Bills decline fifth-year option on Sammy Watkins, making him free agent after season

The Buffalo Bills have declined the fifth-year option on wide receiver Sammy Watkins’ contract, which means he will become a free agent following the 2017 season.

New head coach Sean McDermott weighed in on the decision on Tuesday:

The Bills dragged their feet on the pending decision for a few reasons. One, clearly the team was in flux following the post-draft ouster of general manager Doug Whaley. And two, the team wanted as much updated information on Watkins following offseason foot surgery. Wednesday would have been the deadline to decide whether to exercise the $13.258 million contract for 2018, which they ultimately decided to pass on.

The Buffalo Bills declined the fifth-year option on Sammy Watkins, making him a free agent in 2018. (AP)

Since the Bills’ traded up for Watkins in the 2014 NFL draft — Whaley’s first running the show — the receiver has been a disappointment. Watkins has flashed big-time ability in spots and appeared to be on the verge of a breakout in 2015, but he has missed a combined 11 games the past two seasons.

The Bills drafted wide receiver Zay Jones in Round 2 of the NFL draft last weekend, trading a third-round pick to move up and select him. McDermott would not say that Jones will win a starting job right away, but the thinking is that he can be a good complement to Watkins (if healthy) next season and possible insurance if Watkins walks in free agency in 2018.

Watkins, who turns 24 in June, now has the ball in his court. If he finally produces to a level that’s commensurate with his ability — and most importantly, stays on the field — he could put himself in a position to cash in.

But so far, the trade is a reminder that moving up in Round 1 to target a specific star prospect isn’t always a great plan of action. The Bills sent the ninth overall selection in 2014, plus first- and fourth-rounders in 2015, to the Cleveland Browns for the fourth overall pick, which they used on Watkins. That ninth selection turned into Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, and two elite stars — New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald — were taken with the 12th and 13th picks, respectively.

Of the 32 first-round picks from that year, 23 of them have had their fifth-year options picked up. Six — Watkins, Greg Robinson, Kyle Fuller, Marcus Smith, Calvin Pryor and Teddy Bridgewater — did not have their options exercised. Three others, both Cleveland Browns first-rounders (Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel) and the New England Patriots’ Dominique Easley, have been released by their original teams.

In 37 NFL games over three seasons, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins has caught 153 passes for 2,459 yards and 17 TDs. Watkins got hurt initially in Week 2 last season and missed an eight-game stretch before returning in Week 12 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins, Watkins caught seven passes for 154 yards and a touchdown.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!