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Jerry Sullivan: Trade proves Beane, Bills want to win now

Jerry Sullivan

On the day he traded Sammy Watkins in August, Bills general manager Brandon Beane grew defiant when it was suggested that he was tanking the season. He said that anyone who knew him as a competitor realized he would never throw in the towel — not on a season, a pingpong game, anything.

"I'm always going to try to win today and win tomorrow," Beane said that day.

He seemed to be playing it both ways. It was easy to be skeptical. But those words rang true again just minutes before the trade deadline Tuesday when Beane acquired wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from his former team, the Panthers, for a third- and seventh-round pick in next year's draft.

As it turned out, the Bills were ready to win now. They're one of the surprises of the early season. On Thursday at the Jets, they'll look to get to 6-2 for the first time since 1993. The NFL is wide open.

Seeing a chance to end the 17-year playoff drought in his first year as a GM, Beane went for it. He's not fooling around. This makes seven trades since he took over as GM in May. It came four days after he sent the troubled Marcell Dareus to Jacksonville for a sixth-round pick.

As a seasoned skeptic, of course, I have questions. Why would the Panthers, who are 5-3 and a half-game out of first place in the NFC South, trade Benjamin, who's eighth in the NFC with 475 receiving yards?

Two days earlier, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton called Benjamin a great teammate after throwing him a TD pass in a win at Tampa Bay. There are always questions when a team gives up on a player, especially one with a superstar quarterback who doesn't have the most capable receiving group.

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Maybe it's because Benjamin showed up to off-season workouts out of shape, or that he hasn't been the most reliable target since the Panthers took him 28th overall in the 2014 draft, the receiver-rich draft in which the Bills gave two firsts to take Sammy Watkins.

Benjamin, 26, missed the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL. He recently left a game after tweaking his knee and there was talk that he left a practice after being frustrated by problems with the knee. He's also grieving the death of his mother this past summer.

Whatever the case, it's evident that the Panthers didn't feel Benjamin, who has an $8.5 million price tag next season, was worth the big money, much as the Bills felt when they moved on from Watkins and Marcell Dareus.

But it's worth the risk for a Bills team that is making a surprise playoff run despite an extremely limited group of wideouts. A team that was thought to be tanking is tied for the fewest losses in the AFC with the Pats, Chiefs and Steelers — the top three seeds in last year's conference playoffs. Beane clearly felt he needed to get better.


"I was looking at any area that would help us," Beane said early Tuesday evening. "Receiver was one of the highlighted areas. But any position that would have helped us and made sense for us to win today and win tomorrow, we would have made the move."

There's that "win today and win tomorrow" credo again. The question isn't whether Benjamin is worth the $8.5 million next season. It's whether he's better right now than Zay Jones, who has been over his head as a top two wide receiver in his rookie season.

Bills make last-second trade for Panthers receiver Kelvin Benjamin

When healthy, the 6-5 Benjamin is a legitimate No. 1 wideout. He had 73 catches for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie; 63 grabs for 941 yards and seven TDs in 2016, and 32 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. All the Bills wideouts have 594 yards combined this season.

Benjamin sometimes struggles to get open, and he has caught only slightly more than 50 percent of his targets as a pro. But he makes some big catches and has an impressive 14.4 yards per catch average in the NFL.

"He has size and experience," Beane said. "Excellent hands. When he's covered, he's still open. If you watch a lot of his catches, he's not a speed guy, but this guy is 6-5 plus, 240. So he's bigger than most. He'll win the contested balls and he's a very strong player."

He makes them better in the short term. This is a team that signed Deonte Thompson on a Monday and had him lead them in yards six days later. That's why you stockpile picks, so you have the assets to make this kind of move. A third-rounder is valuable currency, but the Bills had six picks in the first three rounds of the next draft, so they could afford to take a stab at a top wideout.

Beane and coach Sean McDermott came from Carolina. Presumably, they know about Benjamin's shortcomings and that he's not a sure thing. But they also recognize that he's a good teammate. Otherwise, it's hard to imagine them bringing someone into a tight locker room.

"I can't speak on if he's been inconsistent, or what's going on with him this year," Beane said. "But I know who the person is and I know the guys in the locker room will like him."

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The Bills have a powerful internal chemistry right now. Players talk about liking and rooting for each other. The locker room is filled with players who have been underestimated. But they want to win, and this move should send a message that management wants to help that happen.

"Well, it probably saves me from getting my tail kicked walking in there," Beane said. "Those guys are probably getting tired of me moving guys and not bringing anything in. You're always looking for the right time. We're always looking to add, but timing has to be right, and the timing was right for Kelvin."

They can part ways with Benjamin after the season if it doesn't work out. His deal is only guaranteed for injury, so he doesn't have to cost them much. If he plays well and helps the Bills reach the playoffs, this will go down as a brilliant move.

Maybe Beane didn't expect the Bills to be this good, but he said on the day he moved Watkins that you can win now while building for the future. Now has arrived. On Wednesday, they'll welcome their new teammate, then try to win on Thursday.

This remarkable season just got a lot more interesting.

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