The Buffalo Bills announced Tuesday that they will not exercise the wide receiver's fifth-year contract option for 2018.
It means Watkins would become a free agent after the 2017 season, unless the Bills chose to give him a franchise tag (which would give him a guaranteed, one-year deal) or agree to an extension with him. Foot problems kept Watkins out of eight games last season and compromised his effectiveness when he did return to the lineup in the second half of the 2016 campaign.
"Sammy and I have had good conversations about the decision", coach Sean McDermott said in a statement released by the club. "We look forward to having a healthy Sammy on the field in 2017".
On top of that, the Bills recently canned general manager Doug Whaley, the man who spearheaded the decision to trade up in the first round of the 2014 draft to get Watkins. He also missed three games in 2015.
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However, if Watkins does return to his 2015 form and becomes a risky receiving threat once again, Buffalo could sign him to a multi-year deal.
There are still options to prevent Watkins from leaving Buffalo.
In 37 National Football League games over three seasons, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins has caught 153 passes for 2,459 yards and 17 TDs. The foot injury has required two surgeries, one of which he is still recovering from. The tag would net the wideout more cash in one year than the fifth-year option. His rookie contract expires after the 2017 season.
Again, Buffalo's decision shouldn't come as a surprise to even Watkins himself. 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. McDermott seems intent on correcting the Bills' salary-cap structure over the coming years, which could mean not paying an oft-injured receiver a market-rate deal.