Brandon Beane couldn't say whether the Bills got better by trading Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby on Friday. Sean McDermott wasn't sure, either. Allow me to help them out here. The Bills didn't get better. They got worse.
It's understandable that Beane and McDermott wouldn't concede that it was a step back. They have to sell these deals to their team, which expects to contend for a playoff spot this season. They're competitors and believe they can be good this year while building for the future.
The Bills received a solid veteran wideout, Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick in the Darby deal. They got cornerback E.J. Gaines and an '18 second-rounder from the Rams in the Watkins trade.
So this isn't a tank, like the Sabres three and four years ago, or the Browns and Jets the last two seasons. In typical fashion, the Bills are middling it this season, looking to win in the short term while looking to get better down the road.
You could argue that middling it year after year, trying to appease the fan base and never bottoming out, has held the Bills back over the years, costing them more chances to pick near the top of the draft and get their franchise quarterback. I realized McDermott and Co. were middling it when they brought back Tyrod Taylor and Kyle Williams, and more recently when they signed Anquan Boldin.
But make no mistake, these deals were more about the future than the present. The Bills now own two picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2018 draft. That's a clear indication that Beane is determined to rebuild a thin roster and reshape the team in his first job as an NFL general manager.
I applaud them for the moves. Fans might object to moving Watkins when he finally appears healthy. The Bills have removed the possibility of Watkins performing like a superstar and making the offense even more dynamic than it was a year ago. Matthews is solid, but not close to what Sammy can be if he's fully healthy.
The thing is, Watkins has never been fully healthy. He had 10 separate injuries during his three years as a Bill. Beane admitted that was a consideration in dealing him. Another injury would seriously diminish Watkins as an asset, and he'll be a free agent after the season.
Beane presaged such a deal when he decided not to pick up the fifth year of Watkins' original contract. At that point, you figured Watkins might not be in town much longer. You can't blame a GM for moving a player when his value is high, rather than risk losing him for nothing in free agency.
Watkins wasn't their guy to begin with. Beane and McDermott gushed about Watkins in press conferences after the trade, but it seems they didn't believe he would stay healthy or be worth re-signing to a monster free-agent deal.
In a sense, this marks the official end of the Doug Whaley era. Giving two first-round picks for Watkins in the 2014 draft was a fatal move by the former GM, an ill-advised reach that followed him for the rest of his tenure.
The new regime has now separated itself from the worst decision of the preceding administration. There will be more to come, I'm sure. Trading away their star receiver was hardly a show of support for quarterback Tyrod Taylor. It's enough to make you believe they wanted to diminish Taylor's weapons so the decision to part ways with him would be easier down the road.
These deals anticipate a future when Beane rebuilds the roster into a true contender, constructed around a legitimate franchise quarterback. They want to win now, but they have to know they diminished their chances. That means higher draft picks, which is a good thing.