ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — A talented and experienced golfer, Buffalo Bills first-year general manager Brandon Beane surely knows a thing or two about when to uncork a 300-yard drive and when to keep the driver in his bag.
In the case of Friday’s unexpected trades that sent Buffalo’s top wide receiver Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams and its top cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles, Beane is laying up off the tee in 2017 in hopes of setting up a better shot to the green in 2018.
The approach might not please Bills fans who invested their dollars into Watkins merchandise and tickets this season, nor is it necessarily fair to quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who now must prove himself this season without one of the game’s most talented receivers. But unlike his predecessor Doug Whaley, the ex-Bills general manager who recklessly traded two first-round picks to move up for Watkins in 2014, Beane is being strategic and deserves the patience of Buffalo’s fan base.
Consider the Bills’ current stash of draft selections in 2018:
First round: Own selection, Kansas City Chiefs‘ selection.
Second round: Own selection, Los Angeles Rams’ selection.
Third round: Own selection, Philadelphia Eagles’ selection.
Fourth round: Own selection.
Fifth round: Own selection.
Sixth round: Sent to the Rams as part of Friday’s deal.
Buffalo could add to its haul of 2018 draft selections by working the NFL’s compensatory pick system to its advantage. By releasing at least three of their qualifying unrestricted free-agent signings from this offseason, the Bills would put themselves in good position to receive a third-round pick in 2018 for the loss of cornerback Stephon Gilmore in free agency. They could also release a fourth player to receive a fourth-round pick for losing receiver Robert Woods in free agency.
Why stop there? If the Bills do not view 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland as a good long-term fit for their scheme — he was demoted last week to the third-team defense — trading Ragland for a mid- to late-round pick could be appealing.
A faction of Bills fans seem hurt by the departure of Watkins, who when healthy was the top talent on the Bills’ roster next to running back LeSean McCoy. With Watkins gone, Bills fans should see the benefit of a drag of a season — perhaps a final record of 4-12 or 5-11 rather than another seven- or eight-win year that leaves Buffalo lost in no-man’s land between the top of the draft and the playoffs.
Beane, known as a hard-nosed competitor, was visibly defensive Friday about the idea he is sacrificing the 2017 season for long-term gain.
“This is not a throw-in-the-towel thing at all,” Beane said. “Somebody mentioned that somebody said that out there, and honestly, that’s annoying to me. You don’t know me if you think I’m throwing in the towel. When I go out there and play pingpong, whatever I’m doing, I’m not throwing in the towel. If we’re throwing in the towel, we’re not trying to get a starting receiver back.”
It is true that between acquiring Jordan Matthews from the Eagles, signing veteran Anquan Boldin earlier this month and selecting East Carolina’s Zay Jones in the second round of April’s draft, the Bills might have a better group at receiver than last season. With Watkins sidelined by injury for eight games in 2016, the Bills tried to get by with Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Justin Hunter and others. It did not work.
Beane used the additions of Matthews and Boldin to push back against the idea that the trade sets up Taylor to fail this season, which would make it easier for the Bills to part ways with him next offseason and draft a quarterback. However, the relevant comparison for Taylor is not whether Matthews, Boldin and Jones are a better group than an injured Watkins, Woods and Goodwin last year.
Instead, the comparison that matters for Taylor is whether he is better off when he went to bed Friday night with Matthews, Boldin and Jones as his receivers after waking up thinking he would be throwing to Watkins, Boldin and Jones. As McCoy said Friday, it is “obvious” who is better between Matthews and Watkins — it’s Watkins.
Matthews has better production (225 catches, 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns) than Watkins (153 catches, 2,459 yards and 17 touchdowns) since they both entered the league in 2014, but Watkins routinely drew the attention of opposing defenses for his ability to blow the top off the defense. Watkins has averaged 16.1 yards per catch, while Matthews’ average is only 11.9 yards per reception.
It is a difficult for Beane to make the argument that the Bills are better off in 2017 with Matthews and cornerback E.J. Gaines, who was acquired from the Rams, than they were with Watkins and Darby. If that was true, the Bills would not have received second- and third-round picks next year as fair value for giving up two of their top young players.
But let’s be clear: The Bills getting worse in the short term with these trades is not necessarily a bad thing. If the deals help the Bills acquire a franchise quarterback and otherwise shape a winning roster, the moves will both be huge wins for Beane in the long term.
Instead of smashing his driver off the tee and dunking his golf ball in a pond attempting to make the playoffs in 2017, Beane is laying up and positioning his next shot. For Bills fans, that should be considered a smart and refreshing approach after two years of watching Whaley and coach Rex Ryan play the game like amateurs.