WATKINS, DARBY BLOCKBUSTERS STUNNING BUT SHREWD MOVES FOR BILLS
Whoever popularized the term “Patience is a virtue” likely wasn’t a Buffalo Bills fan.
The long-suffering NFL franchise made a pair of surprising trades on Friday, sending wide receiver Sammy Watkins and a sixth-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick. Then the Bills flipped cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick.
At first glance, those transactions scream “rebuild”. Which is a term that most Bills fans are loathe to hear, given their team’s 17-year playoff drought. However, while the two trades may hurt the team in the short term – and, to the dismay of said fans, might extend the drought by another year, running their already-thin patience even thinner in the process – long-term wise, these moves could prove to be fortuitous for the star-crossed franchise.
First, let’s examine the case of Watkins. His talent has been obvious since his days at Clemson, but ever since the Bills selected him fourth overall in the 2014 NFL draft – ahead of other notable wideouts like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Matthews, Davante Adams, Kelvin Benjamin, Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry – Watkins has struggled with health problems, most notably to his foot.
Watkins has also had consistency issues. Save for a stretch during the 2015 season, Watkins would usually have a big game and then disappear for a few more. Granted, this could be attributed to defenses rolling double-coverage towards him with the lack of additional weapons in the Bills’ passing game, but it’s a difference from the previously mentioned wideouts who excel despite extra attention from the opposition.
Those concerns were the catalysts behind the Bills’ decision to not pick up Watkins’ fifth-year contract option (which general manager Brandon Beane wasn’t a part of). It also appeared as if there may have been some bad feelings from Watkins’ camp about that option not being picked up, and since no agent wants their client to play on a franchise tag, it seemed as if Watkins’ agent wanted him to play out the season and then depart in free agency.
If that was that case – and judging from Beane’s comments about the team’s ability or inability to re-sign Watkins during the Bills’ press conference on Friday – then Beane had no choice but to recoup some value for Watkins. From the Rams’ end, though, should they not be able to re-sign what is basically a rental player in Watkins after the season, they may regret dealing away a high pick for just one season of a good but injury-prone player.
Matthews, meanwhile, is a solid possession receiver who, like the recently-signed Anquan Boldin, isn’t known for being a downfield threat. But he’s a good route runner with size and decent hands, and should be able to pick up the terminology of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s system with ease (Dennison’s passing concepts are rooted in the West Coast offense, as are Doug Pederson’s with the Eagles).
Matthews has also been more durable than Watkins and statistically has produced at a steadier rate than his predecessor. So while Matthews may be a slight downgrade at the position, the second cousin of the NFL’s greatest wide receiver (Jerry Rice) is no slouch himself.
In regards to Ronald Darby, he was drafted by a Rex Ryan-Doug Whaley regime that expected him to primarily play in man-press coverage. While Bills head coach Sean McDermott’s defensive scheme does utilize its fair share of man-to-man defense, it doesn’t rely on it on nearly every play. Rather, McDermott will likely deploy a good amount of zone coverage with some man mixed in – which, similar to former Bill Stephon Gilmore, doesn’t exactly play to Darby’s strengths.
While Darby had an excellent rookie season two years ago, he had what would be by definition a sophomore slump in 2016. And with uncertainty surrounding his fit in McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s scheme, the Bills decided to cut their losses early and deal him to a team like the Eagles who sorely needed the depth at cornerback.
His replacement in the defensive backfield, Gaines, has had a comparable career thus far to Darby. A former sixth-round pick out of Missouri three years ago, Gaines became a starter as a rookie with the Rams and was named to the Pro Football Writers Association’s All-Rookie Team.
Gaines also showed an ability to play well in both man and zone coverage. However, injuries have derailed his progress over the last two seasons. Should he regain his form in Buffalo, Gaines could be a decent pickup.
The biggest coupes in these trades though are the picks involved. Coupled with the draft day deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills will have two picks in each of the first three rounds. And, quite frankly, Buffalo needs them.
Let’s be honest here – the Bills this season, even with Watkins and Darby on the roster, are likely going to be no better than 7-9 or 8-8. Maybe even 6-10. This has essentially been the norm throughout their drought. The team has a brutal upcoming schedule, and there are around eight teams in the AFC, give or take, that are better and have more depth than them at the time of this writing.
So instead of making their annual heroic run to a mediocre record and not being good enough to make the postseason and yet not being bad enough for a high draft pick, why not stockpile on future assets? Should the Bills end the drought, they can package together some of those picks and trade up to get a player they covet. If not, they’ll have a bounty of ammunition to kick-start the retooling of their roster.
In this era of instant gratification and with little patience in society nowadays, some Bills fans may have already thrown in the towel on the 2017 season, and perhaps even on the McDermott-Beane regime already. Instead, one believes those fans should heed the saying, “Patience is a virtue.”
Maybe, just maybe, this new regime might know what it’s doing after all.