The Bills sent some shockwaves around the NFL with two trades today, so I wanted to share my thoughts on those moves. First up is the trade which sent wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Rams in exchange for cornerback EJ Gaines and a 2nd round draft pick.
For the Bills these moves signaled just how little the current front office thinks about the roster they inherited. I’ve done a good deal of work on the Bills in the past and even I was surprised at how poor their development of homegrown players has been. The roster was really void of good young talent and it is doubtful that Watkins was going to last in Buffalo beyond this year.
The Bills already turned down his option year and this front office had no attachment to him as a draft pick. Looking at the Bills roster, which features a pretty raw quarterback likely playing out the string, an older running back who would be better off elsewhere, and a bunch of overpaid players, I don’t think there would be a way to consider keeping Watkins. He simply would not fit in what they are looking to build and he could find a better opportunity elsewhere.
Watkins is one of those difficult players to judge. From a physical standpoint he is incredibly talented. His speed is pretty ridiculous and he carries himself as if he is bigger than his actual height. However, he is still just raw talent. He hasn’t necessarily been coached very well since coming into the NFL and I think it is very fair to question his own conditioning given the amount of injuries he seems to sustain each year. Watkins is probably just as likely to give the team 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns as he was to play in 8 games. He can also be a headache if the team plays badly and he thinks its hurting his value.
EJ Gaines is a decent talent who also had dealt with the injury bug over the course of his career. He is also a free agent after the season but shouldn’t be incredibly expensive and is someone the Bills could consider keeping. If he isn’t kept he is probably decent enough to land the team a 6th round compensatory pick.
From the Rams perspective it is clear that this is all about upside and surrounding a young quarterback with as much talent as they felt they could. Watkins is the ultimate boom or bust type of player. I think because he is so raw, is often injured, and because he is considered a bit of a bust because the Bills traded so much to get him in the draft that people forget he caught 125 passes for 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2014 and 2015.
If the team hits on Jared Goff this potentially gives them a legit WR/QB duo which they would not have had with Tavon Austin as the top target on the team. Players with his Watkins potential talent level never hit free agency and if he plays well enough the Rams could control his rights through 2018 anyway with the transition or franchise tag.
From a cost standpoint this is a solid move by the Rams. They will shed $1.797 million in salary for Gaines and only have to pay $690,000 for Watkins. The reason the cost for Watkins is so low is because the Bills paid Watkins about $2.4 million of his salary last week. So the Rams will pick up about $1.1 million in cap room which is useful for a team near the bottom of the NFL in cap space and with another player who wants a big contract in Aaron Donald.
The NFL is about taking gambles and at the very least they are getting a $5 million talent, which is the cost of a 3rd receiver, for just $690,000. That is a better cost/value proposition here than with Gaines, in my opinion. They are potentially getting a much higher level player (the going rate for a low level 1 is over $10 million) and I have him pegged as being a player, if he stays healthy, as an $8 million player. This is not the first time the Rams have made a move like this for a “bust”. A few years back they made a trade for Mark Barron of the Buccaneers. That actually worked out decently for the Rams as Barron developed into a decent strong safety/linebacker for the team.
I don’t mind giving up Gaines because he also had health concerns and may have landed as the 3rd corner on the team. Unlike receiver they have depth in their secondary and Watkins can make far more of an impact for the teams win total.
The question becomes whether or not the 2nd round pick was worth the move. Watkins is better than a 2nd round pick, but you run the risk of one year of Watkins vs four years of a 2nd round pick so that is a consideration. Financially, however, that does offset more of the cost of Watkins if he does stick for more than a year. If Watkins doesn’t last they will likely receive a 4th round comp pick.
I can see both sides of the argument on the move of the draft pick because the Rams have not been good in a long time. The Rams, like Watkins, are a very hard team to evaluate. They have been poorly coached for some time but on paper should be a playoff contender. They have talent on defense, at some important positions, and needed help on offense which they may have gotten today.
It is hard to say that the Rams are a win now team given their history but in many ways they are. This team just signed a 35 year old to play left tackle. The rest of their offensive line will all be free agents in 2019. Donald wants a new contract. Robert Quinn will be moving onto a third contract either with the Rams or elsewhere. Alec Ogletree, Trumaine Johnson, Ethan Westbrooks and Trumaine Johnson are all entering the final year of their contracts as is just about everyone else in their secondary. If they aren’t going to win this year with this squad when will they? They will likely have to make major changes so this gives them their best chance to win with them rather than to have nothing to show for it.
On top of that if they do go into a rebuilding mode this gives them one piece on offense that they don’t have to address while they focus on replacing all these defenders.
The one reason I dislike the move for them is because of Austin’s contract. Though risky the potential to strike gold on Watkins is now if you can convince him to take an extension in the $8 million or less range. The problem is this particular team went so far in on Austin with that contract that there is no logical reason that Watkins should accept anything less than $11 million from this particular team. The Rams would be insane to do that now. So in that respect its pretty much transition/franchise tag or nothing.
I do like with the trades like this playing around with the ways to view the trade. Because the Bills picked up $2.4 million of Watkins salary plus Gaines salary they in essence are paying for a draft pick. Since these are all expiring contracts we can throw draft values on the players. I’d consider Watkins to be worth a 4 right now and Gaines a 6. So with comp picks in mind I’d say that the Bills traded $3.5 million and a 4th round pick for a 2nd round and 6th round pick. Given Watkins upside you could argue it’s a conditional 3rd round pick, but I think the 4th for a 2nd and 6th is pretty fair. I think that works for both sides.
I think for the Bills this is pretty much a no brainer of a trade. You flip a guy who wasn’t going to fit into your plans long term for an immediate draft pick rather than having to wait the year for one. Id be more hesitant to call this a great move for the Rams, but I think it’s a pretty fair move to make and one that probably wont hut them long term.
The biggest loser in this may be Watkins. Watkins going into free agency next year was at least going to have the uncertainty around him since he only played in Buffalo. The more players swap teams, play in different systems, etc…the less and less other teams see upside in that player if he doesn’t stand out to his highest expectations. While Tyrod Taylor is also pretty raw, Goff is a complete unknown. Last year you could argue he was the worst QB in the NFL once he saw the field. Now for rookie QBs that often means nothing but you cant discount that completely.
Watkins does land on a team that is going to be generous with contracts but are probably at a point where they can’t hand them out to him unless he performs pretty well. If he is up to the challenge he has little to worry about but he has to show something more than he has the last three years in terms of consistency and effort to do that.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.