Wednesday, 07 January 2015 00:00

What happened in 2014: Sammy Watkins

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What happened in 2014: Sammy Watkins Zennie Abraham/Flickr

Sammy Watkins delivered for those who took the risk and went against the age-old notion that rookie receivers rarely produce quality numbers. But despite a respectable 65/982/6 line, there were several factors that prevented him from having one of the best seasons for a rookie wide receiver in recent memory.

When it comes to redrafting Watkins onto your team next season, there are already several wheels in motion that will affect his value for 2015.

In what could end up going down in history as one of the greatest wide receiver drafts of all time, rookie WRs Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Kelvin Benjamin all finished with over 1,000 receiving yards in their first year. All three receivers were first round talents, but  they weren't the ones who drew the biggest hype.

That distinction belonged to Watkins, a 6'1 phenom who possessed blazing 4.34 speed and considerable size at 211 lbs. He had all the playmaking tools you want out of a franchise receiver. Watkins ended up being the first receiver taken off the board at No. 4 overall by the Buffalo Bills, a team that endured a big risk to get him after they surrenderd a 2015 first and fourth round pick to move up from the No. 9 spot.

Unfortunately for Watkins, being taken that high in the draft usually means the team you play for is still a ways away from being any good, and that was definitely the case with the Buffalo offense. Watkins landed on a team that had a young, unproven quarterback in E.J. Manuel, an offense geared more toward the run without a premier running back to take the pressure off the receivers and to top it all off, a below average offensive line that put increased pressure on quarterbacks.

But even with the obstacles that came with being on a sub par team, Watkins set record team rookie marks in receptions (65) and receiving yards (982) and also netted six touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive for any rookie receiver, but you can't help but feel like you missed out on the Beckham Jr./Evans party considering both receivers had double the touchdown total of Watkins when all was said and done. Those one-handed preseason catches were probably enough to sway a lot of fantasy football players to draft him though, so it's understandable. I mean, look at this.

But even though he managed to string together a decent rookie year, it does leave the question. With so much uncertainty in Buffalo right now thanks a departed quarterback in Kyle Orton and a new coaching staff that favors the run over the pass, is Watkins the last receiver you would take in your fantasy draft this season among Beckham Jr., Benjamin, Evans and maybe even Brandin Cooks?

Leaving touchdowns on the table early

When the Bills drafted Watkins, it was a move designed specifically to get the developing Manuel some help. Manuel struggled early on during his rookie season, and eventually suffered a knee njury which led to him only playing in 10 games.

Watkins and Manuel didn't exactly light the world on fire in the beginning of 2014, but they didn't flounder either. Watkins eclipsed 100 yards receiving in just his second game of the season, catching eight passes for 117 yards and a touchdown against Miami in what was perhaps Manuel's best game of the season.

But if you watched that Miami game and had Watkins on your fantasy team, you couldn't help but be a little frustrated. Manuel missed Watkins on what would've been a sure touchdown to a wide open Watkins down the seam. Manuel also failed the punch the ball in when the Bills' defense frequently gave his offense fantastic field position and settled for three Dan Carpenter field goals instead. Manuel even had the ball on the 20 yard line after the Bills blocked a punt and still couldn't find a way to get a score. It wasn't so much that Manuel played bad, he just didn't thrive like you would've expected.

Sidenote: Buffalo finished 30th in red zone efficiency on the season, scoring just 43% of the time which stifled Watkins' ability to score the all important touchdown consistently. He finished with just six touchdowns in his first season and if the Bills can find a quarterback who can consistently score in the red zone, then those numbers will obviously go up. It's not out of the question that Watkins could be in line for a 1,500 yard, 12-plus touchdown season if the Bills can get the right guy under center. That of course, is a big if because of the following.

Manuel's benching, enter Kyle Orton

After Manuel's completion percentage took a considerable dip in losses to San Diego and Houston, the coaches soon lost faith that he was their guy and signed veteran game manager Kyle Orton to take center.

Orton was thrust into the starting role after only starting one game a season ago in the Dallas Cowboys' season finale against Philadelphia. Orton and the Cowboys lost that game, but the veteran did put up a 358 passing yards to go along with two touchdowns. He seemed like he was a better fit to help move the offense down the field and therefore increase Watkins' fantasy value.

Watkins takes off

When Orton was offcially named the starter against Detroit, the Bills instantly became an offense more capable putting up bigger passing stats which led to Watkins having some of his best games as a rookie.

While it took a few games for Watkins to develop chemistry with Orton, Watkins flourished midway through the season in Weeks 7 and 8. He torched the Minnesota Vikings for 122 yards and two scores, which was the first and only multiple touchdown game he had all season.

A week later against a bad New York Jets secondary in Week 8, Watkins got behind the defense consistently and finished with three catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. However, he showboated too early on a long pass he caught in the first half which resulted in him getting dragged down from behind at the ten yard line by a hustling Darrin Walls. Chalk it up as a rookie mistake, but it was just another touchdown left on the table for Watkins.

Despite a few lapses in focus, the two-game stretch of nearly 400 receiving yards was incredibly impressive and offered those a glimpse at just how dominant Watkins can be with a couple of good matchups and a quarterback who's playing well.

Injuries/drop in numbers

Despite a quick spike numbers midway through the season, Watkins and the Bills offense quickly fell back to earth almost immediately after their dominating 43-23 win against the Jets. Watkins failed to catch for more than 35 receiving yards over the next four games, eventually injuring his hip against the Browns which was one of several nagging injuries that plagued his rookie campaign. Watkins had already been slowed by several other ailments including broken ribs earlier in the season.

He did manage one more 100 yard game against the Denver Broncos in December, which served as his final exclamation point performance of 2014. But he was held largely in check against Green Bay (1 catch for 6 yards) and Darrelle Revis against New England (3 catches for 57 yards) in the final games of the season.

Orton slowly regressed as the season went along as well, posting a 6:7 TD-to-INT ratio in his last five outings. Overall, Watkins finished the season with 128 targets, which ranked 23rd in the league. He finished with a 51 percent catch rate according to Football Outsiders, which was lower than Beckham Jr's incredible 70 percent and Evans' 55 percent. A very good season overall though.

Offensive line issues

Not helping Watkins and the Bills offense was the fact that their offensive line struggled most of the season, especially early on at the guard spot which led to them being ranked among the worst offensive lines in the league for the first quarter of the season. Still, the offensive line did get better as the season went along, which led to them eventually being ranked 19th overall in pass protection according to Football Outsiders. Not terrible, but definitely some room for improvement there.

Marrone's surprise departure

Former Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone expressed in regards to Buffalo's trading up in the 2014 draft to snag phenom wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

Even if you put on your hindsight 20/20 spectacles for a minute, it's still hard to understand Marrone's concern with the move. Watkins turned out to be a very solid rookie and the Bills nearly the made the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. If anything, it was the reach for Manuel in the first round that set the Bills back. It'll be interesting to see if Manuel is given a second chance under the new coaching staff and we see a Jim Harbaugh/Alex Smith-like resurgence.

The hiring of Rex Ryan

Per Yahoo! sports, recently fired New York Jets coach Rex Ryan became the new head coach in Buffalo earlier this week, and former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman is expected to take over the offense.

We have a pretty good idea of who Ryan is as a coach at this point. He's a defensive guru who took two Jets teams to back-to-back AFC Championships in 2009 and 2010. Ryan's winning formula often emphasizes pounding the ball up the gut with running backs while relying on a strong defense. The downside to his style is he often keeps the quarterback under wraps and doesn't like to take big risks down field, which can lead to little reward for offensive playmakers.

What the new coaches mean for Watkins' fantasy value

It's Ryan's ground and pound style that makes an OC like Roman a good fit for the overall coaching staff since they share the same offensive philosophies, but it might hurt Watkins if they don't adapt. Roman spent the last four seasons running a run heavy offense in San Francisco that had a great offensive line and a workhorse running back in Frank Gore.

The Bills have neither of those right now. Their main strength is at wide receiver with Robert Woods and Watkins. It'll be interesting to see if Roman is a good fit for Buffalo, but he'll likely have to adjust a bit and look to get the receivers more involved than he did in San Francisco if we expect Watkins to have a WR1-type fantasy year.

With Orton announcing his retirement earlier in the week, it's obvious Watkins' ADP for 2015 will mostly hinge on the talent of the guy under center as well.

Final verdict/2015 outlook

Watkins flashed some brilliance with his dazzling one-handed grabs during the preseason and his numbers took off like a rocket over a two-game stretch midway through the season but he left a little to be desired considering his talent is off the charts.

Consistency will likely be his next goal, as injuries, poor quarterback play, a few mental lapses on his part and an average offensive line played a role in keeping his numbers from reaching those of Evans and Beckham Jr.

It's only been one season, but Watkins certainly doesn't look like a bust, so drafting him in fantasy a solid WR2/3 is the best option at this point. A lot can change in the offseason, and if the Bills have a lot of questions they'll have to answer with a new coaching staff and a hole at the quarterback position.

View Zennie Abraham's Flickr page here.

Last modified on Tuesday, 13 January 2015 04:54
George Banko

George Banko started talking about fantasy football shortly after graduating college. He started as an intern at FFChamps.com before working as a staff writer for Fantasy Knuckleheads. He currently contributes to the Fantasy Hot Read podcast, which is available on itunes. He also educated himself on player evaluation and is a graduate of The Scouting Academy in 2015, which is an online course run by former NFL Scout Dan Hatman. He started Fantasy Football Helpers as a blog in 2011 and converted it to a full-scale website in 2014. Read more.

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