If you thought it was hard to pull off just a straight-up swap of players in the NFL between just two teams, how about this: On Friday, it was announced that the Bills made deals with both the Rams and Eagles, involving players and draft picks.
By the time the twister had settled, the Rams ended up with wide receiver Sammy Watkins and a sixth-round pick from Buffalo, the Eagles held the rights to cornerback Ronald Darby and the Bills had the most new pieces to work with by adding receiver Jordan Matthews, cornerback E.J. Gaines, a second-rounder from the Rams and a third-rounder from Philly.
The deals were announced before most people could even take a breath following the news of Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension by the NFL. That means that the Cowboys, a slight favorite in the NFC East, may be the favorites no longer, which opens the door just a little bit more for the Eagles. Philly's biggest weakness was potentially at corner, where it was set to start Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson. Now, Darby gets his chance to break out with a change of scenery. A 2015 second-round pick, Darby was PFF's Defensive Rookie of the Year that season, but he slumped a bit as a sophomore.
The move improves the Eagles' secondary, and the loss of Matthews is more than survivable, as they added Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith on one-year free-agent deals and still have Zach Ertz, Darren Sproles, Nelson Agholor, Paul Turner, Brent Celek and rookie Mack Hollins around to catch passes from Carson Wentz. Philly, maybe the best team last season to not make the playoffs, is definitely taking steps in the right direction.
Matthews makes the transition to Buffalo's offense, in its first season under head coach Sean McDermott and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Swapping out Watkins for Matthews means that Tyrod Taylor might not have a receiver on the offense with whom he has worked before; Matthews joins Anquan Boldin, rookie Zay Jones, Rod Streater, Andre Holmes and Corey Brown in the unit, among others. Matthews averaged just 11.4 yards per catch over the past two seasons and caught only three touchdowns over 14 games in 2016. Per Football Outsiders, he was 76th in both DYAR and DVOA among all qualified receivers.
Gaines doesn't bring much more to the table and is well below the caliber of Darby. He missed all of 2015 with a foot injury and another five games in 2016. He was set to only be a backup for the Rams, but he could compete to work his way opposite of rookie first-rounder Tre'Davious White in Buffalo. The real reason for the Bills to complete these deals was not either of the players they received -- both are free agents after the season -- but the two picks. The Bills chose not to option the fifth-year on Watkins' deal, thereby making him a free agent in 2018. At best, Watkins leaving would have meant a third-round compensatory pick. Instead, the Bills get a second-rounder and third-rounder, guaranteed.
The added bonus is that Matthews and Gaines have potential to get better and become a part of the Bills' long-term plans, though they haven't really seemed to handle the Watkins or Taylor contract situations -- or most contract situations since their last postseason appearance in 1999 -- very well, so maybe it won't matter. The Bills were a longshot to win eight games this season, and, if anything, this move comes at the expense of the 2017 roster with the hope that it's good for 2018 and beyond.
On paper this does look like a good move for Buffalo, but only because it had begun to sever ties with Watkins anyway. The Bills were headed in the wrong direction with Watkins and Darby, their two best players under 25, and now they're trying to get the most return on that sullied investment.
Finally, the Rams get the prized player, but can they do what Buffalo couldn't seem to figure out and utilize him properly? Watkins seems to be on par with A.J. Green and Amari Cooper -- two other fourth overall picks of recent years -- in terms of talent, but he has missed 11 games over the past two seasons. He is also inconsistent, though in 2015 he had five 100-yard games over a nine-game stretch, and that was playing in an offense that rarely threw the ball and finished 31st in pass attempts with Taylor.
Watkins' latest challenge will be playing in an offense that ranked 32nd in both points and yards in 2016 behind the worst passer of last season: Jared Goff.
The Rams' best move was signing left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency, but they have also added Watkins, former Buffalo teammate Robert Woods and rookies Gerald Everett, Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds, and they are looking for continued growth from Todd Gurley, Tyler Higbee and Mike Thomas. In the case of Tavon Austin, the third-highest paid receiver in the league this year, the Rams are just looking for any type of growth at all.
That's a lot of weapons and Watkins may be the best of them, but all of the moves and all of the money spent will be for nothing if Goff continues to struggle.
It is highly improbable that the Rams will make a postseason run unless Goff is at least above average, and though the move to add Watkins is a net positive, it doesn't seem like Los Angeles is very close to a playoff run. If Watkins isn't re-signed, then the Rams lost yet another future pick without much return. Even a third-round comp pick seems like an uncertainty given that Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor could receive only one-year deals.
The overall winner appears to be Philadelphia, a team that has a decent shot at making the playoffs and acquired a young player who has two more years left on his deal. Matthews is not a special receiver, and the third-round pick for Darby is more than fair.
The biggest loser is Buffalo, which managed to downgrade at receiver and cornerback and received only two Day 2 picks in return. Those picks are meaningless if they don't pan out, and if they do, there's little guarantee that the Bills will even know what to do with them or know how to retain them long-term.
Meanwhile, the Rams still seem to have that 7-9 smell to them, even without Jeff Fisher, because they finished somewhere in the middle of this trade and likely did not improve significantly. Despite Watkins' obvious talent, he has injury concerns and could be leaving for another team next year without having helped L.A. make any sort of postseason run in a division where it seems like the clear third-place team. If Goff does break out in 2017, it probably won't be solely because of Watkins. If he doesn't break out, then it was all for nothing.
At least the fans got to see something interesting and rare on a mid-August Friday: trades involving three teams. If only they were better teams.