Are the Buffalo Bills Crazy for Trading Sammy Watkins?
The Buffalo Bills wanted to make a splash. And they did.
But they bypassed the cannonball from the side of the pool and went straight for the high dive.
First came the report that wide receiver Sammy Watkins -- arguably their best skill player -- was traded. It was one of those tweets involving a big enough name (and not quite enough information) that make you look for the little blue check multiple times.
The Bills just traded WR Sammy Watkins. WOW
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 11, 2017
The team then announced the Watkins trade was indeed real, and it was with the Los Angeles Rams, for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round pick. Buffalo would also include a 2018 sixth-round pick in the deal.
Not even a minute later, the Bills released details of a second trade, this one with the Philadelphia Eagles. That deal sent cornerback Ronald Darby to Philadelphia in exchange for Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick.
Viewed as a three-team trade, here are the whos, whats, and wheres.
|Bills Get||Rams Get||Eagles Get|
|E.J. Gaines||Sammy Watkins||Ronald Darby|
|Jordan Matthews||2018 sixth-round pick (BUF)|
|2018 second-round pick (LA)|
|2018 third-round pick (PHI)
So what exactly did the Bills get out of all this?
There’s a new regime in Buffalo and oftentimes, incoming coaches and front office executives tend to like getting players of their own. This was evident earlier in the offseason when the Bills decided to not pick up the fifth-year option for Watkins.
It’s not difficult to see why the Bills might not be thrilled with him. During his three years in the league, the injury-prone 24-year-old took the field in just 37 of 48 possible games, playing 16 during his rookie year, 13 during 2015, and just 8 in 2016.
When he was on the field, though, Watkins was a stud. In 2015, he led 86 wide receivers with 50 or more targets in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target at 1.05. -- every time he was targeted, Buffalo gained over a full expected point. (That’s insane, especially over 96 targets.) Among the 14 wide receivers in 2015 to gain 100 or more Reception NEP, Watkins’s 60 receptions were the fewest by 9 catches.
Watkins isn’t averse to performing with bad quarterbacks. During his rookie season, Watkins had 128 targets from Kyle Orton and E.J. Manuel and managed to finish the year 18th in Reception NEP and 37th out 90 in Reception NEP per target among receivers with 50-plus target receivers.
In the final year of his rookie deal, Watkins could have left the Bills with just a third-round comp pick at the most -- or he could have had a good season and the Bills could have franchised or re-signed potentially one of the league's most talented receivers.
His skillset also meshed well with that of Tyrod Taylor, a player who almost became an ex-Bill himself this summer and could be one after this year. Last season, Taylor had the seventh-highest average depth of target among quarterbacks (9.8), while Watkins was 15th among wide receivers (14.6).
Among 41 wide receivers with 100 or more targets last season, Matthews was 38th in Reception NEP, despite being 26th in targets and tied for 23rd in receptions.
It might not be too surprising to see the Bills go with a shorter and quicker passing game in 2017, given their personnel. It could look something like the Tennessee Titans of last season, though similar efficiency is certainly not guaranteed. It appears in both big-play ability and efficiency, the Bills will take a step back in 2017.
The Bills’ secondary did need to improve, as last season, they ranked 20th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. Ronald Darby was basically the team’s top corner, and played a big part in that. He’ll now be replaced by E.J Gaines.
By Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, the two weren’t drastically different by yards allowed per pass. Among 82 corners targeted 40 or more times in 2016, Gaines ranked 58th at 8.1 yards allowed per pass, while Darby was 62nd at 8.4.
The big difference, though, was in Success Rate. By that metric, Darby was 12th at 59 percent, while Gaines was 82nd at just 32 percent. So, while Darby was occasionally beaten for some big plays, Gaines was routinely beaten just about everywhere.
Darby, 23, is also a full two years younger than Gaines. Part of Gaines’s struggles in 2016 could be from his return from a Lisfranc injury that cost him the entire 2015 season. Maybe he’ll improve another season removed from the ailment, but if the Bills want to deal away a receiver with foot problems, it’s an odd move to swap your best cornerback for one with foot problems of his own.
In each of the two trades, draft picks were involved. For Buffalo, they can’t be ignored, because they look like the main motivation for these moves. It’s hard to imagine the Bills think swapping Watkins and Darby for Matthews and Gaines will be an upgrade for 2017.
Because, as the numbers show, it won’t be. But this isn’t just about the upcoming season.
With the second- and third-round picks acquired, the Bills now own two first-round picks, two in the second, and two in the third for 2018. That’s a nice little setup they have going on there.
Buffalo is now the most recent team to see the value in stocking up future draft picks for a rebuild. However, what makes the Bills different from teams like the Cleveland Browns or New York Jets is they weren’t a team with league-low talent.
Sure, last year was disappointing, but the Bills were still a top-10 team by our nERD rankings as late as Week 13 -- replace the Rex and Rob Ryan regime with a competent coaching staff, and this could have been a Wild Card team. This morning, the Bills were 16th in our preseason nERD projections with a 32 percent chance of the playoffs, well above the Browns (6.1 percent), Jets (13.5 percent), and San Francisco 49ers (11.2 percent).
The might of the New England Patriots scared the Bills into preparing for a time when the Patriots could be ready to take a step back. In turn, Buffalo got worse for 2017. They now have their sights set on the future, and they have to hope the future goes according to plan.