The Buffalo Bills' decision to decline Sammy Watkins' fifth-year contract option does not necessarily mean the wide receiver is entering his final season with the team.
History, however, suggests there is a good chance that will be the case.
Since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement was put into place between the NFL and the league's players' association, there have been a total of 96 first-round draft picks made between 2011 and 2013. Teams have picked up the option 58 times and declined to do so 27 times, with another 11 players being ineligible -- because they either re-signed, were released or retired before the decision was due.
This year, 23 teams picked up the option, with another six declining to do so -- including the Bills -- and three players being ineligible because they've already been released (including both of the Browns' 2014 first-round picks in cornerback Justin Gilbert and quarterback Johnny Manziel -- woof!).
Of particular interest for Bills fans should be what happened to the 27 players who had their options declined from 2011-13. Only four of them re-signed with the teams that drafted them after their rookie contracts expired. They were:
• Morris Claiborne: The sixth overall pick in 2012 by Dallas, Claiborne underperformed throughout his rookie deal, but the Cowboys signed him to a one-year, $3 million deal with for the 2016 season. He started all seven games in which he played last year, making 26 tackles, five passes defensed and on interception, but he left Dallas for a one-year, $5 million deal with the New York Jets this offseason.
• Nick Perry: The 28th overall pick by Green Bay in 2012, Perry also got a one-year, "prove it" deal from his original team for 2016. He responded with by far his best season, making 12 starts and finishing with 11 tackles. The Packers rewarded Perry this offseason with a five-year contract worth up to $60 million.
• Doug Martin: The 31st overall pick by Tampa Bay in 2012, the Buccaneers declined Martin's fifth-year option in the 2015 offseason. He responded by rushing for 1,402 yards in 2015, earning a five-year contract worth up to $35 million. That deal doesn't look so good, however, after Martin managed to play just eight games in 2016, and is suspended for the first three games of 2017.
• Mark Ingram: The 28th overall pick in the 2011 draft by New Orleans, Ingram signed a four-year, $16 million deal with the Saints after the 2014 season.
That's the entirety of the list of players who had their fifth-year options declined, but re-signed with the team that drafted them. Just twice has a player earned a long-term deal after his rookie contract expired without the fifth-year option being picked up. Both Claiborne and Perry made it to unrestricted free agency before returning to their original team on a one-year contract.
Never has a team declined a fifth-year option, and then placed the franchise tag on a player, which has frequently been mentioned as a possibility for the Bills should Watkins have a healthy and productive 2017.
The best-case scenario for the Bills is that Watkins does just that, and is amenable to a long-term contract extension in the 2018 offseason that would negate the need for the franchise tag, which is projected to cost between $16 million and $17 million for receivers next year. A recent trend has seen players sign long-term extensions after their third season, which takes away some of the urgency of the fifth-year option. The Rams' Tavon Austin, Cowboys' Travis Frederick, Chiefs' Eric Fisher, Eagles' Lane Johnson and Bears' Kyle Long are all first-round picks from 2013 who have received long-term deals, despite that draft class being one of the worst in recent history.
Of the remaining 23 players who failed to have their option picked up, 14 signed with other teams after their rookie deals expired, four were traded, four were cut and did not sign with another team and one retired.
Watkins, who is recovering from a second foot surgery that was performed in January, is not expected to take part in any of the Bills' spring practices, although the team is hopeful he'll be ready for the start of training camp.
"Sammy and I have had good conversations about this decision," coach Sean McDermott said in a statement. "There is no question that Sammy is a very good football player and has worked very hard during his rehab this offseason. We look forward to seeing a healthy Sammy Watkins on the field in 2017."
Well, that remains to be seen.