The Buffalo Bills trade up for Sammy Watkins makes for a compelling debate comprised of many storylines.
Was the star Clemson WR worth it? Did the Bills give up too much? Would Mike Evans have been a better option? How about Odell Beckham Jr.? Should GM Doug Whaley and Co. have remained at No. 9 overall to take the LSU standout? Was the aggressive ascension precipitated by the pressure Buffalo’s front office feels to “win now” with new ownership on the horizon? Is Watkins the wideout who’ll aid EJ Manuel’s development and be the final piece that gets the Bills back to the playoffs, somewhere they haven’t been since this millennium was just eight days old?
Instead of a bland, ranty opinion column, I’ve attempted to get creative.
The examination of this draft-day trade has been constructed so it covers all the bases and reads how YOU want it to. That’s right. I’m catering to you. Following scrolling directions is all this piece will ask of you outside of normal comprehension responsibilities.
First, let’s look at a visual of the trade:
2014 No. 4 overall pick – WR Sammy Watkins
2014 No. 9 overall pick – used in trade to select CB Justin Gilbert
Bills 2015 1st-round pick
Bills 2015 4th-round pick
Begin your journey here:
- If it seems logical to you that the Bills would make a bold move to get their young quarterback, EJ Manuel, a dynamic weapon…skip to SECTION A.
- If you believe a team should only give up a future 1st-round pick for a generational talent, and you don’t think Sammy Watkins is one, or, if you believe a team should never trade a future first-round pick…skip to SECTION B.
- If you aren’t totally sure how to feel yet but are leaning toward thinking there HAD to have been a smarter, more conservative way for the Bills to add a top-level WR while keeping their 2015 first-round pick…skip to SECTION C
- If you aren’t totally sure how to feel yet and want to read how the 2013 draft may have given the Bills the justification, comfort and confidence needed to surrender a 2015 first-round pick…skip to SECTION D
Reminder: No one’s stopping you from reading all the sections
The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs in 14 years, and they have a new, young GM — Doug Whaley. Although he said the following during an NFL Network interview last year “I was the person that handled the draft process and setting up the board,” the 2014 draft was his first draft officially as the Bills’ GM. After the passing of franchise founder and owner Ralph Wilson Jr. in March, Buffalo’s organization is in line to have new ownership relatively soon.
It’s not crazy to believe Whaley wanted to swing some trades in his first rodeo as the franchise’s shot-caller. It’s less crazy to believe he may think if his Bills don’t make the playoffs in 2014, the new owner will have the justification needed to fire him and bring in his own GM.
It’s quite possible Whaley feels his job is absolutely on the line this season, and that he’ll worry about 2015 in 2015.
Beyond that, as the No. 1 WR in this year’s class to many, Whaley and Co. certainly could have viewed Watkins as the prospect who will directly help Manuel and improve the offense to playoff caliber.
According to this Vox article, based on the economic principle of “risk diversification,” NFL teams should always trade down. Author Joseph Stromberg expounds on this theory much more thoroughly than I ever could, and it’s all backed by a legitimate academic study. I highly suggest you read it.
The piece states, essentially, that over the long run, all GMs will “miss” on draft picks more often than not. Therefore, accumulating as many picks as possible should be the top priority for everyone. The final subheading discusses a psychological bias known as the “overconfidence effect,” which, in this case, refers to instances when front office members become “overconfident” in their evaluation of a prospect.
That overconfidence then leads to the team parting ways with valuable draft equity in a trade up to secure that prospect, thereby not diversifying risk by acquiring extra selections. The opposite, actually.
I totally agree with the “risk diversification / trade down is best” concept. In fact, I’d call myself a major advocate of it. However, I can’t fault a GM for believing in his own evaluation skills enough to feel comfortable giving away picks to draft a specific player.
For as spot on as the “risk diversification” theory is, it undermines the entire scouting process. It asks GMs to be incredibly humble. You know, the men who have worked tirelessly their entire adult lives to ascend the scouting ranks to reach the pinnacle of their unfathomably competitive profession.
It asks them to remove any semblance of ego or confidence in their own scouting acumen and simply succumb to the reality that they’ll be wrong more than half the time, leaving them on a one-way street during the draft—trade down to acquire extra picks time and time again.
Relating this back to the Bills, in theory, Whaley made the incorrect decision trading up and surrendering Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2015 for Watkins. There’s really no debating that.
But I can’t crush him for believing in himself, believing that Watkins was special enough to trade up for. The same goes other teams that traded up in the past, especially Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, who famously vaulted all the way from No. 27 overall to No. 6 overall to take Julio Jones in 2011. Then again, outside of swapping first-round picks with the Cleveland Browns that year in the trade, Dimitroff agreed to deal his team’s second- and fourth-round picks as well as first- and fourth-round selections in 2012.
That’s much more than what Whaley relinquished.
At this point, no one—not me, not you, not Whaley—is sure Watkins will bust, be average or become the next Andre Reed in Buffalo, so a debate about the wideout’s NFL future would just go back and forth, and well, never end.
To finalize, you will never be wrong if you deem yourself a proponent of the “risk diversification / trade down is best” methodology in the NFL draft. And the Bills did not follow that methodology in the trade up for Watkins. Therefore, from that perspective, Buffalo made a bad move.
I’m just not sure it is realistic to expect GMs to adhere to that methodology while running a war room on draft day after years in the football scouting business.
The Bills didn’t have to be so aggressive in Round 1 to secure a stud receiver for Manuel, did they? If you’re here, you probably don’t think so. Odell Beckham Jr. ultimately was available all the way until pick No. 12, and he’s somewhat similar to Watkins.
Here’s how the two compared from a size and speed perspective at the combine:
Watkins - 6006 / 211 pounds, 4.43 40-yard dash
Beckham - 5112 / 198 pounds 4.43 40-yard dash
Beckham’s vertical was nearly five-inches better than Watkins’, and he had faster three-cone and short-shuttle times.
The LSU star wasn’t as productive over his career, but his hands may even be stronger, and he operated in a much more “traditional” offense in Baton Rouge.
Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News, who’s covered the Bills for 20+ years, tweeted this after the Bills moved up to snag Sammy:
“Gotta love Watkins, and this may be a 500-foot HR for Bills. All considered, tho, I’d rather have Odell Beckham and the 2015 No. 1.”
It’s hard to disagree with that logic, especially from a typical team-building viewpoint.
Another possibility was Mike Evans, who eventually was drafted No. 7 overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At nearly 6’5″ and 231 pounds with tentacle-like 35 1/8-inch arms, 4.53 speed and a 37-inch vertical, he’ll enter the NFL with “QUARTERBACK’S BEST FRIEND” written on the back of his jersey.
The Bills were in position to take him after the trade up, but passed on him for Watkins.
Evans vs. Watkins was, arguably, the most fiercely debated topic among draftniks and analysts over the past several months. Due to his inherent size and vast experience winning “jump ball” situations, I had the Texas A&M standout as my No. 1 WR, with Watkins behind him at No. 2 by a narrow margin. Evans had many more opportunities to make contested catches, and he came down with more of them than Watkins did in college.
I’ll summarize by writing this: Watkins is an exquisite fit for the Bills’ offensive scheme / philosophy—West Coast-based, some up-tempo spread / packaged plays, emphasis on speed at WR—but Evans is the type of WR they’re missing, unless they truly believe Mike Williams will be their big, “go-up-and-get it” pass-catcher.
Not having a first-round pick in 2015 isn’t an encouraging development for a young Bills team—and wouldn’t be for any team, actually—but here’s my theory regarding why Buffalo’s front office may have felt confident, comfortable and justified trading up for Watkins and surrendering that early pick next year.
In the 2013 draft, the Bills traded down from No. 8 overall to No. 16 overall with the St. Louis Rams. The deal provided Whaley and Co. the ability to draft quarterback EJ Manuel in the middle of Round 1 and gave them the Rams’ second-round pick, No. 46 overall.
With St. Louis’ selection, after Buffalo nabbed Robert Woods with their original second-round pick, the Bills drafted LB Kiko Alonso.
Quite the addition with a “bonus” selection, right?
In any 2013 re-draft today, Alonso would assuredly be a first-round pick.
Therefore, the Bills may feel like they were already “up” a first-round choice heading into the 2014 draft.
Sure, staying “up” an early draft pick would have been ideal, but after trading away the first in 2015, the Bills are, in essence, back to “even.”
Could the Bills envision the following players as their 2013 – 2015 first- and-second-round selections?
- EJ Manuel, Kiko Alonso, Sammy Watkins
- Robert Woods, Cyrus Kounadjio, 2015 2nd-rounder
No, the Alonso and Watkins trades didn’t intersect in regards to compensation, but they certainly could have had impact on each other.
How do you feel about Buffalo’s trade up to select Sammy Watkins now? Any different? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @ChrisTrapasso.