The Bills season has seemingly hinged on the production and health of Sammy Watkins since he was drafted in 2014. In that 2014 draft class, the Bills decided on the wide receiver from Clemson with the 4th overall pick over other top receivers such as Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. The Bills even traded up in the draft to select Watkins. Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride between Bills fans, ownership, coaching and Watkins.
In his rookie season, Watkins looked to be all Bills fans had dreamed of, playing in all 16 games, catching 65 balls and racking up 982 yards. Then, in 2015, the injury bug started. In October 2015, Watkins sprained his ankle, but he only missed three weeks and was back by November. The 2015 season was still a very productive one for Watkins, where he racked up 1,047 yards in 13 games, giving good production in the number one receiver role.
The news then broke in April of 2016 that Watkins had a broken foot and would require surgery. In addition to the broken foot, it came out that Watkins had been battling rib, groin, hip, glute, hamstring and calf injuries during his still young career. In 2016, Watkins missed half of the team’s games. 2017 was a year in which the Bills were hopeful Watkins would finally be able to stay on the field and produce like the number 4 overall pick that he is.
Sammy Watkins is not the only player looking to finally make that next step into greatness. Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor also has something to prove. To most, Taylor is a middle of the road NFL quarterback, seen as more of a filler as the Bills wait to acquire a franchise quarterback. As a starter in Buffalo the past two seasons, Taylor threw for just over 3,000 yards a year, rushed for around 500 yards and had a 68 QBR. His elusiveness and ability to throw on the run excites fans, whereas his inaccuracy at times can be frustrating. However, Taylor has said he loves playing for Buffalo, and even restructured his contract in order to stay with the Bills.
Taylor has become a fan favorite to many with his outgoing personality and his ability to lead. To the higher ups in the organization, Taylor is more of a filler, as his recontructed contract shows. Taylor is under contract until the end of next season. 2017 was to be the year to make or break Taylor, and the Bills attempted to surround him with talent by acquiring vetran wideout Anquan Boldin and drafting electric receiver Zay Jones out of ECU. Rod Streater and Walt Powell provide speed in the slot. And, of course, it looked as if Taylor would have a healthy Sammy Watkins to throw to. Tyrod Taylor was set up to finally have a break through year.
Last Thursday night in front of the hometown fans at New Era Field, Bills fans saw what looked to be a connection that was finally coming together. In just a quarter together, Tyrod Taylor found Sammy Watkins 4 times, and Watkins racked up 39 yards. It looked as if the two were comfortable with each other and Taylor was happy to have his number one target back on the field.
Then, just a day after the Bills preseason opener, the news broke. The Bills had sent WR Sammy Watkins to the Rams for CB EJ Gaines and a 2018 2nd round pick. In addition, the Bills sent CB Ronald Darby to the Eagles for WR Jordan Matthews and a 2018 3rd round pick. This lead to outcry from one of the NFL’s best fan bases in Buffalo. Bills Mafia was stunned. After the initial shock wore off, I took a second as a lifelong, diehard Bills fan to step back and analyze. What did this trade really mean for the future of the Buffalo Bills?
First of all, let’s remember that this was going to be Sammy Watkins’ last year in a Bills uniform. The Bills were not picking up the 2018 option of Watkins’ contract. Jordan Matthews has actually had a more healthy and more productive in his early career than Watkins. Matthews and Watkins were both drafted in 2014 and since then Matthews has 200 more receiving yards and 2 more touchdowns than Watkins. Matthews has also only missed 2 career games. Also, Matthews is more likely to resign a long term deal with the Bills. In 2018, the Bills have 6 draft picks in the first 3 rounds, perfect for a rebuild. Although it may seem like it, the Bills are not tanking. The passing game ranked almost dead last in the NFL last season, whereas the rushing game was best in the league. Lesean McCoy will still be productive, and Jonathan Williams and newly acquired Mike Tolbert provide even more production in the run game. The Bills defense has been above average and even towards the top of the NFL over the last 5 seasons. All in all, the Bills record does not significantly change with the loss of Watkins, and the 2 AFC wild card spots are as open as ever.
Where does this leave Tyrod Taylor? As the title of this article states, the Bills have set up Tyrod Taylor for failure. After taking away his number 1 receiver and replacing him with a player that does not yet know the system, the Bills passing offense is in trouble. It came out the other day that Jordan Matthews has a chip fracture in his sternum and is considered week-to-week. This could even land him as unavailable for Week One, as it is hard to learn a new playbook and offensive system without being on the practice field. This leaves Zay Jones, a rookie, and Anquan Boldin, a 36 year old veteran, to carry a passing offense that hasn’t been good for quite some time. In addition to troubles at receiver, Bills rookie quarterback Nate Peterman out of Pitt has created quite the stir in training camp, jumping TJ Yates as the Bills number 2 option after going 13 of 25 with 112 yards and a touchdown in the Bills preseason opener against Minnesota. If Tyrod Taylor struggles early, the cry for Peterman to become Buffalo’s savior will get louder. With a front office that is already seemingly wary about the future of Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo, Taylor may feel pressured to step up his production. The lack of weapons around him, however, may prevent him from doing this. Optimistically, if Taylor can play within himself and the system, the 28 year old is more than capable of possibly ending the longest playoff drought in professional sports.
(picture credit: rotoviz.com)
Luke Owens is a freshman at Oswego State in the broadcasting program. He hopes to one day host his own TV and radio shows, while also announcing games. He roots for the Yankees, Bills, Magic, Sabres and Syracuse. Follow him on Twitter @LuketheKid3 and be sure to check out his podcast, Off the Wall with Luke Owens on Soundcloud.