The Buffalo Bills made their boldest, win-now draft-day move in a decade Thursday by trading up five spots to pick Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick in the NFL Draft.
The Bills gave the Cleveland Browns first- and fourth-round picks in 2015 to move up from ninth to fourth this year.
Watkins, a 6-foot-1, 211-pounder, was widely acknowledged as the top receiver in the draft. He has elite speed and quickness and boasts rare leaping ability to catch balls in the air, both down the sideline and over the middle.
“We went into this draft saying we were going to be bold, and we made a bold move,” said Russ Brandon, Bills president and chief executive officer.
“Very high cost, but we thought it was a calculated risk and a risk we were willing to take,” Bills General Manager Doug Whaley said. “The high cost of not making the playoffs is something we weighed, and we thought this guy’s going to get us to the playoffs.”
Whaley stopped short of guaranteeing the playoffs this year but made it clear the team’s 14-year playoff drought weighs heavily on the team’s decision-makers.
“In football terms, we’re willing to give up not making the playoffs again for Sammy,” Whaley said. “That’s what we looked at. We want to make the playoffs. Being 14 years and not making the playoffs. That’s the tradeoff we expect.”
The pick continues the team’s effort to bolster the supporting cast of second-year quarterback EJ Manuel. The Bills’ pass offense ranked 28th in the NFL last season. Buffalo’s 16 touchdown passes tied for second fewest in the league.
Watkins will join second-year man Robert Woods as the Bills’ starting outside receivers.
Veteran Stevie Johnson spent most of last season working out of the slot.
However, the addition of Watkins makes it a strong probability the Bills will shop Johnson on the trade market.
The Bills own two picks on Day Two of the draft, which begins at 7 tonight. Buffalo’s second-round pick is 41st overall. Its third-rounder is 73rd overall. An edge pass rusher could be a target of the Bills with one of those picks.
The last time the Bills gave up a future No. 1 in the draft was when they took quarterback J.P. Losman in 2004.
The last time they gave up a future No. 1 in what could be considered a “win-now” deal was when they acquired Drew Bledsoe in 2002.
Watkins owns 23 Clemson records, including career receptions (240), receiving yards (3,391) and touchdowns (27).
Last season he caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns. In the Orange Bowl against Ohio State, he had 16 catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m very excited,” said Watkins, who turns 21 in June. “It’s a blessing to be a Buffalo Bill now, just to get started with the young guys on the team.”
The Bills brought Watkins to Buffalo for a pre-draft visit last month. Watkins said Whaley told him at the time the Bills were going to pick him.
“I didn’t really think they would come up to get me, but I had my interview with them and Mr. Doug just kept telling me he was going to get me,” Watkins said. “I was thinking it was all fun and games.”
Whaley on Watkins’ strengths:
“The total body of work. If you look at his resume, it’s pretty impressive. We believe he’s got great ball skills, he’s explosive, he can get in and out of cuts. He’ll be able to separate with his quickness and burst. But he also attacks the ball and he plays much bigger than his size. So that will be an added benefit, for him being open when he’s covered. That elongates the target for EJ.”
Added Whaley: “Dynamic playmaker, and that’s what this game’s all about, making plays and surrounding our quarterback with playmakers. He’s automatically going to make our quarterback better. He’s going to make us better as a team.”
Both Brandon and Whaley maintained that the fact the team will be sold this year did not make them more willing to give up future picks, given the fact a new owner could decide to change management.
“Not at all,” Brandon said. “From that standpoint we’ve been very up front about that. It’s business as usual. I’m not worried about anything relative to the sale of the franchise when it comes to the football operation. This trade was made as a football decision that’s focused on the 2014 season.”