Welcome to the Buffalo Bills, home of one of the worst drafting teams over the last 20 years, an organization that has baffled draft experts and fans alike for the last two decades. It’s not easy being a Bills fan but somehow hope springs eternal in Western New York, and this seems like a different franchise to the one we have known. A stable ownership, a big name coach and a more ballsy GM than they have had in a long long time.
Doug Whaley went into the 2014 draft as a rookie GM and wasn’t afraid to move up and down the board, leaving the fans breathless and afraid to leave the TV in case they’d miss something. Undoubtedly though the signature move of the man in charge was the acquisition of Sammy Watkins by way of trading up to number four overall and is one that’s still being talked about two years on.
With that in mind and with the aid of hindsight we’ll take a look back at that pick and try and put the question to bed.
Firstly, let’s get this out of the way immediately: no question about it, Sammy Watkins was the consensus number one wide receiver in the 2014 draft. I would go further than that, though. The NFL Draft is a crap shoot, a selection process where everything from game tape, measurables and even personal conduct are taken into account by experienced experts in the field and they still get it wrong as often as they get it right. There are not many occasions, entering the draft, that you feel someone is a sure thing. In fact in recent years only two come to mind, Ndamukong Suh and Andrew Luck. Watkins joined them in that bracket. With the breakout of then-rookie sensation Odell Beckham Jr, questions were asked why trade away the picks they did to move when they could have stayed put and got Beckham. Firstly hindsight is a wonderful thing but more than that, Beckham was the third WR picked and not one ‘expert’ thought that he was going to be anywhere close to Watkins in terms of productivity. Regardless of that though, Watkins offered the Bills something not often available in the draft, a sure thing.
The Bills gave up their 2014 first round pick (number nine overall), their 2015 first round pick (19th overall pick) and their third round pick (115th pick). So what was taken with those picks? The Browns brought in the trio of Justin Gilbert, Cameron Erving and Ibraheim Campbell, a very uninspiring group indeed. We talked about hindsight earlier, with hindsight do you think the Browns would like to swap those three guys for Watkins now?
With the success of other WRs from the 2014 draft, Sammy’s offerings have been largely overshadowed. He just missed the 1000 yard mark in his rookie season and going into game nine of the 2015 regular season had only amassed 147 receiving yards. You better believe the questions were being asked loud and clear in some quarters. Had the bumbling Bills done it again? Well before we get to that lets think about how we got to this point.
Watkins rookie season started under a cloud. Broken ribs, picked up in pre-season which severely inhibited his play early on and which bothered him throughout the year. Secondly Watkins didn’t have Eli Manning throwing to him, instead he had a struggling EJ Manuel, a holdover from the last GM, who was on his last chance with a franchise. Still, by most standards, Watkins performed more than admirably setting new Bills rookie records for both receptions (65) and receiving yards (982). However a cloud still hung over the QB position, which would prevail in the three way competition for the job.
Enter Tyrod Taylor, a backup QB for his first 4 years in the league behind Joe Flacco. New head coach Rex Ryan brought in a new Bills mantra “pound the rock”, the Bills were going to be a run first offense. Coupled with this and the acquisitions of Percy Harvin and Charles Clay, the signs pointed to less production rather than more for Sammy and so it looked exiting the bye in week 8.
Sammy had been hampered by a calf injury which had kept him out of 3 of the first 7 games but even so, he’d only accumulated 147 and was only averaging 2.75 receptions per game, a fact that wasn’t lost on him. But QB’s and WR’s need time to develop chemistry, time to trust each other, time to rely on each other. What happened from week 9 onwards was quite simply astonishing.
Starting from the Miami game in which he roasted the Dolphins for 168 yards from a season high 8 receptions, Watkins would go on to average 100 yards a game for the rest of the season to finish with 1047 yards. Watkins asked for more targets and he got more, but nothing in the way that other number one WR’s were getting. He averaged 5.4 receptions from week 9 on and it showed in his numbers and his confidence.
So how does he compare to other elite WRs you may ask. Any Sammy critics would be surprised.
Watkins is on par with the best WRs of the last decade or so through their first 2 years in the league. His receiving yards are within the range of his peers and when you see what he does when he gets the ball in his hands, only Calvin Johnson has a higher average Yards per Catch number. It is easy to point to Beckham and say look what we could have had, but after 2 seasons Watkins is in elite company and if the last 8 games are anything to go by, and if the Bills give him some stability at the QB position, he may be ready to move into a stratosphere all on his own.
Watkins to me is everything he promised to be, a genuine number one receiver who takes on the nation’s best corners and gives them nightmares. Beckham may turn out to put up better numbers, and the question of holding firm and taking Odell may be one that may always be asked. However back in 2014, on warm May evening in a music hall in New York City, the Bills stopped bumbling, and took a sure thing from Fort Myers, Florida and maybe, just maybe, changed the fortunes of one of the worst drafting teams of the last 20 years.