The first move the Buffalo Bills made on Friday night was to add East Carolina wide receiver Zay Jones. Moments later, the Bills are now believed to be considering giving up the option they left themselves when they took Sammy Watkins in the first round in 2014.
According to Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News, the Bills are now "unlikely" to pick up the fifth-year option on the rookie deal of Watkins by the NFL deadline of May 2. Watkins is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract with the Bills, and if not picked up, will become an unrestricted free agent in March of 2018 if he isn't re-signed or given the franchise or transition tag.
The reason, according to the report, is that the Bills do not want to commit to Watkins while he is rehabbing from foot surgery. It's the second straight offseason that Watkins has required a procedure to heal the injury in his foot.
The wide receiver missed half of the team's games in 2016 and was hampered by the foot injury all season long. Watkins turns 24 in June.
Joe B's Take
Though the Bills haven't made the official decision on Watkins just yet, the move to not pick up his option would be perplexing, to say the least.
Watkins has had the majority of his three-year NFL career defined by injuries to this point, but there is no denying how naturally talented a player that he is -- even when he isn't at 100-percent. If they do not pick up his fifth-year option, that means the Bills' only option to guarantee that he returns -- without re-signing him to a new deal -- would be to place the franchise or transition tag on him.
His fifth-year option would cost the Bills roughly around $13 million, whereas the franchise tag will likely cost somewhere around $17 million. The Bills would also have the option to walk away from the fifth-year option at any point before the start of the new league year in March of 2018.
By declining that option, they are essentially freeing themselves of worry that the fifth-year option becomes guaranteed in the event of yet another serious injury -- which would be the only way they'd have to stay tied to it.
Given how talented he is, that's a dangerous decision by the Bills that can cost them both money against the cap, and the risk of potentially upsetting a player that is the top receiver on the roster by quite a bit. It also removes one possible year they can guarantee themselves to have him under contract, before having to either let him hit free agency or giving him a newly negotiated extension.
The potential for a huge impact on this year's offense is still a great one, which is why I don't agree with the Bills decision to not keep him on the fifth-year option. Is it a risk by picking up the option if the foot is irreparable and he's not the same? It is.
However, I think it's an even bigger risk to potentially let one of their most naturally talented players be able to potentially hit the free agent market one year earlier in the height of his prime. Of all McDermott's moves this offseason, this is really the only one that I have disagreed with.
If they do not pick up the fifth-year option, I don't believe you'll be able to find a stronger example from this offseason that it is, indeed, Sean McDermott's show at One Bills Drive.
The decision to trade up, give an additional first-round pick, and select Watkins at fourth overall was a position-defining move by general manager Doug Whaley. Count this as an educated speculation, but Watkins is his guy, and you'd have to think if it was his call, Watkins would be getting that fifth-year option -- even with all the questions that surround the wide receiver.