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This is the Year for Sammy Watkins (Fantasy Football)

by Nick Zychowicz
Jun 27, 2017

Can Sammy Watkins deliver in his contract year?

No, for real this time. Seriously. This is the year where Sammy Watkins finally fulfills his potential. His talent was never an issue, only his health and his team situation. But his major health problem – which predictably crippled his production in 2016 – is now safely behind him. And his target share could very well lead the league as he and Tyrod Taylor work together to earn their next NFL contracts. Add together their shared strengths – Taylor’s deep ball accuracy and Watkins’ game-breaking speed – and Watkins’ situation is premier.

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Watkins’ track record of production (when healthy) is mid-to-high-range WR1.

“If only Watkins could stay healthy, he’d be a fantasy stud.” That’s the narrative, and it’s true. All you have to do is look back at history. But compare the following players’ first three seasons:

– Player A: 34 games played, 282 targets, 174 receptions, 2,737 yards (15.7 YPR), 20 TDs.
– Player B: 37 games played, 276 targets, 153 receptions, 2,459 yards (16.1 YPR), 17 TDs.

Player A is Julio Jones. Player B is Sammy Watkins. Jones delivered a 104-rec/1,593-yd/6-TD fourth season. Watkins is not Jones… but the numbers are not so far off.

Now consider the one stretch of time when Watkins was relatively healthy, 2015, when he logged 13.2 standard points per game (missing Weeks 7 and 8 due to a sprained ankle), including 17.6 points per game over the last six weeks. 13.2 points per game (over 16 games played) would have been good for the WR1 overall finish in 2016.

Watkins’ health situation is finally on track.

You may have noticed the one big ‘if,’ “If only Watkins could stay healthy…” And that’s certainly a fair knock. But history says that the foot injury which has plagued him in 2016 is safely past him. Just look at every major athlete who had screws surgically implanted in their foot to repair a Jones fracture, and see a trend: they struggle to return, require a follow-up surgery, and then the issue never returns. Examples are bountiful:

Julio Jones: ran at the 2013 combine with a broken foot, needed a second surgery in 2013, and since has not experienced issues with that foot.
Dez Bryant had one foot surgery (screws and grafts) to start the 2015 season, missed seven games; then had a second surgery during the 2016 off-season and returned to only miss three games for an unrelated reason.
Julian Edelman broke his foot November 2015, played playoffs after surgery; then had a second follow-up surgery before 2016 and played all 16 games that year.
– Kevin Durant in 2014 had surgery to repair a Jones fracture; had follow-up surgery months later that season causing him to miss the rest of the year; returned with no signs of slowing in the 2015 season.

Watkins had his second surgery on January 20th, 2017.

Astute owners might have known to add Sammy to their Do Not Draft list at the start of the 2016 season when he fractured his foot in the preseason and needed a screw inserted. They could have seen the history and known that only a second cleanup surgery, followed by adequate rest, can finally solve the Jones fracture.

But 2017 is a new year. Watkins did light work and a few drills at minicamp at the beginning of June and is now in late June taking the majority of first-team reps in team drills. It appears everything is right on schedule with no setbacks, and Sammy is much healthier now than he was this time last year when he was doing nothing in minicamp. He is very much right on track to put the nagging foot injury behind him once (I suppose I should say ‘twice’) and for all.

Watkins’ team situation is extremely favorable in 2015.

Several factors look extremely promising for Watkins this year:

1) Total volume
For context, Buffalo was the most run-heavy team in the league last year. The departure of Anthony Lynn (former RB coach turned OC turned interim HC) and a normal regression to the mean means that passing volume will go up from the last-placed 29.6 pass attempts per game. They could still be comfortably in the bottom half of the league and throw the ball 35 times per game.

2) Relative volume
When searching for WR1s in the rough, I like to look for receivers who will have a real chance to take 25% of his team’s targets, and even an outside chance to break 30%. Mike Evans had 27% of Jameis Winston’s targets in 2015, and was a prime candidate to break into the top tiers in 2016 (“good, when healthy” and “low catch rate” were his knocks, too). Watkins, “when healthy” (i.e. during the games where he played at least 70 percent of the passing snaps), has turned in a 27% target share. As an alpha bell-cow WR, on a team with no other notable WRs 25% is safe, and 30% is attainable. For context, Evans led the league with a 30.4% target share in 2016; Antonio Brown paced the league with 33% in 2015.

3) Contract situation
Normally I don’t buy into the ‘contract year’ bump.  Normally. Except both Taylor and Watkins are now playing for their lives, being signed only through the end of the season. It’s time to put up or shut up.  They must rely on each other this year if they want to get paid again, and they know it. Expect Taylor to feed his best weapon.

Projections

Watkins has never finished a season under 15 yards per catch, which is incredible to think about. Just as staggering, however, is his low career catch rate of 56%. But there is no problem (other than Brock Osweiler) that massive volume cannot fix. Projecting 35 pass attempts per game, a target share of 28%, and using his historical efficiency metrics, Watkins is in line for: 152 targets (which is 9.5 per game, top 10), 85 receptions, and 1,275 yards. Pencil in a conservative estimate of 8 TDs. This is pace for 176 standard points overall, which would have tied for 6th overall with Julio Jones last year. In other words, he’s offering mid-range WR1 production at WR18 price (4th round per FantasyPros.com ADP).

A disclaimer: I don’t expect Watkins will play a full 16 games, and I don’t expect him to reach those season-total projections.  He will likely struggle with a minor injury here or there and miss a week or two (he’s had history beyond just the foot). Even though Julio and Dez have proven they carry that same risk, they are priced to their weekly upside. Watkins feels priced at his downside. For now. Continue to monitor his ADP. You should fully expect him to provide week-winning upside for most of 2017, just like any other elite wide receiver.


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Nick Zychowicz is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Nick, follow him @NJZychowicz.

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