkins eight games last year and even worse projected a false narrative that the receiver was injury prone. Watkins had other ailments as well in his first two years in the league but had remarkably played in 29 of those possible 32 games. If anything, he had shown his durability and toughness to play through pain.

His foot injury last year was like other receivers in the league most notably Julio Jones, Julian Edelman, and Dez Bryant who all had to have a second surgery to correct their ailment as well. As such, Watkins was not injury prone. But McDermott was able to escape criticism of the decision of not picking up the fifth-year option by making it seem that they were doing the prudent thing financially. Why commit 13.2 million, which would have been Watkins salary for 2018, if you don’t know if that player will be available? If Sammy Watkins balled out in 2017, the reasoning went, then the team had the option of either signing him to a long-term deal or placing the franchise tag on him. That reasoning is of course flawed because, as mentioned prior, smart GMs will pick up the fifth-year option on players to be able to get their services for one year at below market rate. It was at that time that McDermott made the decision that Sammy Watkins was not going to be in the Bills future plans. Even so he should have still picked up the fifth-year option. Why? Because a player who has two years remaining on his contract is a more attractive asset than a player who has only one. By not picking up the fifth-year option McDermott all but ensured that the Bills would not get a first-round draft pick in return even if they wanted to trade him. No team would be willing to give up a first-round draft pick for a player only under contract for just one year. Fast forward to training camp in August and that’s exactly what happened. GM Brandon Beane was not around for that decision and he rather interestingly mentioned that fact unprompted weeks before the trades were made. Making a statement like that, one with think that if it were up to Beane he would have done the prudent thing and picked up the fifth-year option (as mentioned earlier even if the Bills wanted to trade him he would have been a more attractive asset with two years remaining on his deal) keeping Watkins in the teams future plans. That, however, proved to be untrue and makes one wonder why Beane mentioned it at all.

Contrary to the opinions of some, the Bills are not trying to tank this year. Bills brass actually thinks the team has a shot to go at least 9-7 and sneak into the playoffs. The reason for this is because of the players they received in return. As mentioned before the Bills would not have made the trades unless they got the pieces, specifically another wideout and another corner, that they did in return. In receiving Matthews, the Bills get a receiver who has certainly produced in the first three years of his career. The problem however is twofold. One, they no longer have a deep threat that they had in Watkins that can take the top off the defense. This actually will have disastrous consequences for the offense because Tyrod Taylor is very good at throwing the deep ball and with Watkins no longer there it hurts Tyrod as a quarterback and makes him ineffective. If I am a defensive coordinator I no longer have to shade one of my safeties to one side as I would if Watkins was in the lineup. Now I can bring one of my safeties up and have eight or even nine in the box to take away Shady McCoy. Bills offensive coordinator Rico Dennison will feature more of a horizontal passing game and this will limit what the Bills will be able to do offensively as well. The second reason is that Watkins was the sort of electric talent that can score at any moment from anywhere on the field. An example of this was his move on lockdown corner James Ramsey of the Jacksonville Jaguars last year in a game that the Bills were struggling with. Watkins was able to separate on a one-on-one move for a deep pass completion. Not having those types of plays this year will stall the offense. This cannot be underscored enough. As Shady McCoy himself said in response to the trades, and having Matthews instead of Watkins,
“If you compare the two, it’s obvious [that] you can agree who is better.”

Speaking of McCoy, one has to question how the Bills locker room is feeling currently. It’s apparent that Shady was not happy with this decision. Without Watkins, Shady will see more eight and nine man fronts, daring the Bills and Tyrod Taylor to beat them through the air. This will limit Shady as well. In the games that Watkins played last year, Shady had nearly 100 yards more rushing in the same amount of games with more than 5 carries (658 v. 566) than in games Watkins did not play. Anquan Boldin, whom the Bills had acquired in early August, shockingly decided to abruptly change his mind and retire. Surely, this was not the team that he signed up for. Instead of him being a complementary piece to a potent wide receiving corps he suddenly became someone who’s role in the offense was unclear. Was he going to play in the slot or outside as he did in the preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles? Were the Bills committed to winning now or were they in the midst of a rebuild? There were too many unanswered questions from the Bills regime. After Boldin retired, Lorenzo Alexander remarked, “We can’t think about, ‘Well, we lost another guy, we lost Sammy, we’re punting the season away.’ That’s not the mentality of a football team, and when you start thinking like that, that’s when you’re definitely not going to have a good season at all.” But why should the Bills brass put the team in a situation where they even have to think about that? Yet another unanswered question for Bills fans is if the Bills knew Boldin would retire, would they have made the Sammy Watkins deal? When asked that question McDermott said “it’s a fair question” but that it was “two separate entities.”

The Buffalo Bills was a team that was built to win now under the prior regime of Doug Whaley. Rex Ryan was fired because he went 8-8 his first year and 7-8 (and the Bills were eliminated from the playoffs) with a Super Bowl ready roster. The year before he arrived the Bills defense was second in DVOA and fourth in yards allowed. He dropped them to 25th in DVOA and 19th in yards allowed. On the offensive side of the ball, albeit, the Bills were in the top 10. His successor was supposed to come in and improve on those numbers. With aging veterans such as Kyle Williams who thought of retiring this past off-season to LeSean McCoy who probably has two more prime years left to Charles Clay who probably has two years left before his troublesome knee gives out to Lorenzo Alexander who will retire in two years time, this Bills team was meant to win now.
Instead, it seems as if McDermott’s only interest is in getting his guys and seeing if his “blueprint” for a team will succeed. That’s why he was able to trade a talent such as Ronald Darby who had two years remaining on his rookie contract and again not draw criticism under the pretense that Darby was not a “scheme fit.” If that was the case then should have the Bills traded Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus these past two years because they weren’t a scheme fit for Rex Ryan who had them dropping into coverage? Darby was considered around league circles to be the second best corner in his class to Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs after having the most pass break ups of any corner in his rookie year in 2015.
Even though McDermott claimed that the 17 year playoff drought was “his,” and claimed ownership of it, he seems to be in no rush in getting the Bills to the playoffs for the first time this century. His approach to building a team is reminiscent of one Chip Kelly, who’s roster reshaping with the Philadelphia Eagles (which ironically involved trading away McCoy to the Bills) had disastrous effects and ultimately cost him his job. McDermott has a bit more time than Chip, however, because the Pegulas are stuck with committing to this regime, for better or worse, for at least three years after pulling the plug on Rex Ryan after only two years. They must see it to its bitter or fruitful end.

Some make the assertion that the Bills are better off because of the draft capital that they have now acquired. In 2018 they will have two 1st two 2nd and two 3rd round picks. The reasoning, it goes, is that they can move up to draft a franchise quarterback. But did they really need to trade Sammy Watkins (and Darby) to move up? Obviously not. Not only did they have their own 2018 second round pick but they could have traded a future 2019 second round pick which is usually what teams do when giving up picks to move up the draft board. In no way were the Bills precluded from the opportunity to move up because they already had an extra first round pick from trading down this past draft (the so-called ‘parting gift’ that Doug Whaley notoriously referred to it as). Also, what makes the Bills so sure that they can re-sign Jordan Matthews? Robert Woods, who left the Bills in free agency received 8 million per year from the LA Rams. Matthews who is a superior player will surely not settle for anything less than 10 million per year. And even if he did would you rather have Matthews at 10 million or Sammy Watkins at 13.2 million? So inevitably the Bills will have to use a draft pick to replace Watkins (and Boldin ?) with a player who most likely will not be anywhere near as talented as Watkins.
In their secondary, the Bills will probably have to draft another cornerback as EJ Gaines, whom they received in the Watkins deal is not a sure fire starting caliber player after his injury, which cost him his 2015 season. This gets to the heart of the matter and problem with what the Bills did. Every year, for different reasons, draft picks must be used to address roster inadequacies. That is why it is strange that the Bills brass decided to trade away starters or young talent on rookie deals. Cutting Jonathan Williams who was entrenched as the backup running back and who had a terrific pre-season, was perplexing as was the move to trade away Kevon Seymour, another young talented player who started three games for the Bills and who is on his rookie deal. The Bills obviously would like to use what will amount to not just one but multiple picks to trade up on a franchise quarterback. With the impending free agency of Preston Brown, one could make an argument that the Bills might need three or at least two starting linebackers as Lorenzo Alexander will be retiring after his deal expires in 2018 and Ramon Humber is unproven. Assuming that a team can find an immediate starter in the first three rounds, the Bills will still need to address other positions as well. Because a draft is good for some positions but not others it’s not possible to draft for just need. In other words, the Bills regime is just spinning wheels to put a roster on the field that is in their spinning image.

Asked Friday on the day of the trades in his press conference with the media after making the dubious trades if the Bills are better off for the upcoming season after making the moves, Beane said, “you can make an argument either way.” In other words, the Bills are worse off. When he’s incapable of even lying, it’s as McCoy put it, “it’s obvious.”

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