IRVINE, Calif. -- With their best player still sitting home and skipping training camp, and with the young quarterback still lacking much of a supporting cast around him, and with their highest-paid receiver hobbled at training camp, the Los Angeles Rams parted with to land Sammy Watkins from Buffalo.
You could call it a move born of some desperation.
Few offenses, if any, were as unwatchable as that of the Rams from a year ago, and outside of the selection of rookie Cooper Kupp, whom I continue to hear rave reviews about at camp here on the UC Irvine campus, in the third round and adding Robert Woods in free agency, it's the same marginal cast (though with a drastically improved offensive coaching staff). So the Rams have nowhere to go but up on that side of the ball, and while I've long been a Watkins skeptic due to his chronic injury woes, you can understand L.A.'s attraction to the former first-round pick, whom Buffalo traded up for (egregiously) three years ago.
Tavon Austin, for all the money he earns, is a gadget guy; when he does make plays, it's often around the line of scrimmage. Kupp will do his best work in the slot, and the Rams had no one to stretch the field vertically and be that persistent outside presence. It's a vital component in any offense and especially in the scheme of Sean McVay, the youngest head coach in the league, so it's hardly surprising the Rams have been monitoring Watkins' availability for months.
"It probably started a little bit in the spring as you're talking to people and trying to improve your roster," Rams GM Les Snead said while meeting with reporters before Friday's practice. "We started flirting with Buffalo and Sammy probably around the time when they didn't put the fifth-year option on him and we didn't put the fifth-year option on Greg (Robinson, former Rams first-rounder).
"And over time I had a conversation with Buffalo and then when Brandon Beane got the GM job we rekindled that a little bit during the summer and it came to fruition this week."
What Watkins brings to the table
Watkins, when he does play and is unencumbered by nagging foot and other injuries, can certainly be explosive. His has legit big-play potential, averaging over 16 yards per catch in his career. Despite being in pedestrian, largely run-dominated offenses, he does have 10 100-yard games in three seasons (in 37 games played, and many of them at less than full strength). Getting him deep early and often will be imperative.
"When you attack a team in your passing game, you'd like to use the length of the field and the width of the field," Snead said. "And that's what speed can do for you to allow you to attack vertically as well as with the width. So it's trying to open the field up, and it's not just one person. It might be a tight end this week, it might be a slot receiver this down, maybe a running back out of the backfield."
If we're talking deep stuff, yeah, it'll mostly be Watkins among this bunch. His 26 catches of 25 yards or more are tied for 16th in the NFL since 2014 (when Watkins entered the league), though Snead conceded that the durability factor was something he and his medical staff had to explore before pulling off the trade, which also sent corner E.J. Gaines, who became a starter last season, to Buffalo. Watkins has missed 11 games over the past two seasons.
"We definitely discussed it," Snead said, "and I think it's probably one of the reason they didn't put the fifth-year option on him. But when we dove into it we felt comfort taking the risk and making this move and going forward."
Rams eye long-term deals for Watkins, Donald
Snead was unequivocal about the Rams' desire to secure Watkins' services beyond this season (he makes just $690,000 in base salary this season at the end of his rookie deal, and is eligible for unrestricted free agency next season unless franchised).
"Definitely -- he's 24, so you don't just do it for the now," Snead said.
That could prove tricky, however. Watkins might want to play it out, and with Jared Goff coming off such a rocky rookie season, he could prefer other options down the line. And the Rams are still trying to get an extension done with all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald, still not at camp, and he won't come cheap. Watkins will want top-of-the-market money to commit long-term now, I reckon.
Snead told me the dialogue with Donald is ongoing and they have a substantial offer on the table.
"Whether it's a holdout or an injury, these are things we have to be able to deal with," McVay told me, "and that's something that we're trying to figure out every day. We want Aaron here and we want to make him a Ram for a long time, and in the little bit of time I've spent with him it doesn't take long to see what kind of a special player he is, based on the tape, and what kind of person he is and how much he loves the game of football and his teammates. That's why we want to get it figured out."
The Rams have been open to other trade options as well, though this deal of Gaines makes it even less likely they move top corner Trumaine Johnson, who is making $17 million this season after being franchised a second straight year. Sources said the Steelers have been among the teams sniffing around on a possible Johnson trade.
Goff finding early rapport with Kupp
All eyes here remain on Goff at all times -- it's not unusual for even Snead to be nearby on the practice field when the youngster is running drills -- and from what I've seen of him this week he remains very up and down. He'll miss two or three throws that make you shake your head and then loft a perfect 50-yard parabola for touchdowns a few times in a row. The learning curve remains steep, I imagine.
"I think he's done a nice job up until this point," McVay said, realizing the truer tests don't come until the preseason opener this weekend.
Kupp seems to be sparking some early chemistry with Goff as well. Despite having just been drafted, he's smart and savvy enough to play all three receiver spots -- though the slot is where he truly shines with a two-way go -- and even with Watkins flying to L.A. I'd expect plenty of balls to come his way.
"He's come in and done a really nice job," McVay said. "He's a very mature rookie and he sees the game through the eyes of a quarterback with his understanding of the route concepts and the timing and rhythm."
Bills building for the future
As for the Bills, Watkins' former team, they might not be done dealing, either. I love what Beane and rookie head coach Sean McDermott are doing to reshape the roster and culture in Buffalo, both long in disarray. Watkins was a favorite for former GM Doug Whaley and became a polarizing figure there among decision-makers, with his health likely precluding another big deal in Buffalo (they recently dealt quarterback Cardale Jones, another of Whaley's pet projects, to the Chargers). In another trade Friday, on slow-developing receiver Jordan Matthews, who needed a change of scenery, as a potential fill-in for Watkins, and get Gaines to take the spot of Ronald Darby, who was moved in the Matthews deal, at corner.
Buffalo also picked up additional second- and third-round picks in 2018 in the two deals, Anquan Boldin won't do anything to improve Buffalo's speed sans Watkins, but does give Tyrod Taylor another available target.if Matthews and Gaines don't pan out. And the recent signing of uber-veteran
"People forget that we just signed Boldin," Beane said during the Bills press conference. "This isn't a throw in the towel move. You don't know me if you think I'm throwing in the towel."