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Is Sammy Watkins ready to become a WR1?

Aug 4, 2016
Sammy Watkins

Volume shouldn’t be a concern for Sammy Watkins

In the first half of the 2015 season, Bills fans were screaming to get second-year receiver Sammy Watkins more involved in the offense.

Buffalo had traded up for the coveted prospect in the 2014 draft, sacrificing their 2015 first-rounder to move up five spots. Fans who were leery about paying such a high price were outraged that the Bills weren’t throwing to him accordingly. In the first seven weeks of 2015, Watkins averaged 5.5 targets (!), four catches and 52.5 yards, with three touchdowns. Only once during that span did he go off like a No. 1 receiver should, with eight catches, 168 yards and a score in Week 9 against Miami, the Bills’ first game after their bye.

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Before Week 12, amazingly, Watkins didn’t even get a single target in the red zone. Watkins himself was frustrated, saying “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?” There were reasons for the problem. Watkins was dealing with medical issues – a calf injury that kept him out of two games, then a sprained ankle that sidelined him for a game before the bye – and inexperienced Tyrod Taylor was learning how to be an NFL starter. Once he got healthy and Taylor determined to get him the ball, Watkins just blew up.

Over the final six games, Watkins’ numbers ballooned to 35 catches for 679 yards and six touchdowns. His yards and TDs were both fourth in the NFL among wide receivers during that time. He had demanded double-digit targets and got it in four of those games. He did all that despite defenses keying on him, proving that he’s worthy of just throwing him the ball. He’s a legit franchise receiver, and fantasy owners are drafting accordingly. As of Aug. 1, his Average Draft Position is 13th among wideouts in standard scoring, as high as ninth on some sites. It seems fantasy owners are trying to decide if he’s a WR1; he has the talent, but there are caveats that may keep him from emerging into the fantasy elite. First, the aforementioned injuries. His multiple issues in 2015 followed a rookie season in which he suffered broken ribs, a groin injury and a bad hip that led to offseason surgery. And now, his injury fears are multiplied by a broken bone in his foot in May. He has started training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and it’s unclear when he’ll be able to practice, or if he’ll see any preseason game action. He’s expected to be full-go for the regular season. Despite his medical chart, Watkins has played in 29 of his 32 NFL games so far.

Perhaps the biggest X-factor in Watkins’ outlook is Taylor. They have developed an undeniable rapport, and the question now is whether Taylor will unleash his arm. The Bills were second-last in the league in pass attempts last year. Greg Roman’s offense is slow and centered around the running game, featuring LeSean McCoy, a deep backfield and Taylor’s own legs. But if there’s any receiver who can thrive despite low volume, it’s Watkins. There is a chasm of talent between him and the Bills’ other receiving options. Robert Woods and Charles Clay are no threat to Watkins’ numbers in any way. In the final six-game stretch, Watkins was targeted on 33.9 percent of the Bills’ pass attempts; for perspective, the league leaders in 2015 for that stat were Antonio Brown (33 percent), Julio Jones (32.9) and DeAndre Hopkins (31.3).

Watkins blossomed into arguably the league’s top deep playmaker in 2015. He led the league in yards per target and was second in yards per route. He was second in fantasy points per target to Doug Baldwin, who tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns. So with dominant target share and the ability to make the most of his looks, volume shouldn’t be a concern for Watkins, and there’s every reason to believe a more comfortable Taylor will loosen the reins, at least a little. While he may not sustain his late-season pace from last year, Watkins has WR1 fantasy upside in standard scoring and could be a steal as a third-rounder. He takes a slight PPR hit – his ADP is five spots lower at receiver – but his playmaking ability makes him a solid WR2 in that format.

Keith Kraska is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Keith, check out his archive.

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