With Sammy Watkins, Rams finally have a true No. 1 receiver

LOS ANGELES -- The 2014 draft was coming up, and the Rams -- at that point still playing in St. Louis -- badly needed help at wide receiver. Timing was on their side. The Rams held the No. 2 overall pick, and Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr. were all among the best players available. But they chose Greg Robinson, a freakishly athletic left tackle who never quite figured it out. After three years, Robinson was gone, sent to the Detroit Lions for a sixth-round pick, and the Rams' desire for a legitimate No. 1 receiver persisted, leaving them to wonder what could have been.

"In '14, I often said, 'Wow, this might be one of the best wide receiver drafts I've ever seen," Rams general manager Les Snead recalled Friday, the day he finally acquired the bona fide outside threat he long coveted. "A handful of players were going to make major impacts in this league."

The Rams finally have one of those players. On the morning before their first preseason game -- at home against the Dallas Cowboys, with kickoff set for 6 p.m. PT on Saturday -- they sent cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round pick to the Buffalo Bills and received Watkins in return.

It was the kind of trade the Rams desperately needed to make, the type that gives their offense a real chance to finally emerge as a legitimate unit.

Watkins, who went fourth overall in that 2014 draft, possesses the talent of a true No. 1 when healthy, boasting the NFL's fourth-most yards per reception since he came into the league. He gives rookie head coach Sean McVay a deep threat similar to what DeSean Jackson was for him in Washington. It'll create a lot of single coverage for Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Tavon Austin, three guys who make most of their impact in the intermediate passing game. It'll open up more running lanes for Todd Gurley, who saw his rushing yards per carry drop from 4.8 in 2015 to 3.2 in 2016. And it'll give second-year quarterback Jared Goff the tools he needs to succeed after a tumultuous rookie season.

"When you attack a team with your pass game, you'd like to use the width of the field and the length of the field, and that's what speed can do," said Snead, who also received a sixth-round pick in next year's draft from the Bills. "It's really just trying to open the field up."

Losing Gaines hurts the Rams. He was very good as a rookie in 2014 and was performing well throughout training camp. But newcomer Kayvon Webster, who is very familiar with Wade Phillips' system from his time in Denver, already had locked down the starting job opposite Trumaine Johnson. And younger players such as Nickell Robey-Coleman, Lamarcus Joyner, Troy Hill and Mike Jordan gave the Rams some adequate depth at the position.

What really hurt was giving up a second-round pick, but the chances of hitting on someone like Watkins in the second round seem far less favorable than the chances of Watkins staying healthy enough to be productive.

The key is making sure this isn't only a one-year stint.

Watkins is eligible for free agency after this season. The Rams and Bills had been talking about a trade like this since the early part of May, when the Bills decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on Watkins' rookie contract (the Rams did the same with Robinson). The Bills paid Watkins most of his 2017 money with a training-camp bonus. He'll cost the Rams less than $700,000 against the salary cap this season, which is roughly $1 million less than what Gaines was on the hook for. But the Rams need to figure out a way to sign Watkins beyond this season.

Doing so would give the Rams enough skill-position players to build around, with Goff, Gurley, Woods and Kupp all 25 or younger and controllable for at least the next three seasons.

It's something Snead is "definitely" interested in.

"He's 24," Snead said of Watkins. "So, you don't just do it for the now -- although we do think he'll help the now. Because of the age, you'd want it to be for the future, as well."

The Rams' offense has finished last in the NFL in yards each of the past two seasons and outside the top 20 in defense-adjusted value over average for the past decade. They know you can't be both bad and boring in Los Angeles, as they were amid a miserable 4-12 season in 2016. So they went about changing that this calendar year. They hired McVay, one of the game's brightest offensive minds, then splurged on a new left tackle in Andrew Whitworth, signed Woods, used three of their first four draft picks on pass-catchers and traded for Watkins.

Watkins, a teammate of Woods in Buffalo, caught 125 passes for 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns in 29 starts in 2014-15, seasons when the Bills' passing attack wasn't necessarily setting the world on fire. Calf and ankle injuries held Watkins back early in 2015, but he had 900 receiving yards over the final nine games that season. Foot surgery kept him out of eight games in 2016, a year he finished with only 28 catches for 430 yards. But he's healthy now, and players like him normally don't become available so young.

"I think clearly you’re getting a special receiver," said McVay, who doesn't expect Watkins to arrive in L.A. until Saturday night. "Obviously his career, when he’s been available, he’s been outstanding in terms of being able to stretch the field vertically. But when the ball's in his hands, good things happen."

The Rams wanted Austin to emerge as a deep threat, but injuries -- wrist surgery in the spring, a tender hamstring in the summer -- kept him from working on a role that never seemed to fit him. They held out hope for second-year player Michael Thomas, but he's suspended for the first four games after violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances. They drafted Josh Reynolds, but he'll take time to develop.

"A guy who can stretch the field -- vertically, with speed and size -- we knew that was on the agenda, whether it was this spring, this summer, next free agency, next draft," Snead said. "It was an item that we felt really helped take our offense to the next level."