The NBA is no longer the only place sports fans go for mind-bending summer trades. The Bills' decision Friday to jettison talented young starsSammy Watkins and Ronald Darby to the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively, proved again that NFL teams can get creative trading assets in this supersized salary cap era.
This is not a hot take column ready to slam the Bills, Eagles or Rams. The three-way deal that technically wasn't a three-way deal can be a win-win-win for all sides. The Eagles and Rams greatly improved their biggest weaknesses without giving up too much. These weren't traditional "win-now" moves by Philadelphia or Buffalo because Darby has two years left on his rookie deal and Watkins, who turned 24 in June, could be retained by the franchise tag in 2018 if the Rams can't reach a long-term deal with him.
The Bills are taking the biggest risk because talented young players are hard to find, and the 2017 Buffalo squad is now worse. Acquiring receiver Jordan Matthews from Philadelphia and cornerback E.J. Gaines from the Rams allows the Bills to tell fans they aren't giving up on this season, but this move is all about the future for a team in transition. Bills general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott didn't see Watkins or Darby as long-term fits and now look to the 2018 draft as the key moment to remake the organization in their image.
There's a lot to get into, so let's break down all the winners and losers of the trades below:
Jared Goff, Rams quarterback: The most striking takeaway from visiting Rams training camp was the team's lack of deep speed. The first week of camp was partly defined by a lack of big plays, with Robert Woods the closest thing the Rams had to a vertical receiver. That's not Woods' strength, and the acquisition of Watkins will allow Woods to do what he does best as a possession "X" receiver while Watkins tries to take the top off defenses deep.
General manager Howie Roseman knew that a top cornerback trio of Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson and Ron Brooks would struggle to hold up over the course of the season. The Eagles have struggled to draft difference-making cornerbacks for years, and Darby is a proven commodity. Pro Football Focus' Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2015, Darby is an incredible value with only $1.3 million combined due over the next two seasons. To put it another way: Darby outplayed Stephon Gilmore for two straight seasons, and Gilmore earned the highest guarantees of any free agent this year.
Nelson Agholor and Daniel Jeremiah: The trade especially made sense for the Eagles because they were able to fill a major position of need by giving up a guy who already appeared to be the odd man out of a revamped receiving corps. Agholor, the team's first-round pick in 2015, was poised to take much of Matthews' work in the slot. The Eagles also have seen youngsters Mack Hollins and Marcus Johnson emerge in camp.
NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah foresaw something like this happening when he predicted last week that Agholor was going to take over the slot position in Philadelphia, leaving Matthews with an uncertain future. Matthews hit out against Jeremiah after that take, but it turned out DJ knew what he was talking about.
Buffalo's 2018 draft class: This trade was a tacit admission by the Bills that 2017 is a transition year. They downgraded at receiver and cornerback while picking up a second-round pick from the Rams and a third-round pick from the Eagles next season. Combine those picks with the first-round selection acquired from the Chiefs when they traded up to select Patrick Mahomes, and the Bills have six picks in the first three rounds of next year's draft.
Kayvon Webster, Rams cornerback:Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips told me at training camp that he liked his cornerback group more than outside observers, noting it is deeper than people think. This trade spoke to that confidence. E.J. Gaines was competing to start in L.A. and will likely start for the Bills.
Gaines' removal from the Rams opens up the starting job for Kayvon Webster, a little-known former Broncos cornerback who Phillips made sure to bring with him to the West Coast. Phillips believes Webster has matured as a pro and is ready to make a big impact after shining in limited work behind the best cornerback trio in football in Denver.
Bills fans: The plan is always changing. Beane and McDermott should not be punished for the sins of former Bills leaders, but that doesn't make it any easier for a loyal fanbase that is always believing the best in this organization without getting much return. The team gave up two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to acquire Watkins back in 2014, and now he was dealt for pennies on the dollar.
Darby looked like the next big thing in Buffalo under Rex Ryan in 2015, and now both men are out of town. It's hard to blame Bills fans for growing tired of buying jerseys or buying sales jobs from new regimes. It's up to Beane and McDermott to prove they are different.
Tyrod Taylor, Bills quarterback: Already in a difficult "prove-it" year with this new staff, Taylor just lost his only real deep threat. Matthews and recent free-agent pickup Anquan Boldin are best out of the slot. Rookie Zay Jones is more of a possession receiver type. It's hard to imagine this passing game having a lot of cohesion early in the season, and now the Bills front office has a lot of draft ammunition to find its quarterback of the future in 2018.
Tavon Austin, Rams receiver:Paid like a No. 1 receiver, Austin now appears relegated to a No. 4 job with the occasional end around or trick play mixed in. That's probably the role he's suited for, but the team's insistence this offseason that Austin could turn into a deep threat now sounds like wishful thinking. He has barely practiced this offseason following wrist surgery and a training camp hamstring pull, which may have pushed the Rams to make this move. Austin doesn't make for a logical trade candidate because no team will want his contract, which has no guarantees after 2017.
Rams' future salary cap space: It's hard to imagine Austin with the Rams next season, in large part because general manager Les Snead is going to need to find cap space. The team already is strapped with commitments and needs to fit in a contract for holdout defensive tackle Aaron Donald and presumably a massive contract for new No. 1 wideout Sammy Watkins. The agent for Watkins knows he has great leverage in talks with the Rams, because the team does not want to give up such a high-draft pick on a one-year rental for a player.
Already short on draft picks because of the trade to acquire Jared Goff, dealing away a valuable second-round pick reduces the Rams' flexibility next year. The Rams will be highly motivated to make this Watkins acquisition work, with the honeymoon period in Los Angeles for coach Sean McVay and Goff growing ever shorter. This is a trade intended to help the Rams make noise starting now.