On May 16, 2016, Buffalo Bills fans received a major injury scare from ESPN’s Adam Schefter about the team’s newest first round pick, edge rusher Shaq Lawson, and star wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Lawson’s news was taken more seriously, as it is now known he will be out for quite some time. However, the Watkins report became questionable after the wide receiver tweeted that he was fine and for people to not believe reports that he will miss preseason games.
Regardless of whether or not Watkins will be ready for the start of the season, his injury scare brought a major problem to the surface that should have caught everyone’s attention: The Buffalo Bills are in big trouble without Watkins, and need to add an insurance policy and receiving depth in case he misses time.
The Impact of Sammy Watkins
Every team in the NFL needs a wide receiver that can take over a game. Not everyone has one, but the Bills do. Watkins is a bonafide stud that can do what he pleases to defenders. He is a rare talent, and proved he was relatively unstoppable over the final nine games of the 2015 season when he was healthy. Over those nine games, the wide receiver caught 49 passes for 900 yards and seven touchdowns in a run heavy offense. He played through naggingf injuries that hindered his production early on in the season, and ended up missing three games. After his return, Watkins’ worth was extremely prevalent in games against some of the NFL’s top defenses in the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans, and New York Jets.
The Kansas City Chiefs ranked seventh in total defense, and ninth in pass defense in 2015. In week twelve, the Bills suffered a crushing 30-22 defeat to Kansas City, but Watkins embarrassed the Chiefs’ secondary. The wide receiver hauled in six of his ten targets for 158 yards and two touchdowns, helping quarterback Tyrod Taylor toss three touchdowns with no interceptions.
Following the game against the Chiefs, the Bills took on the Texans and their third ranked pass defense and third ranked total defense. For evidence on how strong the Texans defense was: they made the playoffs with Brian Hoyer as their quarterback. Watkins was only targeted four times in that game, but caught three balls for 109 yards and a touchdown. His presence on the field also helped Taylor throw a consecutive three touchdown and no interception game in a victory over Houston.
In week 17, the Bills were given the opportunity to knock the rival Jets out of the playoffs. Thanks to Watkins, they were able to do so. He abused Darrelle Revis, widely regarded as the NFL’s top cover corner, as he caught eleven of fifteen targets for 136 yards. Watkins ruined the Jets’ season, while simultaneously giving Bills fans something to be proud of in an overall disappointing season.
While Watkins is a treat to watch and proved how valuable he is to the Bills offense, there is a frightening truth about the passing offense when he is not there: they are bad. This is not a knock on Taylor, who proved he is more than capable of being an NFL starter last season. Instead, Watkins’ absence in a few games proved how weak the receiving corp was and how much the offense struggles without his presence. Watkins missed games against three teams who missed the playoffs and were bad enough to pick inside of the top ten in the 2016 NFL Draft: the New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bills lost two of those games, and only defeated the Titans by one point in a 14-13 disaster of a football game due to Taylor’s late game heroics as a one-man offense.
In the 24-10 loss to the Giants, tight end Charles Clay led the Bills with nine catches for 111 yards on thirteen targets. As for the wide receiver position, Chris Hogan led with five catches for 43 yards on five targets. In the difficult victory over the NFL’s worst team, the Titans, the Bills’ leading receiver was again Hogan with only three catches for 52 yards and Tyrod Taylor only passed for 107 yards. Watkins’ absence against the controversial loss to the Jaguars provided a strong performance from Robert Woods when the wide receiver caught nine balls for 84 yards and a touchdown on thirteen targets. While Woods is a serviceable player in his own right, he received no higher than nine targets (twice) in any other game in 2015.
Watkins’ impact was also on display against the Cincinnati Bengals in week seven of 2015, when he finished the first half with four catches for 48 yards on five targets without Taylor at quarterback. Going into the half, Watkins caught a touchdown to bring the Bills within three points of the Bengals. Unfortunately, the wide receiver injured himself on the play and the team was unable to score another touchdown until the game was all but over. Clay caught 9 passes for 62 yard on thirteen targets that game, but the next leading pass catcher was fellow tight end Chris Gragg who hauled in all five targets thrown his way for 54 yards. The most productive wide receiver other than Watkins was Woods with four catches for 47 yards on six targets, proving once again that the Bills did not have a wide receiver capable of taking over games outside of Watkins.
Current WR Depth Chart
The Bills did not address finding a starting wide receiver in the 2016 NFL Draft, and rightfully so. Their defense was beat up and under-performing, and the team made the right choice in addressing their defense in the first three rounds. However, their current wide receivers include Watkins, Woods, Leonard Hankerson, Marquise Goodwin, Kolby Listenbee, Greg Salas, Jarrett Boykin, Walt Powell, DaVonta Allen, Gary Chambers, Greg Little, and Dezmin Lewis. This group is talented and diverse, but no one is a legitimate second option to Watkins. If the star wide-out misses time, Tyrod Taylor is looking at an offense featuring Woods, Hankerson, and most likely Salas as starting wide receivers. If this happens, the Bills offense will struggle mightily. Numbers and statistics aside, the “eye test” will tell anyone that this group of wide receivers is not going to produce outside of Sammy Watkins, and that they need to address this hole on their roster.
What Are Their Options at WR?
The Bills’ options in free agency are limited at this point. While big name veterans such as Roddy White, Andre Roberts, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Marques Colston, Andre Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Malcolm Floyd, and Jason Avant are available, most of them are either past their prime or would be less than or similar to as much of a help as Woods is. However, there is one free agent receiver that would make a on of sense: Anquan Boldin. The veteran’s history of having sure hands, clutch catches, and the ability to run routes over the middle of the field would be a major upgrade to the Bills offense and would provide Taylor with the security blanket he needs while giving him a reliable option in case of Watkins’ absence. As far as free agents go, Boldin makes the most sense as he is still talented and has played in Greg Roman’s offense before.
The Bills also have some options outside of free agency if they are willing to make a trade. Reports keep appearing stating that running back Darren Sproles is available for trade from the Philadelphia Eagles. While the Bills may seem all set at running back, Sproles’ ability as a receiving back is unparalleled. Both Philip Rivers and Drew Brees had a decline in production and efficiency after Sproles left San Diego and New Orleans, and he would take the load off of Taylor and Watkins as a pass catcher outside of the backfield.
As for a legitimate outside threat, the Bills have some options. Some teams, such as Washington, have serviceable starters that may become available for trade if younger players start performing. Washington has Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, but drafted wide receiver Josh Doctson in the first round. If Doctson begins to take over as a legitimate starting receiver, Jackson or Garcon may become available for trade. It would make sense for the Bills to try and get either player.
One trade target the Bills could, and should, focus on is troubled Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon. While he has failed numerous drug tests and faced multiple suspensions, Gordon’s talent is undeniable. When on the field, he is an elite receiver that defenses have no answer for. In 2013, his last full season, Gordon caught 87 balls on 159 targets for 1646 yards and nine touchdowns… on the BROWNS. Yes, Gordon has baggage, but trading for him would be an extremely low risk for a wildly high reward. Reports have come out stating that Cleveland has “had it” with Gordon. If so, trading for the wide receiver would only cost a late round draft pick. His salary cap hit would be low, and if he gets suspended again the Bills will be off the hook of his already low salary and would only have wasted a sixth or seventh round draft pick. Pairing Gordon with Watkins would immediately give the Bills the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. Trading for the controversial wide receiver is not just a good idea, it is a move the Bills need to make. Otherwise, the Bills will be stuck in the same scenario they were in last year: a limited passing offense with only one legitimate threat at wide receiver.