Johnson trade clears deck for Watkins

May, 9, 2014
May 9
4:30
PM ET
That didn't take very long.

Less than 24 hours after trading up in the first round Thursday night to draft Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the Buffalo Bills sent veteran wideout Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers on Friday afternoon for a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick.

The writing was on the wall for Johnson to be dealt. Watkins was the draft's top receiver, and after the Bills gave up their 2015 first-round pick for him, he'll also be the Bills' top target. There wasn't room for both Johnson and Watkins at the top of the depth chart.

[+] EnlargeStevie Johnson
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesStevie Johnson is the first receiver in Buffalo Bills history to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Johnson was the Bills' leading receiver from 2010 to 2012. He rose to prominence during a brief offensive resurgence led by former quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and former head coach Chan Gailey, becoming the first receiver in Bills history to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.

That made Johnson the alpha male in the Bills' receiver room, but he stumbled through much of last season, missing time throughout the season with various injuries. He never seemed to click on the field with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, and he finished with 52 catches for 597 yards, his lowest totals since 2009.

The Bills have hitched their wagon to Manuel this season and made a significant gamble to move up the draft board for Watkins. The team believes Watkins is ready to contribute "immediately" and views him as a similar talent to Julio Jones and A.J. Green.

Yes, it would be ideal if the Bills could line up Johnson and Watkins together on the same field -- much like the Atlanta Falcons do with Jones and Roddy White -- but that just wasn't in the cards. It was time to move on.

Friday's trade gives greater clarity to the Bills' depth chart at receiver. Watkins, save for any significant rookie struggles, is the unquestioned top receiver. Robert Woods, the Bills' second-round pick last season, should continue in his No. 2 role and continue to develop. Offensive coordinator Nate Hackett will find a way to fit Mike Williams, acquired via trade this offseason, and Marquise Goodwin, a fourth-round pick last season, into the puzzle. T.J. Graham will still be fighting for his roster spot.

But by dealing Johnson, the Bills avoid any potential headaches from Johnson, who was one of the more free-spirited and outspoken players in the locker room in recent years.

The Bills don't benefit financially from trading Johnson this offseason, but the savings will be more found over the final two years of Johnson's deal. He had a $8.85 million cap number in 2015 and a $8.95 million cap number in 2016, which the Bills will avoid with this deal.

With Johnson gone, the Bills continue to move forward with their rebuilding project under second-year general manager Doug Whaley. They're betting on Watkins helping push them into the playoffs. Johnson isn't around as insurance, but that might be for the better.

The Bills could have potentially waited until after the draft, trying to squeeze more out of a team that wasn't able to land a receiver this week. In that sense, trading away Johnson might have come earlier than expected, but the move was predictable and understandable.

Watkins is now Buffalo's guy.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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