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ORCHARD PARK, NY – After weeks of speculation, the Bills have decided against picking up wide receiver Sammy Watkins fifth-year option, as first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

The team issued the following statement via Twitter, confirming the decision.

Declining the option means Watkins is now entering the final year of his rookie contract and could expose him to free agency as early as 2018. Of course there is always the possibility that Buffalo places the franchise tag on Watkins, which would pay him upwards of $17 million next season. Additionally, Buffalo could push to work out a long-term extension with the 23-year-old before he hits the open market.

Had they exercised the option, Watkins would be due $13 million in 2018, all of which would be guaranteed for injury. Given the former first-round pick’s excessive injury history – which includes the broken bone in his foot that recently required a second surgery – declining the option keeps Buffalo from having to potentially pay that money to Watkins if he continues to be plagued by injuries beyond 2017.

Watkins is due $6.3 million next season.

When healthy, Watkins has proven to be a valuable weapon in the passing game through his first three seasons in the NFL, hauling in 153 receptions for 2,459 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. However, in order for the Bills to commit to Watkins long-term, they’ll have to be convinced he can stay on the field.

With former general manager Doug Whaley now out of the picture, this new Bills regime has absolutely no ties to the questionable deal that sent a 2015 first-round draft pick to Cleveland to move up to the fourth spot in the 2014 NFL Draft and select Watkins.

Spencer’s View…

Before the scouting purge that took place this weekend, I was on the record saying that picking up Sammy Watkins option is a MUST. The reasoning was simple: Buffalo gave up way too much in that 2014 draft to move up and draft Watkins, to not exercise all five years of his rookie contract. With Whaley gone though, this new regime, led by Sean McDermott, has no connection to that deal. They don’t have to feel that pressures Whaley did to prove that trading up for Watkins was worth it. They have nothing to lose by declining the option. So truthfully, from a business standpoint, this move makes complete sense for the Bills.

When healthy there is no denying that Sammy Watkins is an elite receiver in the NFL. Hell, I’ve argued that he’s a top 10 receiver in the league when he’s healthy. But that last part is the key here, when he’s healthy, which quite honestly hasn’t been often.

Watkins hasn’t played a full season since his rookie campaign. In 2015 he played 13 games and last year began the season on the DL before playing through that lingering foot ailment for the final eight games of the season. When he’s out there, there is no denying he is a game changer, but at this point the Bills don’t know how long he’ll be out there in any given season.

Committing $13 million to Watkins, knowing he could very well get hurt again and it would all be guaranteed, would be ill-advised. Instead, Buffalo is declining the option and essentially saying to Watkins: “prove you’re worth the long-term investment.”

This certainly doesn’t have to mean that 2017 is Watkins last season in Buffalo. In fact based on the statement – where McDermott made it clear he has talked at length with Watkins about this decision – I believe the Bills would love it to not be his last year here. They just want to know they’re not committing to a player who will only be available for half the season, each year.

As far as what their options are for retaining him after 2017, as I mentioned above there is the franchise tag route – which would pay Watkins somewhere in the range of $16-17 million in 2018 – or a long-term extension. Surely a lot of people will look at the franchise tag number and be perplexed at why Buffalo would be willing to invest $3-4 million more in Watkins than if they had simply picked up the option at a $13 million cap hit, but again, the amount isn’t so much the issue here, it’s about making sure it’s money well spent. Also, tagging a player often leads to a long-term extension anyway.

This is a well thought out, tactful decision by Sean McDermott and the Bills and sets the stage for 2017 to be a very important year for Sammy Watkins. If all goes well, I’d expect him to remain a Bills for years to come.

Follow me on Twitter: @Spencito_