This past week, Yahoo Sports ran its “Week of Woe” as a means to “look at the pitfalls of coaching and playing for a team — as well as rooting for it.”
Buffalo Bills: Trading up for Sammy Watkins
The 2014 NFL Draft was awesome. It wasn’t so great for the Bills. They traded up to the fourth pick, sending the ninth pick as well as first- and fourth-round selections in 2015, to the Browns. The Bills took Sammy Watkins, who was a bust. Khalil Mack, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans were picked in the next three selections. If the Bills had stayed at No. 9, they basically couldn’t have done worse than Watkins.
Here are the Pro Bowl players picked between Nos. 9 and 17 that year: Anthony Barr, Eric Ebron, Taylor Lewan, Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, Kyle Fuller, Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin and C.J. Mosley. It’s amazing to think that the Bills paid up to move to No. 4 and somehow missed 12 future Pro Bowlers with the pick, including some future Hall of Famers.
Yes, history taught us that the Bills’ decision to trade up for Sammy Watkins didn’t work out well for the team. But is that the franchise’s biggest mistake? Hardly.
Watkins was a productive, if injured, WR1 for the Buffalo Bills. Starting 37 of 37 games played for the Bills, Watkins put up the following stat line:
153 catches on 276 targets for 2,459 yards (16.1 ypr), 17 TDs, 109 first-down catches
While true that his receptions-per-game average of 4.1 and yards-per-game average of 66.5 yards don’t tell the story of a truly dominant WR1, Watkins was a force on the field. The biggest immediate knock on Watkins? He wasn’t Khalil Mack. When general manager Doug Whaley traded up, most thought Mack was the choice. But the Bills needed a WR1 after losing Stevie Johnson. In Watkins, One Bills Drive sought to aid quarterback EJ Manuel’s development by adding a dynamic top receiver to pair with Robert Woods. In reality, Manuel started four games during Watkins’ rookie season, before ceding the job to one fresh-off-his-couch Kyle Orton.
So back to that idea about Sammy Watkins being the franchise’s biggest mistake...
Does Watkins surpass even Manuel, due to the trade up and loss of future premium picks? Manuel, you may recall, was selected by general manager Buddy Nix after trading down eight spots and picking up extra draft capital. Are draft picks more important to this equation than considering missteps at the most important position? But this conversation doesn’t end (and really shouldn’t even begin with Manuel, or Watkins).
Just looking at quarterbacks who’ve played for the Bills, consider what happened when the team signed Rob Johnson. And Doug Flutie. Tyler Dunne’s long-form on Rob Johnson is a must-read. Books have been written about this subject, and the meddling involved that resulted in Rob Johnson “earning” the starting job over Flutie. We’ll move on from the topic before I sidebar into writing my own novella about the saga.
Consider other first-round draft choices made before Sammy Watkins or EJ Manuel ever set foot in Orchard Park, NY:
- LB Tom Cousineau (1979)
- TE Tony Hunter (1983)
- RB Ronnie Harmon (1986)
- DE Erik Flowers (2000)
- OT Mike Williams (2002)
- DT John McCargo (2006)
- DE Aaron Maybin (2009)
- DT Marcell Dareus (2011)
Are any of those players worthy of the franchise’s biggest mistake? Not at least before considering some alternatives.
Consider “Wide Right,” and that final drive — the one that led to the Bills having to attempt a 47-yard field goal in hopes of winning their first Super Bowl. Or much earlier, on January 1, 1967 when Buffalo lost at home to (the admittedly better) Kansas City Chiefs, a chance to play in Super Bowl I on the line. Of course we could continue the single-game debate by adding in “Home Run Throwback” or “13 seconds.” But winning those games didn’t guarantee a trip to the Super Bowl.
There’s often enough of an argument to make for any number of head coaches. There were some really desolate times prior to Marv Levy — namely Harvey Johnson, John Rauch, Jim Ringo, Kay Stephenson, and Hank Bullough. It’s likely many fans today only recall Bills history post-Levy. That would make head coaches such as Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, and Doug Marrone prime targets if not for their records, then certainly the way their tenures played out and how their exits happened. But a lot has to happen for things to go right for any head coach. With so many uncontrolled variables, it’s often difficult (but not impossible) to lay full blame at their feet and say they’re worst decision by any professional team.
Perhaps, though, it’s something far more recent, something that could have single-handedly changed the course of NFL history. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Remember, in head coach Sean McDermott’s first year with the team, he traded with Andy Reid and the Chiefs. No, moving back to pick up draft capital and select cornerback Tre’Davious White is not a mistake, by and large. Consider the players they drafted as a result of the trade with Kansas City:
- Tre’Davious White (2017 Round 1, 27 overall)
- Zay Jones (2017 Round 2, 37 overall — via trade with Los Angeles Rams)
- Dion Dawkins (2017 Round 2, 63 overall — via trade with Atlanta Falcons)
- Tremaine Edmunds (2018 Round 1, 16 overall — via trade with Baltimore Ravens)
- Siran Neal (2018 Round 5, 154 overall
That said, allowing a conference rival — a significant mentor — to pull one over you and select a (then potential) franchise quarterback before you have the position set? It’s not a great memory for McDermott to reflect on. Things are made even worse when that player enters every discussion about the greatest NFL quarterback to ever play.
More bad news: Zay Jones was a bust in Buffalo, and he was an early second-round selection. And that 2018 first-round pick of the Chiefs (22 overall) was used to maneuver up the draft board for Tremaine Edmunds... who signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears this offseason.
When it comes to NFL quarterbacks, the microscope is more acutely focused. Mind you, this isn’t to debate whether Mahomes is better than Josh Allen. Most believe McDermott wasn’t ready to draft a quarterback in his first season, especially with what was viewed as a lame-duck general manager situation in Whaley. McDermott instead preferred to shore up his defense. He had his sights set on a shutdown corner, and he landed one — but at the expense of allowing another team to build toward greatness. There’s of course no way to know if Mahomes would have become the player he is today in a different system, especially one led by a defensive-minded head coach. There were plenty of pre-draft conversations and articles written about Mahomes, with many believing he carried both the most risk and reward — a raw prospect. Sound like another signal caller?
Josh Allen has himself turned into an incredible NFL quarterback, and general manager Brandon Beane as well Sean McDermott (and others within One Bills Drive) should be given due credit for seeing what few others noticed. They drafted Allen on a feeling, and after having a scant amount of time together before the NFL Draft. Allen’s set to re-write the franchise history books for years to come.
McDermott was the rookie head coach in charge when the Bills broke their 17-season playoff drought, and the team did so with Tyrod Taylor. So McDermott’s plan worked — perhaps ahead of schedule. But Taylor, while a decent enough player and tremendous person, didn’t represent the team’s long-term future at the position. In fact, McDermott and the front office cleared house prior to the 2018 season, sending Taylor to the Cleveland Browns for a third-round pick. One has to wonder if that was the plan all along, to move on from Taylor in year two. If so, was it because they knew they preferred the quarterbacks available in the 2018 draft?
It’s perhaps unfair to blame Sean McDermott for missing out on Mahomes. At least nine other teams had no idea what was in store for Mahomes. But it’s fair to wonder “what if” had the Bills not traded back with the Chiefs.
If I’m tasked with ranking the Buffalo Bills’ biggest mistakes, the moves made for and selection of wide receiver Sammy Watkins falls nowhere near the top. What would consider the Bills’ biggest, all-time mistake?