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Inside the draft room: How Buffalo made the trade to land Sammy Watkins

Doug Whaley was on the phone with the Cleveland Browns and thought he had just hammered out trade terms that would give the Buffalo Bills the rookie they coveted more than any other in the draft.

The Browns were on the clock with the fourth selection Thursday night. After a couple previous calls elicited insufficient proposals and with time running out, Whaley and Browns GM Ray Farmer finally settled on a deal to let the Bills take Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.

But hang on.

Another team had dialed up the Browns.

Farmer put Whaley on hold.

Whaley waited for maybe 15 seconds. It felt like an eternity.

Farmer returned to the line and informed Whaley the Bills had a deal. Watkins would be a Bill.


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Myriad reports over the past month suggested the Bills were desperate to move up in the draft order, that they were plotting moves into the top five, maybe into the top three, maybe to the head of the line.

But a Bills insider pulled back the curtain for The Buffalo News and explained from his perspective how one of the biggest draft trades in team history happened -- and what would've transpired if the Bills couldn't move up from their ninth pick.

Unless otherwise noted, the info within this story came from the Bills' draft-room source.

Watkins was the top player on the Bills' draft board in February and remained there through the NFL scouting combine, his Clemson pro day and an April visit to One Bills Drive.

The Bills rated Watkins ahead of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Those were the two players the Bills were willing to trade up for.

Unlike last year's draft, however, the Bills were unable to lock down any moves to guarantee either player.

A year ago, the Bills had a deal in place with the St. Louis Rams two days before the draft began. The Bills moved back eight spots in the first round, where the Bills selected quarterback EJ Manuel 16th overall, in exchange for a second-round pick they used on linebacker Kiko Alonso.

There were no such advance deals to be made this time.

A couple hours before the Houston Texans were put on the clock with the opening selection, a well-placed source told me the Bills believed they were keeping their ninth overall pick. They had no choice but to proceed with that assumption.

No teams were ready to deal yet. The Bills knew that if a trade were to pop, it would materialize when their partner was on the clock.

Over the past few weeks, the Bills had casual conversations with the Texans, Rams (owners of the second overall choice), Jacksonville Jaguars (third overall), Browns, Oakland Raiders (fifth overall), Atlanta Falcons (sixth overall) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (seventh overall).

Although the Bills didn't hold tangible trade talks to nail down specifically what Texans GM Rick Smith required to give up the No. 1 spot, the Bills knew his asking price would be too steep.

But the Bills were convinced the Texans wouldn't draft Watkins anyway.

Buffalo trusted its pre-draft intelligence on the No. 1 and No. 2 selections. While less sure of what Jacksonville would do at No. 3, Buffalo was confident Watkins still would be available.

That made Thursday night's third and fourth picks Buffalo's sweet spot to swing a deal for Watkins. The fifth slot marked Buffalo's danger zone.

The Bills were 99 percent certain the Rams were locked in with the second pick and had many roster needs aside from receiver. Rams football operations boss Kevin Demoff was said to be so cemented on Auburn tackle Greg Robinson that they would entertain only absurd offers. So the Bills weren't worried there.

In general, the Bills were comfortable with what Jaguars GM David Caldwell would do. Caldwell, a St. Francis grad, has a strong relationship with Bills President and CEO Russ Brandon. There was enough communication for Buffalo to get a sense Jacksonville wanted a quarterback.

But what if Jacksonville's eventual pick, Blake Bortles, was somehow off the board and Watkins became more appealing to Caldwell?

What if another team swooped in with a trade offer Buffalo couldn't match?

Buffalo was prepared to jump into trade talks with Jacksonville if anything unexpected were to happen. But as soon as Buffalo learned Bortles was going third, Cleveland became the trade target.

Back to the pre-draft intel.

Buffalo was aware Cleveland wanted a cornerback but believed Watkins was rated higher on Farmer's draft board than any cornerback. Buffalo also proceeded as though Oakland would prefer Watkins to University at Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack.

No time to dither.

Whaley briefly spoke with Farmer while Jacksonville still was on the clock. They got down to business as soon as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Bortles' name in Radio City Music Hall.

Negotiations automatically included Buffalo's 2015 first-round pick. Whaley and Brandon knew that. They also knew they'd have to add "a sweetener."

With next year's first-rounder understood, Farmer's initial price included this year's third-round choice, the insider said. The Bills quickly rejected that proposal. Too rich. The Bills countered with a 2016 mid-round pick. The phone call ended without a deal.

The Browns called back and said the deal could be made for this year's fourth-rounder. The Bills responded with next year's fourth-rounder.

Although the Bills insider said there was some uneasiness over the blockbuster trade, they wanted Watkins badly.

Farmer was amenable to the last offer.

Then Whaley was told another team was on the line.

Hold, please ...

The Bills dreaded they were being trumped, probably by the Detroit Lions, who coveted pairing Watkins with superstar receiver Calvin Johnson.

About 15 anxious seconds later, the Bills learned their deal stood.

The draft room erupted when Watkins' name was announced. The scouts applauded. Whaley took a deep, satisfying breath. Brandon pumped his fist in victory.

Had the Bills not pulled off the trade, they would have held onto the ninth overall selection. The two players they wanted to trade up for -- Clowney and Watkins --would've been gone.

The Bills insider told me their board listed North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin and Louisiana State receiver Odell Beckham. All three still were available at No. 9. The insider said Ebron likely would've been the choice.

But it never came to that.

The trade took a grand total of about five minutes to consummate.

That includes Buffalo's heart-stopping time on hold.

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