Sammy Watkins finished the 2015 season as one of the hottest wide receivers in the league. After getting off to a slow start due to a lack of targets, Watkins voiced his displeasure with his usage and demanded more opportunities. He got his wish and didn’t fail to impress catching 49 passes for 900 yards and seven touchdowns in his last nine games. If you project his stats from those nine games — 49 catches, 900 yards and seven touchdowns — over the season, Watkins would have finished with 87 catches, 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Watkins finished the year with just 60 receptions for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns, but was the most efficient wide receiver in the game, averaging 17.8 yards per-catch and 11.5 yards-per-target, which ranked fifth and second, respectively among wide receivers. The Bills threw the ball only 465 times, over 100 fewer times than in 2014 (567) so Watkins’ volume was decreased.
Entering his third season, Sammy Watkins looks like he’s ready to elevate himself into the upper-echelon of NFL wide receivers. His statistics through his first two years—with EJ Manuel, Kyle Orton and Tyrod Taylor delivering the ball—have already placed him among some NFL greats.
Here’s a list of the wide receivers since 1985 to catch at least 125 passes for at least 2,029 yards and score a minimum of 15 touchdowns in their first two seasons.
That list significantly shrinks when you narrow the results to wide receivers who ended their second season at 22-years old.
Watkins got better with every game, turning defenders around with his incredible footwork and ability to sell routes and proved to be a lethal deep threat, consistently getting behind cornerbacks for big chunks of yards.
Sammy Watkins as a Deep Threat
Sammy Watkins averaged 17.5 yards-per-target, the second-highest depth of target at his position and had 18 receptions of 20+ yards, with seven traveling over 40 yards.
In the Bills’ final nine games, Watkins had scores from 21, 28, 40, 47, 48 and 63 yards out. With each game, he and Tyrod Taylor develop more chemistry and the two have been clicking, particularly on the deep sideline throws.
Watkins’ speed and increasing ability to get in and out of breaks at the top of his route stems has him embarrassing opposing cornerbacks on a routine basis.
In the following play, Watkins is at the bottom of the screen. He’s facing press coverage, so Watkins gives a stutter step off the snap to set up the cornerback before accelerating ahead and getting on top of him. He throws his hand up in the air, signaling to Tyrod Taylor that he’s open, and is delivered a great, catchable ball right over his shoulder for a 44-yard score.
With opposing defenses now respecting Watkins as a legitimate vertical threat, they’re rolling coverage his way, with some teams going as far as putting a safety directly behind the cornerback defending him.
In order to combat this, Greg Roman has been pretty creative with his concepts to get Sammy the space he needs. He’s primarily done this by stacking receivers, or lining them up behind each other, rather than next to each other.
Stacking receivers gives the offense an advantage because it will create natural “rub” or picks for the defensive backs, essentially forcing them to run around them. With stacked formations, defenders also have no room for error when it comes to pattern matching—or passing a receiver off to a teammate in coverage. In the following play against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bills are in a spread 2×2 formation with Tyrod Taylor in the shotgun. The receivers on both sides of the formation are stacked on top of each other, which forces the Eagles’ defenders to do the same.
Sammy Watkins Route Running
Sammy Watkins has some of the best footwork in the league, showcasing one of cleanest and most explosive releases off the line at the position. He does a great job selling his routes, running the stem and displaying rare change of direction ability on in or out-breaking routes.
With Sammy Watkins establishing himself as a lethal deep threat in the NFL, defensive backs need to be thinking at all times. The majority of Watkins’ routes are “9’s” or go routes, so he’ll often use that to set up the comeback route.
Here, Watkins runs an out route against zone coverage, but fakes hard to the inside before planting and cutting towards the sideline, freezing the safety just enough to make the catch on the sideline.
His ability to change direction makes him one of the toughest receivers to cover on underneath routes, as you can see in the following plays against Darrelle Revis. They’re four or five-yard out routes, but the level of footwork is impressive and allows Watkins to separate from one of the all-time great cornerbacks with ease.
Sammy Watkins Ball Skills
Sammy Watkins stands just 6’1” and 211 pounds, but he’s physical and understands the importance of leverage. He tracks the ball well in the air and will contort his body to make difficult grabs in the end-zone.
Watkins keeps his eyes on the ball and uses his strong hands to give himself a second chance at bobbled passes.
While Sammy Watkins is nursing a foot injury and his timetable for return isn’t clear at the moment, it’s obvious that the Buffalo Bills need to continue to feature the explosive receiver that they traded up to acquire.
He’s proven that he can beat just about any cornerback lined up across from him and can command safety help with his long speed. Sammy Watkins may have gotten off to a slower start than fellow rookies Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, but continuity with a quality quarterback should do wonders for him. Now, the Bills are a run-first team with a slow, grind-it-out pace (28.86 seconds-per-play, 26th slowest in NFL) so he’ll need to be just as efficient and make the most out of his opportunities if he wants to rank among the top in receiving statistics. However, his skills will prove valuable regardless of the target volume he sees, as Watkins showed last season.