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The Sammy Watkins Deal Feels Like an NBA Trade

The Bills traded the star wide receiver to the Rams before he could walk out the door, signaling a total rebuild coming in Buffalo

Sammy Watkins celebrates a touchdown for the Buffalo Bills Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

The Sammy Watkins deal is an NBA trade.

On Friday, the Bills spun a shocking series of trades, sending Sammy Watkins and their 2018 sixth-round pick to the Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and the Rams’ 2018 second-round pick. The Bills immediately turned around and dealt their own cornerback, Ronald Darby, to the Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick.

The entire NBA universe has spent 2017 obsessing over the market value of superstars on expiring contracts—from DeMarcus Cousins to Paul George, and now Kyrie Irving. In the NBA, a good basketball player on a bad team in the final year of his deal is always for sale. It’s not a question as much as an intrinsic understanding that a trade is best for everyone involved. Since the Patriots have dominated the 21st-century NFL, football teams are finally changing how they make decisions, but the league is still in the Stone Age when it comes to valuing contracts as assets. The Watkins deal shows that the NFL is slowly learning that a true rebuild means short-term assets like Watkins need to be converted into long-term assets before they walk out the door.

Here’s the summary after the two trades today.

Bills get: LAR 2018 second-round pick, LAR CB E.J. Gaines, PHI WR Jordan Matthews, PHI 2018 third-round pick
Eagles get: BUF CB Ronald Darby
Rams get: BUF WR Sammy Watkins, BUF 2018 sixth-round pick

If the Bills had reservations about Watkins’s durability, flipping him for an asset would’ve been no-brainer, had they belonged to another North American pro sports league. Now it’s catching on in the NFL. Watkins, Gaines, and Jordan Matthews will all be free agents after this season, so the Bills swapped one year of Watkins for a top-40 draft pick. Moving a player of Watkins’s caliber isn’t just a football decision, it’s a mission statement for the Bills moving forward.

The Bills swapped a player they drafted fourth overall for a second-round pick and Gaines, who was drafted 184 picks after the Bills took Watkins. But when the whiplash subsides, it makes sense. That Rams 2018 pick could easily end up in the top 35. Perhaps the Bills have finally learned from their AFC East tormentors and begun valuing early-second-round picks similarly, if not more favorably, to late-first-round picks. The deal is also reminiscent of the Browns’ decision to trade Trent Richardson for a first-round pick in 2013, a shocking decision at the time. (Mike Lombardi, the Browns GM at the time, is a Ringer contributor and GM Street host.)

Under the guidance of new owners Terry and Kim Pegula, the Bills are atoning for past mismanagement. They fired GM Doug Whaley and the entire scouting department the day after the NFL draft. In May, they hired Brandon Beane to lead the franchise out of the morass it has been stuck in during the 21st century. Beane, who served as assistant GM in Carolina since 2015 and had been with the team since 1998, would probably have served as the successor to Carolina’s Dave Gettleman had he stayed put. Brandon Beane has no relation to Billy, but he’s adopting the Moneyball approach anyway and collecting assets.

The seeds for this move were planted in May, when the Bills declined to pick up Watkins’s fifth-year option, making him a free agent in 2018. Watkins was the only receiver from the 2014 first round to not have his option picked up. The Bills gave up a haul (including their 2015 first-round pick) for the right to pick Watkins, passing on Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, and Kelvin Benjamin in the process. They brought that move full circle in 2017 by unloading Watkins for a pick.

Sammy Watkins is not a replicable talent. He is thrilling to watch. In his career as a Bill, Watkins logged 153 receptions, 2,459 yards, and 17 touchdowns over 37 games. Condensed into a 16-game season, he averaged 66 receptions, 1,063 yards, and seven touchdowns, which is an appropriately underwhelming stat line. Watkins is one of the few players that can be compared to Calvin Johnson with a straight face, but health issues prevented him from making a serious impact. In Watkins’s first two years in Buffalo, he injured his ribs, groin, hip, and calf.

Watkins sustained a Jones fracture in his foot during the 2016 offseason, and hasn’t been himself since. Dez Bryant, Julio Jones, and Kevin Durant have all suffered Jones fractures in recent years, and the injury comes with a notoriously tricky recovery process. Watkins missed eight games last season as he was dealing with the injury, which required surgery last offseason and again this offseason to alleviate pain in the same foot. In total, he’s missed 11 of the Bills’ 32 games over the past two seasons.

Watkins is a rare talent, but if the Bills decided they weren’t going to re-sign him, why wouldn’t they cash him in for assets? The true shock here isn’t that the Bills dealt Watkins, but that the “expiring contract” deal that’s so routine in baseball and basketball has taken this long to come to football.

For Los Angeles, the deal is a gamble. If the Rams crash and burn this season and lose Watkins in free agency, they’ll feel mighty stupid when that second-round pick comes by. The Rams gave up a treasure trove to acquire Jared Goff, and the Cal quarterback looked lost in his rookie year. The team tightened its offensive line by signing Andrew Whitworth in the offseason and is now parting with more draft capital to provide Goff a star receiver. With these weapons, Goff will have a much better supporting cast than he did last season, but he’ll also have fewer excuses if he once again looks overwhelmed.

Watkins’s replacement in Buffalo will be looking for a fresh start ahead of his own upcoming free agency. Jordan Matthews became superfluous to the Birds when they added Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in the offseason. Nelson Agholor’s improvement this offseason only made Matthews more expendable. If the Bills are looking to sign a wide receiver entering his prime to a second contract, Matthews has a much lower ceiling from a talent perspective, but his durability provides a much higher floor.