My first thought when I saw the trade headlines was disbelief. I literally did not believe that the Buffalo Bills had just traded Sammy Watkins. Logically, there wasn’t an obvious reason for them to ship one of their franchise cornerstones. The Bills weren’t done with just Sammy Watkins, though; they also traded top cornerback Ronald Darby, even after losing Stephon Gilmore to free agency. Those two trades rocked the NFL landscape, almost obscuring the six-game suspension that Ezekiel Elliot received today, but let’s try to make sense of the blockbuster swaps.
The Buffalo Bills trade WR Sammy Watkins and a 6th round pick to the Los Angeles Rams in exchange for CB EJ Gaines and a 2nd round pick.
Next, the Buffalo Bills trade CB Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Jordan Matthews and a 3rd round pick.
Why the Bills did it:
On the surface, it’s hard to tell exactly why the Bills traded two of their best players for objectively worse players when their team was finally rounding into form. Tyrod Taylor was entering his third year at the helm, and for the first time, had a healthy Sammy Watkins as his number one receiver. LeSean McCoy is still in the backfield, as elusive as ever, and new coach Sean McDermott has brought in defensive principles similar to those from the elite defenses the Bills had a few years ago. This was a sleeper playoff team, but the new regime decided to sell instead. Why devalue the team at this potential zenith?
The Bills front office may actually deserve more credit than it is receiving right now. While the Bills had an outside shot at a wild card spot, the new regime has a long-term approach previous coaches and GMs didn’t have. Doug Marrone walked after getting this team to .500, then Rex Ryan flamed out after not fulfilling his playoff promises. McDermott and new GM Brandon Beane have inherited a roster full of Marrone and Ryan players that may not fit their system and their long-term plan. Tyrod Taylor has been an underrated QB the last two years, but he is not a difference maker come December and January. Rumors circulated last year about the Bills potentially cutting Taylor and absolving themselves of his $96 million contract; he remained with them team, but on a more temporary, team-friendly contract. LeSean McCoy is an elite NFL RB – maybe a Hall of Fame player – but his days of high level production are coming to an end. McCoy has already reached the treacherous 2,000 touch threshold where many players start to wear down, and his injury-prone body may not have many more years of success left. Sammy Watkins has flashed elite talent before, but he was constantly injured over the last four years. Doug Whaley, the previous GM, did not pick up Watkins’ fifth-year option, making this Watkins’ last year with the team in all likelihood. With a very temporary offense and a mediocre defense, the Bills were not built to make a championship run.
So the front office sold high on Watkins before they let him walk and tossed in Darby to initiate a full rebuild. Over the next couple years, the Bills will be worse, making fans frustrated that they were so close to the playoffs without reaching it. However, following the mold of the Philadelphia 76ers, sometimes you have to lose a lot to win a little. Buffalo got a decent return on their two trade pieces, yielding two starters in Jordan
Matthews and EJ Gaines. Matthews, a 3rd round pick out of Vanderbilt, doesn’t have nearly the same pedigree as Watkins, but has had a productive career so far in the NFL. He has totaled over 200 catches, 2,500 yards, and 19 TDs in just three years, nearing the production of superstars AJ Green and Odell Beckham, Jr., in their first three years. Matthews will step into a number one role – the same role he held with the Eagles – for the Bills this year, starting opposite stalwart Anquan Boldin with Zay Jones getting his opportunity in the slot. Gaines has a similar path to Matthews, coming out of the draft with a lower pedigree (6th round). He earned a starting job his rookie year, though, and has been solid on the field for the Rams so far. He doesn’t have the same speed or cover skills as Darby, but can be an adequate starter for Sean McDermott as he looks for a more permanent core in the secondary. Also, the Bills received two high picks in the 2018 draft, adding to their hefty collection. Next year, Buffalo will have two picks in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd rounds of the draft, earning a bevy of young talent. If the new regime can hit on the picks, they’ll be well on their way to the rebuilding job they set out to do.
Why the Rams and Eagles got involved:
Both the Rams and the Eagles received huge gains from these trades. While Buffalo started the rebuilding process, these teams leapt on that opportunity and increased the talent on their rosters. In LA, the Rams had EJ Gaines, a solid but unspectacular corner, but netted a top ten receiver in Watkins. Watkins comes with his fair share of flaws – namely his rough injury history and expiring contract – but his on-field production is worth it. In nine games, fully healthy, in 2015, Watkins exploded for 50 receptions, 900 yards, and 7 TDs. New coach Sean McVay has had success with less talented receivers in Washington; now, with budding QB Jared Goff, he needs a game-breaking talent like Watkins to spread the field and create easy looks for Goff. The receiving core of Watkins and Robert Woods, plus Cooper Kupp and Tavon Austin, gives McVay plenty of weapons to operate with next season and should be instrumental in helping Goff develop properly. A 2nd round pick for Watkins’ talent is a steal.
The Philadelphia Eagles found themselves in a similar situation to the Rams. Jordan Matthews had been a solid, serviceable WR, but in free agency, they brought in Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith, not to mention Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson through the draft. With so much new talent on the roster, Matthews became expendable as his role vanished. The Eagles showed promise last year, but the secondary was a major problem. Jalen Mills, a late-round rookie, is the only competent starter left at the cornerback position. Sidney Jones was drafted this year, but he will likely sit out the year after rupturing his Achilles. Adding Darby, the eighth best corner in the NFL his rookie year
according to PFF, was essential for the Eagles. He immediately slots in as their number one guy, and has shown himself capable of handling big play threats at WR. Darby has the speed to handle interdivisional threats like Odell Beckham, Jr., or Terrelle Pryor. With the acquisition of Darby, the Eagles are firmly positioned in the heat of the NFC East title race, and have a good shot at making the playoffs this year. The cost of acquiring Darby, Matthews and a 3rd rounder, is good value for such a high level corner.
Seemingly, each team gets what they want. The Bills get a fresh slate as the coaching staff and front office have turned over considerably in the last year. The Rams add an elite weapon for their franchise hopeful Jared Goff. The Eagles get a lockdown corner to form a complete defense. While the initial trade news was shocking, the swaps actually made sense for each of the three teams involved.