At Clemson, Sammy Watkins was such a sure-thing prospect that he probably would have been a high first-round pick after his freshman year, if not for the NFL’s rule requiring players to be three years out of high school before they can be drafted. When he finally was eligible in 2014, the Bills were so eager to draft him that they traded two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick to move up and get him.
That was a mistake, as it usually is when teams trade up. The draft is just too unpredictable to justify pouring those kinds of resources into any one prospect. The smarter move is to acquire a lot of picks and hope that at least some of them pan out.
When the Bills announced this week that they would not pick up Watkins’ fifth-year option, they were essentially admitting that the move up for Watkins was a mistake. And it was a particularly costly mistake because the Bills probably would have ended up with a better player than Watkins if they had just stayed put at No. 9, rather than moving up to No. 4 to take Watkins: Still on the board at No. 9 was Odell Beckham, who has proven to be a much better receiver than Watkins, not to mention Pro Bowlers Anthony Barr, Taylor Lewan, Aaron Donald, Ryan Shazier, Zack Martin and C.J. Mosley, all of whom went off the board between Pick 9 and Pick 17.
If the Bills didn’t want Beckham for whatever reason, they could have drafted one of those other Pro Bowlers with the ninth overall pick and used their second-round pick to take Allen Robinson or Jarvis Landry, second-round receivers from the 2014 draft who have both out-performed Watkins through the first three seasons of their careers.
If you’re going to give up two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick for one player, you’d better be absolutely certain that one player is going to be far better than the players you could get with the picks you gave up. And in reality, no team is ever absolutely certain. Absolute certainty just isn’t available in the NFL draft.
This isn’t hindsight; I tweeted on draft night in 2014 that the Bills gave up too much for Watkins. That’s not a knock on Watkins, who was a great receiver at Clemson. It’s just the simple reality that trading up in the NFL draft is a big risk, one that usually doesn’t pay off.