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Jerry Sullivan: Make no mistake, Watkins trade is a nod to the future

Jerry Sullivan

Brandon Beane was asked a simple question when he took to the lectern shortly after 4 p.m. on his blockbuster Friday. Did trading Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby make the Bills a better team?

"For the 2017 season?" the Bills first-year general manager said. "You could make arguments either way."

He has a point there, but I'll embrace the contrary argument. The trades, which I applaud, made them worse in the short term. You don't deal a starting cornerback and potential superstar wide receiver and get better.

But it's understandable if Beane and McDermott couldn't concede that it was a step back. They're competitors and genuinely believe they can make a playoff run this season while methodically building for the future.

The Bills got a solid veteran wideout, Jordan Matthews, and a 2018 third-round draft pick from the Eagles in the Darby deal. They got cornerback E.J. Gaines and an '18 second-rounder from the Rams in the Watkins trade.

This isn't a tank job, like the Sabres three and four years ago. Considering the grief that the Pegulas received for their hockey team's shameful losing campaign, you can understand why the owners wouldn't have the stomach to repeat it with their NFL franchise.

So in typical fashion, the Bills are out to win in the short term while hoping to get better down the road. Over the years, I've argued that middling it to placate fans has held the Bills back, costing them more chances to pick near the top of the draft and perhaps get their franchise quarterback.

Beane and McDermott played it down the middle by bringing back Tyrod Taylor, Kyle Williams and LeSean McCoy. I felt stripping down the roster and bottoming out was more advisable, but evidently, they felt they could have it both ways. Friday is further evidence of that.

"I'm always going to try to win today and win tomorrow," Beane said. "That's the nature, that's how I'm wired. That's how I think you win in this league. If I'm coming off a 14-2 season and someone offers me good capital, and what is a worthy investment, I have to consider it. That's what happened here."

But make no mistake, these deals are more about the future than the present. The Bills now own two picks in each of the first three rounds of the 2018 draft, a clear indication that Beane is determined to rebuild a thin roster and reshape the team in his first go-round as an NFL general manager.

Some fans will object to moving Watkins when he finally appears healthy and appears to have rediscovered a bond with quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The Bills have removed the possibility of Watkins performing like a superstar in Buffalo. Matthews is solid, but not close to what Sammy can be if he's fully healthy.

The problem is, Watkins has never been fully healthy. Maybe his foot is healed, but he's had 10 separate injuries in his three years as a Bill. By keeping him, the Bills risked him suffering another injury that would seriously diminish his value. Plus, he'll be a free agent after the season.

"You do have to consider everything," Beane admitted. "It's what he's done in his career over three seasons, how much he's played. You do consider all that. And again, he's going into the last year of his deal. Signability, cap situation, everything honestly went into this decision."

The Bills foreshadowed such an outcome when they 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 and Darby on Friday, but it seemed like stock commentary. They can't have had faith in Sammy to stay healthy, or be worth the sort of monster extension his agent would be seeking if he had a very good year.

The new guys inherited Watkins, and the attendant issues. He wasn't their guy. So this feels like a curtain falling on 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.

During the 17-year drought, there have been too many of those moves, the ones intended to create a big splash and excite the fan base. A succession of GMs gave away high picks for other teams' leftovers. This administration seems intent on the opposite, on stockpiling draft currency.

The new regime has now separated itself from the Watkins trade, the fatal stroke of the previous administration and quite possibly the worst trade in team history. A separation from quarterback Tyrod Taylor seems inevitable as well. Trading away their star receiver was hardly a show of support for Taylor.

Taylor is playing for another contract, for his future as a franchise QB. One month before the season, the Bills traded his best receiver, the guy who helped establish him as a lethal deep passer when Watkins was healthy and living up to his lofty reputation in the second half of 2015.

How do you sell this to Tyrod, I asked McDermott? You just traded away his best weapon in a contract year.

"I'll take it a step further," McDermott replied. "How do you sell it to the entire team? My stance is to be honest and upfront with these guys. They know that we're going to do everything possible and make every decision that's in the best interest of this football team, short-and long term."

Maybe Taylor lights it up and the Bills make a playoff push, making Beane look like a genius and giving Taylor bargaining power. I doubt it. These trades anticipate a future where Beane rebuilds the roster into a true contender, constructed around a new, young franchise quarterback. It can't have gone over well with the veterans.

Beane became animated when he was asked what the trades say about Taylor's future in Buffalo.

"It doesn't say anything," Beane said. "Everybody forgets we signed Anquan Boldin last week. This is not a throw-in-the-towel thing at all. Quite honestly, that's annoying to me. You don't know me if you think I'm throwing in the towel. If we play ping pong, I don't throw in the towel. If we were throwing in the towel, we wouldn't have got a receiver back.

"Tyrod is the No. 1 quarterback on this team right now," Beane said. "We'll let that play out before we decide how it goes in 2018."

Still, you don't accumulate six top picks in a quarterback-rich draft if you don't have designs on getting one. By Friday afternoon, it was becoming even clearer how the quarterback thing would play out.


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