Bills Have Mishandled Sammy Watkins and Can't Escape Embarrassment in 2017

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMay 5, 2017

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (14) looks on from the bench during the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Jets, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Embarrassment is a strong word in the language of sports. Broadly, it means expectations were high and the result was depressingly low. That about sums up the last 18 years of Buffalo Bills football.

But it both does and doesn't describe Sammy Watkins' career. The wide receiver's time with the Bills has been more complicated and nuanced than it seems, and Watkins is entering what could be his final year with a team that gave up significant draft capital to acquire him in 2014.

When the Bills declined to pick up Watkins' fifth-year option, they dared him to have a healthy and explosive 2017 season. If he does that, the Bills could be spared from humiliation in the standings and then red-faced as the cost to retain Watkins escalates. Or worse, he could leave and further decimate an already weak wide receiver depth chart.

The decision to pass on adding a fifth year to Watkins' contract was based on his lengthy medical history. Watkins has battled chronic foot problems and is recovering from his second surgery to alleviate lingering issues. He's missed 11 games over the past two seasons, and as Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News reported, the Bills weren't comfortable signing off on the fifth-year option with Watkins still injured.

Their hesitation is understandable, but only to a point. The fifth-year options available to first-round picks since 2011 are guaranteed for injury only. That makes agreeing to it now the weakest kind of commitment. The Bills are only locked into a contract they don't want and forced to pay Watkins $13.3 million if he fails a physical in March 2018.

There is risk tied to the fifth-year option, then, but it's mild. So mild that, generally speaking, a player who's declined his option needs to have entered a depressing career spiral in only three years. He needs to be more than just injury prone, though that certainly doesn't help his cause.

He needs to be simply awful. His skill level and production need to have sunk low enough that any injury risk at all is difficult to justify. The Jacksonville Jaguars should have reached that point with quarterback Blake Bortles.

But the Bills should have been far from it with Watkins. Even if he saves the franchise from both its playoff and draft-decision embarrassments in 2017, those efforts will come at a cost. As ESPN's Adam Schefter noted, the ultimate cost would be losing Watkins entirely.

The Bills have the option to place the franchise tag on Watkins if he performs well. But in 2017, the tag for wide receivers cost $15.7 million, meaning it'll likely rise to the $16 million to $17 million range for the 2018 league year.

The difference of about $3 million between the estimated franchise-tag cost and the price attached to a fifth-year option may not seem like much at first. But every dollar is precious entering free agency, especially for the Bills, a team likely to be only just above league average in 2018 with their available cap space.

The Bills are projected to have $32.6 million in cap room, according to Spotrac, which means franchising Watkins would gobble up about half of their free-agency spending money.

They've backed themselves into a situation where if they win on the field because of Watkins, they still end up losing away from it. And even with his brittle nature, that outcome isn't hard to imagine.

Yes, Watkins has missed plenty of game time and often been hobbled and not at his best when suited up. But although it seems like a foggy and distant memory, he has gone through long stretches of health too. And during those times, he's looked like a fourth overall pick.

That's where Watkins was selected in 2014. Then during his rookie season, his body stayed in one piece for all 16 games, and the result was finishing just shy of 1,000 receiving yards. Watkins didn't need much time to adapt to a much higher level of competition, and during just his second NFL game, he went off for 117 yards on eight catches with a touchdown.

That was one of his four 100-plus-yard games as a rookie, highlighted by 157 yards on only three receptions against the New York Jets. He knocked on the door of a breakout early and then busted it down in 2015. Any cold sweats and fears about committing to Watkins because he's too breakable should fade away fast when you remember he's only one year removed from 1,047 yards on 60 receptions, an average of 17.5 yards per catch.

Watkins soared in 2015 even while dealing with injuries. He missed three games and was only physically present for a few others. The true Watkins wasn't seen until Week 9. Then, during the nine-game stretch that followed, he still erupted for seven touchdowns and three games with 130-plus receiving yards.

No one should have any questions about Watkins' ability. That includes the decision-makers in Buffalo, a group evidently led by rookie head coach Sean McDermott after Doug Whaley was relieved from his duties as general manager.

Any lingering questions are finally put to rest by comparing what Watkins did over his first two seasons to the other top names in the 2014 wide receiver draft class.

2014 WR rookie class in their first two seasons
Wide receiverReceptionsYards
Odell Beckham Jr.1872,755
Mike Evans1422,257
Sammy Watkins1252,029
Brandin Cooks1371,688
Source: Pro Football Reference

Listed there are the top first-round wide receivers selected in the 2014 draft, with the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin excluded because he missed the 2015 season due to an ACL tear.

As always, the New York Giants' Odell Beckham Jr. occupies his own tier. But staying right in step with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Evans is impressive, especially when Watkins recorded only 147 receiving yards over the first seven games of 2015.

So the healthy version of Watkins has proved himself to be a formidable downfield force. The Bills badly need that Watkins to show up in 2017, because without him, they risk unseating the Cleveland Browns as the league's most misery-filled franchise.

Sure, having running back LeSean McCoy and a solid run-blocking offensive line in front of him is great. But that alone isn't enough to lift the Bills from mediocrity. They finished with a 7-9 record in 2016, and even a league-best rushing offense that averaged 164.4 yards per game—nearly 15 yards more than any other team—couldn't save them from that bland record and the 17th straight season without playoff football in Buffalo.

That's right: People born during the Bills' last playoff year are finishing high school and heading off to college in the fall. Oh, and also, Buffalo's last postseason berth came when the song of the summer was a little too on the nose and we were all starting to worry about a computer glitch bringing the world to an end.

The Bills need a dynamic, multifaceted offense, and Watkins at his peak can take the burden off of McCoy's shoulders. Leaning heavily on a soon-to-be 29-year-old running back with 2,280 career touches is always a dance with danger. And when Watkins is paired with Zay Jones—the Bills' second-round pick who exploded for 1,746 yards in 2017 for East Carolina—the ceiling is raised for the offense, even with quarterback Tyrod Taylor and his inconsistent play.

But if Watkins succeeds, then the Bills' management of his contract fails. And if Watkins fails, then the Bills flounder too, in more ways than one.

Buffalo traded up to secure Watkins in a 2014 draft loaded with talent at the wide receiver position. They jumped from the No. 9 pick to No. 4 and in the process sacrificed their first- and fourth-round picks in 2015.

Paying that trade price always stings, and the hurt cuts deeper because of the players the Bills could have had if they weren't needlessly aggressive. Beckham was still on the board at their original ninth overall pick, and so was Brandin Cooks.

Alternatively, they could have taken one of the other top-end talents available, like defensive tackle Aaron Donald or linebacker Ryan Shazier and then still picked up Allen Robinson or Jarvis Landry in the second round to address their wide receiver need.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 08:  Sammy Watkins of the Clemson Tigers poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after he was picked #4 overall by the Buffalo Bills during the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on May 8, 2014 in New York City
Elsa/Getty Images

A draft mistake on that level becomes a hovering embarrassment, one the fanbase surely won’t soon forget, even with Whaley gone. And having so much promise walk away will be even harder to stomach. As Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News noted, history shows Watkins is likely gone.

There were 96 first-round picks made between 2011 and 2013. Of those picks, only four players had their fifth-year options declined and then re-signed with their teams, Skurski observed.

There's usually an obvious and simple reason for that: poor production and a lack of talent.

Watkins doesn't have either of those problems. He has one with injuries, but there's every reason to believe that if the former Clemson star stays healthy, opposing secondaries will be lit up once again.

If that happens, a mismanaged situation will lead to the Bills winning in the short term but Watkins winning in the long term. Or if he's broken again in 2017, the Bills will be left with the stain of three wasted recent draft picks.

Either way, the Bills lose, which is a feeling they're quite familiar with.

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