So much for the idea that big trades don't happen in the NFL.
The Buffalo Bills blew that to smithereens Friday, radically reshaping their roster with a pair of separate deals that sent shockwaves through Western New York. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, was sent to the Los Angeles Rams along with a 2018 sixth-round draft pick in exchange for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round selection. Separately, cornerback Ronald Darby was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round selection.
"Rosters change over. It’s a new regime, so to speak," Bills General Manager Brandon Beane said. "We’re trying to do everything that we can to build the right team the right way. Sustained success is the word I used the day I took this job and that’s where I’m at today."
The deals come after the team's first preseason game Thursday night and are massive steps in reshaping the roster under the leadership of Beane and coach Sean McDermott. The decision to ship both Watkins and Darby away qualifies as nothing less than stunning.
"We all threw everything around," Beane said. "The people, the players, the men, what they’ve done, who the players that we’re acquiring, the draft picks, everything went in. Listen, this was not an easy decision. Again, business is business. There’s also an emotional side. These are two fine young men."
Although the two trades look tied together on the surface – receiver for receiver, cornerback for cornerback – Beane said he wasn't sure if he would have made one without the other.
"It’s funny, both of them were getting similar traction, similar momentum the last couple of days and once I saw both of them as far down the road as they were getting, I kind of said ‘I want to do them together if I can,' " he said. "If somebody had backed out, I don’t know because the discussion I had, the first time I really sat down and laid this out for Sean and" owner Terry Pegula "was after the game last night.
"I didn’t want there to be a distraction, so I laid it out, what was potentially happening. Nothing had been agreed upon, but where things were very close. That’s kind of where it was. Nobody backed out at that point and we finalized them this morning."
That made for a long night for McDermott.
"Last night coming off of my first game, it was ... trying to digest some of that and to have these conversations late into the night, not a lot of sleep last night," he said. "Difficult decision, one that we spent a lot of time discussing. These are the types of conversations that have to be had. Some conversations are easier, some are more difficult, like this one."
McDermott was asked whether he was on board with the idea, or needed to be convinced.
"Number one, I’m always going to listen. Brandon’s job and his staff, they go out and they find players and it’s our job to develop those players," he said. "As a football coach, it’s my job as Brandon approaches me with a potential situation to listen. I’m protective of our players, I’m very protective of our players and it’s got to be the right deal. It’s got to be the right situation for us to do something like this and I feel like we’re moving in the right direction. I honestly believe that.
"I will end by saying this – I have the ultimate trust in Brandon and his staff."
If McDermott had any hesitations, it's easy to see why. Although he wasn't around when the Bills paid a massive price under previous General Manager Doug Whaley to acquire Watkins three years ago – trading first-round picks in 2014 and '15, as well as a 2015 fourth-rounder, to move up five spots for the Clemson wide receiver – his talent is undeniable.
Over the final nine games of the 2015 season, Watkins had 900 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. His yardage over that span trailed only Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (1,116) and Atlanta’s Julio Jones (979).
Watkins' time in Buffalo, however, was hampered by injuries, particularly in 2016.
He missed half the year on injured reserve because of pain in his surgically repaired left foot – an injury that required a second procedure in January. After sitting out much of the spring, Watkins has taken a pretty full work load during training camp and figured to be the team's No. 1 receiver. He started Thursday's game with three straight receptions and finished the night with four catches for 39 yards.
"That’s the hump I need to get over. Get tackled, get busted up a couple plays," Watkins said after the game. "That’s football, so I feel great."
Perhaps seeing that was the final push the Rams needed to make the deal.
"We’ve looked at this situation, these two deals in a lot of different ways," McDermott said. "Top, bottom, horizontal, vertically, I mean every way. We’ve had meeting after meeting and then circled back and have had some other follow up meetings. Like I said, not a lot of sleep last night."
Friday evening, Watkins tweeted "New chapter in life everything happens for a reason. ... Buffalo thank you for all the memories. ... Rams nation get ready."
Starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor said Thursday night that he was pleased with the chemistry he had formed with Watkins so far this summer.
"We just have to build from that," he said. "That’s something that me and him worked on this offseason on our own, as well as stuff we’ve been doing throughout camp. Just getting on the same page. Like I said, that was a start, we just got to continue to keep building from that."
They won't get that chance now. It's clear that McDermott and Beane did not share the same evaluation of Watkins as Whaley did. That was shown when the team elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract earlier this offseason. Watkins thus finishes his Bills career with 153 catches for 2,459 yards and 17 touchdowns in 37 games.
"You do have to consider everything," Beane said. "What he’s done in his career over his three seasons, how much he’s played, you do consider all that. And again, he’s going into his last year of his deal. Signability, cap situation, everything, honestly, went into this decision. It was not looking at one factor or another."
The Bills weren't done, though. They also sent Darby to the Eagles in a deal that on its own would have dropped jaws. The Bills' second-round draft pick in 2015, Darby has started all 29 games in which he's appeared over two years. He's made 137 tackles, 33 passes defensed and two interceptions in that time.
Darby's rookie season was particularly strong, as he had 21 passes defensed. His play took a step backward in 2016, but he still figured to be one of the two starting cornerbacks for the Bills on the outside along with rookie first-round draft pick Tre'Davious White. Darby's best fit is in a man-coverage scheme, however, and the Bills are expected to play a zone-based defensed under McDermott.
The Bills brought in replacements for Watkins and Darby in the trades, while also adding significant draft capital.
Coming from the Eagles is Matthews, a 25-year-old who like Watkins is entering his fourth season. A former second-round draft pick, he has similar numbers to Watkins, with 225 catches for 2,673 yards and 19 touchdowns, although he has played in all 48 games, with 46 starts. According to the Bills, Matthews is one of just five receivers to record 65 or more catches and 800 or more receiving yards in each of his first three NFL seasons. The others are Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, A.J. Green and Randy Moss.
"It’s a pretty good group he’s in," Beane said. "He knows how to play. He’s a tough kid. He’s kind of a self-made man. He was not recruited heavily. He played at Vanderbilt, which is in the SEC but nobody realizes they’re in the SEC all the time. ... My understanding, I knew who he was in college, my understanding is he’s that same young man in Philly, that you’re not going to out-work him. He’s going to bring leadership, toughness, and he' our kind of guy."
Gaines is also a 25-year-old entering his fourth season. He started 15 games as a rookie in 2014 and finished with 70 tackles, 14 passes defensed and two interceptions. He missed all of 2015 on injured reserve because of a Lisfranc injury to his foot and returned in 2016 to play in 11 games (with 10 starts), making 56 tackles, seven passes defensed and one forced fumble.
Asked whether the team got better Friday, Beane said, "You know you can make arguments either way. I’m thrilled that, losing a guy like Sammy, we were able to acquire a guy with Jordan Matthews’ skins on the wall. E.J. has started 25 games in this league. He was on the all-rookie team, so he’s got some pedigree. He’s not walking in here not knowing what to expect. He’ll compete with the other corners. Not guaranteed a spot, but he’ll come in and we’ll see where it goes."
The sweetener for the Bills was clearly the draft capital they received. After the trades, the Bills now own two first-round picks in 2018 (their own and Kansas City's), two second-round picks (their own and the Rams') and two third-round picks (their own and the Eagles').
"I believe in our scouting staff. I definitely do," Beane said. "You have to draft well in this league to win. That’s the financial model. Those players are the most affordable. That helps us to have that kind of currency in the first three rounds at the prices you pay those guys versus getting them in free agency and other avenues to bring players."
Watkins was Whaley's signature move as the Bills' GM. Darby, too, represented a significant investment. That the Bills moved on from both shouldn't be taken as a sign they are simply looking to cut ties with any player Whaley acquired, though, Beane said.
"I’m not one that believes that ‘I didn’t draft him, so I don’t care about him.’ That is zero," he said. "If they’re a good player and they can help us win a game today, then I’ll love them and I’ll take them every time. It’s not about getting the guys only that Sean and I brought in here versus the regime before we got here. There’s a lot of guys that have jumped right on board, doing the things that Sean and his staff have asked and we look forward to continuing to work with those guys."