Starting receiver Sammy Watkins is going to have to stay healthy and prove his value on the field if the Buffalo Bills intend to keep their former first-round pick beyond this season.
Rookie coach Sean McDermott announced that the team declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Watkins’ contract for the 2018 season before the NFL’s deadline struck Tuesday.
The decision speeds up the timetable for Watkins, who is now eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason. It doesn’t, however, prevent the Bills from negotiating a contract extension or placing the franchise tag on Watkins to retain his rights.
McDermott said he had “good conversations” with Watkins in discussing the reasoning behind the decision.
“There is no question Sammy is a very good football player,” McDermott said. “We look forward to seeing a healthy Sammy Watkins on the field in 2017.”
Staying healthy has been the one big concern regarding Watkins, who has been hampered by an assortment of injuries during his three seasons with the Bills.
Watkins has been recuperating since January, when he had a second operation to repair a broken left foot. All signs point to Watkins being cleared to resume practicing in time for the start of training camp.
He initially had two screws inserted into his foot a year ago but aggravated the injury in September, which led to him missing eight games.
The Bills’ decision on Watkins comes two days after firing general manager Doug Whaley .
It was Whaley who took a calculated risk in trading up to select the Clemson star with the fourth pick in the 2014 draft. Buffalo gave up two draft picks — including its 2015 first-round selection — to move up five spots.
Whaley drew criticism for giving up too much in the trade with Cleveland in a draft class that produced a bounty of top-flight receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Jarvis Landry.
When healthy, Watkins has been productive despite being occasionally under-used in an offense that has led the NFL in yards rushing the past two seasons.
He has 153 catches for 2,359 yards and 17 touchdowns in 37 career games.
Watkins will be part of a retooled group of receivers this season after Buffalo lost starter Robert Woods and No. 3 speedster Marquise Goodwin in free agency. The Bills used a second-round draft pick last weekend to select East Carolina receiver Zay Jones, who is being counted upon to immediately compete for a regular job.
The Bills also announced they claimed cornerback Charles James a day after he was waived by the Indianapolis Colts.
James has been used primarily as a backup over three NFL seasons, and he split last season between the Colts and Houston. Overall, he has no interceptions and forced two fumbles in 34 career games.