For the last two seasons many fans of the Buffalo Bills as well as mainstream media members have chastised the team for trading two first and a fourth-round pick to move up for wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the 2014 NFL Draft—myself included. Fans around the league saw one of the deepest and more talented group of rookie wideouts in years posting gaudy numbers, as shown in the table below.
While Watkins showed flashes of dominance as a rookie, he didn’t come close to meeting the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders due to his draft status. Through his first four games of the 2015 season, things didn’t seem to be getting any better, catching just 11 passes on 17 targets for 147 yards and two touchdowns.
Then, after suffering an injury while hauling in a touchdown in a week six matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, Watkins spoke out about his lack of production. He expressed anger and disappointment for not seeing the volume in targets you’d expect from a receiver that a team invested so heavily in, telling The Buffalo News’ Tyler Dunne
“I need 10 targets — and I’ll be fine with however many yards I get. And that’s what I addressed in talking with my agent. We reached out to a couple people and tried to pull some strings like, ‘Hey, I need my targets. You came up to draft me and I’m not getting targets — that’s a problem. You’re making me look bad and you’re making yourself look bad. Why not make both of us look good?’”
This statement put a huge target on Watkins’ back, as he was already dealing with nagging injuries and now he’d have no excuses if he failed to produce with an increased role on offense. The next week, Sammy went out and caught eight passes on eight targets for 168 yards and a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins, jump-starting a hot streak in which he’s been nearly unstoppable for the last eight games.
Where is Sammy Watkins’ Production Coming From?
In the last eight games, Sammy Watkins has gained the 3rd-most yards (764) and 4th-most touchdowns (7) among wide receivers, despite his 38 receptions and 59 targets rankings 17th and 18th, respectively.
26 of his 38 target have been on passes that traveled 20+ yards downfield, and he’s 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.
Here against the Houston Texans, Watkins is lined up to the left of the offensive formation. His acceleration and ability to get to his second-gear is too much for Houston’s defensive backs who are in zone coverage. By the time Watkins gets up on the cornerback, it’s too late. He’s being double covered, but neither defensive back can turn their hips quickly enough to keep up with Watkins and he picks up 53-yards.
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.
The routes are designed to intersect, so that the defenders get caught in traffic. As the defensive backs collide into each other, the strong safety cheats inside to defend the middle of the field, but by that time, Watkins is at full speed and gained separation. Tyrod throws another great pass down the sideline and it’s a 47-yard score.
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.
With Watkins’ recent spike in production, defenses are routinely doubling or even tripling him, which opens up a lot of space for other receivers to produce underneath.
In the following clip against the Kansas City Chiefs, Watkins is running a go route at the bottom of the screen. He’s covered by both a cornerback and a safety, leaving the underneath crossing route there for the taking. Chris Hogan takes advantage of the extra space and moves the chains.
Sammy Watkins is just hitting his stride and is finishing his sophomore campaign on a high note. Looking ahead to 2016, if he can continue to build on the little aspects of the position, there’s no reason why Watkins can’t emerge as one of the top wideouts in the NFL.