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How can Watkins earn enough targets to deliver fantasy starter production?
Andy Reid's offenses spread the ball around and according to NFL.com's Herbie Teope, only five wide receivers produced a 1,000-yard receiver effort in a single season between two teams since Reid became a head coach in 1999. Sammy Watkins hasn't been a fantasy starter but once during his four-year career. Patrick Mahomes is an inexperienced NFL quarterback, and Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — two of those five 1,000-yard options — will command enough volume that fantasy owners are skeptical about Watkins earning a productive share.
Don't let past history fool you, Sammy Watkins is in store for career-year.
One of the prevalent themes of the Gut Check column since its inception has been to question conventional thought about players and fantasy strategy. This week's column will account for Watkins' film, his fit in the Chiefs' offense, and contextually examine past history and data. With an average draft position ranging between the sixth and eighth rounds, you'll finish this article with at least a healthy appreciation for the upside Watkins presents at his current value and why there's a healthy argument that Watkins' past doesn't explain his future.
The Watkins Resume
Let's begin with the data and how it compares to his portfolio of film. Watkins produced as a fantasy starter during his first 2 seasons in Buffalo but missed 10 games between 2015-2016. Watkins was healthy last year, but the Bills traded him to the Rams in mid-August and the team took a smart approach to incorporate Watkins quickly into the offense without making things too complicated for Watkins and Jared Goff.
Even a quick glance at the box score data provides worthwhile insights into Watkins' skill set:
Watkins' Career Statistics
- A touchdown scorer: Among receivers with at least 30 catches during a season, Watkins receptions-to-touchdown ratio was No. 7 among receivers in 2015 and 2017.
- A vertical threat: Any receiver who can maintain an average above 16 yards per catch with 60 catches has field-stretching speed.
- Low catch rates: Watkins' catch rates have hovered between 52-55 percent with the exception of a 62 percent rage in 2015. He hasn't been an efficient producer and it creates a gap between his standard and PPR fantasy value.
However, there's more than meets the eye with Watkins' game than that of a speedy field stretcher with inconsistent production:
- Red zone prowess: Seven of Watkins' eight touchdowns last year came in the red zone. In fact, 14 of Watkins' 25 career touchdowns came in the red zone.
- Green zone prowess: Of those 14 career touchdowns, 8 of them came inside the 10 yard-line. Good red zone and green zone receivers are precise, earn separation early, and make plays against tight coverage.
- Reliability: Pro Football Focus' tracking reports that Watkins didn't drop a pass during the 2017 regular season. Watkins has a pair of seasons with three drops, and he's never had a high drop total during his NFL career.
The film matches these insights. There are 11 clips in this Twitter video presentation on Watkins that shows why Watkins is more than a speedster who simply runs under the football for his production. Here are seven insights about Watkins' skills and how the Chiefs can use them (The links in the points below are to these clips and open in a separate window):
- Watkins excels at stacking defenders: This is his most well-known skill as a vertical receiver. It helps him control the pace of the route, create easier targets against tight coverage, and force pass interference penalties if the defender isn't careful. Chiefs' usage: Watkins will still earn a high volume of vertical routes because he has the speed to beat corners off the line and outrun safeties in the deep zone.
- Watkins wins against tight man coverage: Although Brandin Cooks will easily outproduce Watkins in Los Angeles, it's only because he has a full off-season with the team and he's playing a role where he won't be the strict primary option. Watkins is a superior player against physical coverage in the vertical game and on shorter routes. Chiefs usage: Unlike many receivers who've performed in Andy Reid's offenses, Watkins matches up well against tight man coverage and can hold his own with corners the caliber of Xavier Rhodes and Patrick Peterson. If the single coverage is there, a quarterback with Patrick Mahomes' aggressive mindset will target Watkins.
- Watkins is already a good route runner: Much is made this summer of Reid teaching Watkins how to become a complete receiver. This is true in the sense that Watkins is learning to play the split end, flanker, and slot positions within Reid's version of the West Coast Offense. However, Watkins was already an accomplished route runner with excellent attention to detail with the mechanics of releases, stems, and breaks. Reid's offense requires Watkins to earn a higher education with option routes and route tags — the ways receivers and quarterbacks adjust routes based on the defense's changes late pre-snap and early post-snap. These differ by role and position on the field. Chiefs usage: Kansas City's offense spreads the field, varies the grouping of its receivers, and uses a lot of pre-snap motion to test opposing defenses. Like many college offenses, the Chiefs figure out ways to get its key players into advantageous numbers-game advantages in specific areas of the field. It requires its receivers to play multiple roles and process the information quickly.
If you watch college football, you'll remember that Watkins' use at Clemson has similarities to the Chiefs' intentions. Here's an excerpt of my pre-draft scouting report on Watkins where I highlight his potential versatility:
"Watkins can play in any system and in multiple roles. He has the quickness and zone savvy to play the slot, the speed to get deep on the perimeter, and the route skills to win the intermediate timing game. An offense can move him around the formation to draw ideal match-ups for Watkins or Watkins’ teammates, this includes featuring Watkins in the backfield a lot like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb."
This is exactly what Reid and the Chiefs will be doing with Watkins this year. Let's examine the specifics.
Watkins + Chiefs Offense = increased passing game productivity
The Chiefs offense had one of its best statistical seasons under Andy Reid in 2017:
- 6,007 total net yards — 5th in the league (20th in 2016).
- 4,104 net passing yards — 7th in the league (19th in 2016).
- 1,903 rushing yards — 9th in the league (15th in 2016).
- 25.9 points per game — 6th in the league (13th in 2016).
This is the point where most analysts will call for a regression. However, calling for a regression needs some basis of logic.
The best arguments will be 1) opponents having enough tape to scout the Chiefs' tendencies and figuring out effective game plans to limit big plays and, 2) Patrick Mahomes performing far less efficiently than Alex Smith as the new starting quarterback.
There are also arguments that 2017 was just the beginning of better times ahead. Last year was the first season that Andy Reid heavily implemented a college spread offense in the NFL. These are already well-known ideas and most of the players in the league faced these college concepts for 3-4 years before they entered the NFL.
These concepts are rooted in logical ideas that put athletes into winning positions. For a long time, there were factions in the NFL who thought that the level of athlete in the NFL would nullify that simplicity of the offenses. However, we've learned that because there are top athletes at 22 positions, there is no overwhelming athletic advantage on defense to overcome elite athletes placed in favorable areas of the field.
Kansas City's offense had enough versatile, high-end athletes to place them in positions that tested the knowledge and discipline of opposing defenses. When they failed, this led to big plays — often in the middle of the field because of the effective work it did to spread the defense apart and test the assignment readiness of linebackers and safeties.
After studying the Chiefs offense, here are four things the unit did to create plays that moved the chains and flipped the field (The links in the points below are to these clips and open in a separate window):
- Personnel groupings: When we examine the X’s and O’s of football, we don't always focus on the impact that placing two excellent football players within the same area. The Chiefs earned a lot of separation because of the mismatches they created by placing Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce on the same side of the field. They also used the Hill and Kelce on one side to create a numbers game advantage on the other side for players like Albert Wilson. With Watkins in the mix, it creates an additional conundrum and another set of difficult player combinations for opposing defenses.
- Stacking receivers: When the personnel groupings feature two great players on one side, stacking them creates another complication for the opponent. A physical option like Kelce and create additional space for explosive runners like Hill and Watkins. Because Hill and Watkins are running threats, when they bubble to the sideline, it can create openings up the seam or over the middle of Kelce, who is a mismatch with the ball in his hands due to his size and quickness. Stacking can also set up Watkins for easy fade routes. The trio of Watkins, Hill, and Kelce will generate distraction and lead to mental mistakes in a defensive secondary.
- Pre-snap motion: The Chiefs will build on successful plays that trick its opponents by beginning a new play with that successful alignment and then adding motion late in the pre-play process to create a different look. This generates potential confusion for defenses trying to communicate its responsibilities and the personnel groupings add an additional layer of pressure. The motion also creates potential scenarios that linebackers, defensive ends, slot defenders, and safeties must take into account: fly sweeps to Watkins or Hill, shovel passes to Kelce or deep seam routes to Kareem Hunt.
- Clear-outs: Another effective aspect of personnel groupings featuring players who present mismatches in their own right is the ability to use them to create space for teammates. Whether it’s Watkins or Hill going deep to clear space for Kelce working from the opposite side of the field into a deep crease behind the receiver or Kelce and one of these receivers running mesh routes to open a huge swath of grass in the flat, the Chiefs have numerous combinations of plays to create easy gains thanks to personnel, alignment, and the clear-out effect.
Underscoring all four of these themes is the theme of flexibility. Because the Chiefs uses its most dangerous players in ways that are difficult for defenses to stop, it forces a lot of second-guessing on the field. This leads to big plays.
When defenses think they understand what's going to happen, the offense varies the roles or changes the alignments. With the addition of Watkins, the potential variables become more dangerous and less predictable.
Watkins will be the clear-out in an alignment in the second quarter but wind up the big-play target in the fourth quarter. Hill will be being the runner on a play that hints at the possibility of Watkins getting the fly-sweep only for the Chiefs to run the same play during the next series and give it to Watkins in the opposite direction.
Instead of Watkins running the fade as the stacked receiver like he did the week before, he’s now the front-man running the slant and it's wide open because the added wrinkle of Kelce split with Watkins as the front-man preoccupies the safety due to the possibility of the fade route.
Greater flexibility, more explosive players, more unpredictability, and continuity along the offensive line are four strong reasons why Kansas City's offense will build on 2017 instead of regress in 2018. Last year was the first year Reid implemented this scheme. It was also Kareem Hunt's rookie year and only Tyreek Hill's second. It was the entire unit's first year in the scheme.
Although Patrick Mahomes enters his first season as the starter, he's a far more daring and aggressive player than Alex Smith, who had had a career year in 2017. The reason Smith was so good had a lot to do with the offense.
We're talking about a 13-year veteran who never had a top-10 statistical season, much less a top-5 campaign until last year when he finished at the No. 4 fantasy passer. The closest Smith approached the top-10 was 2013 as the No. 15 quarterback.
As described above, personnel groupings, stacking, and motion with option plays generated defensive confusion in the middle of the field that led to big plays. Kansas City's top two receivers are middle-of-the-field players. Kareem Hunt's biggest plays as a receiver came in the middle of the field.
Many of these plays were so wide open that Alex Smith could let his receivers run under the ball unfettered. Smith led the league in passes completed where his receivers had the greatest amount of separation against its opponents. That's a product of this offense.
Although Smith has gotten progressively better as a vertical thrower, he has always been a cautious decision-maker. We don't see Smith throwing fade routes or 50/50 balls. Chris Conley made a living at Georgia as a sideline fade player. Demarcus Robinson has these skills as well. Smith has not utilized either player in this fashion — not even in the red zone.
Kelce should be dominant on these routes, but Smith doesn't like to throw these targets so they were not a big part of the offense. Expect Mahomes — a far more confident and effective thrower into tight windows — to target Kelce and Watkins on fades this year.
Mahomes has a bigger arm and doesn't hesitate when he makes the correct read of a defender's leverage the way Smith has throughout his career. There will be more mistakes, but there will also be bigger plays.
Andy Reid's past doesn't explain the Chiefs' present
At the beginning of this article, we learned that Reid's offenses had only five wide receivers that produced a 1,000-yard receiver effort in a single season between two teams since Reid became a head coach in 1999. Two of those five options were Hill and Kelce last year.
However, let's remember that the passing game evolved to its hyper-productive state with rules changes to protect the quarterback in 2001 2002, and 2006 and benefit receivers in 2004, 2009, and 2010. Donovan McNabb was drafted in 1999 and still developing during Reid's first two years in Philadelphia.
Reid rarely had a strong and healthy receiving corps. From 1999 to 2003, the Eagles starters would have been role players elsewhere:
- Freddie Mitchell
- Na Brown
- Greg Lewis
- Todd Pinkston
- Charles Johnson
The best option during this span might have been 30-year-old Antonio Freeman, who was already past his athletic prime when he arrived from Green Bay in 2002 and led the team in receiving yards.
In 2004, the Eagles acquired Terrell Owens, who earned 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns. In 2005, Owens missed nine games with a broken leg and by 2006, he was off the team.
In 2006, Reid's most talented receivers were Reggie Brown and Donte' Stallworth. Skill-wise, Brown belongs with the role-players-as-starters from 1999-2003. Stallworth had the elite athletic ability but role-player technical skills and reserve-level durability. Stallworth only played 12 games in 2006.
Kevin Curtis earned, 1,110 yards and 6 scores to pace the Eagles in 2007 while Brown maintained barley edged running back Brian Westbrook for the No. 2 spot in team receiving yards. In 2008, Curtis only played 9 games; Brown only played 10, and the bulk of the production went to rookie DeSean Jackson.
Jackson and 2009 rookie Jeremy Maclin might be the best tandem of receivers during the Reid era earning between 800-1,100 yards apiece between 2009-2012, but at least one, if not both of them missed at least 1-4 games a year during this span.
When Reid moved to Kansas City in 2013, he inherited a receiving corps with talents much like Philadelphia's 1999-2003 squads. His best receiver until Hill arrived in 2016 was Maclin.
When examining the context of the history behind the stats, Reid's offense isn't as much the issue as the caliber and health of the talent:
- Reid inherited or drafted a lot of mediocre receiving talent.
- The high-end talent he drafted, suffered enough injuries each year to cap their production just south of 1,000 yards.
- Reid used the talent he had at tight end and running back to compensate for a lack of top receiving talent.
- When Reid had healthy and elite receivers, he used them accordingly.
Although NFL rules changed repeatedly to favor the passing game during Reid's tenure, only Maclin and Jackson delivered continuity in terms of health, production, and tenure.
Hill, Kelce, and Watkins are the most talented trio of targets Reid has ever had as a head coach. The Chiefs offense is the most wide-open and aggressive scheme Reid has ever implemented. And Mahomes is the closest player in arm talent, creativity, and daring to Reid's former student, Brett Favre.
Passing offenses in recent seasons often field three starting-caliber fantasy options (PPR ranking in parenthesis next to each player):
- 2017 Vikings: Adam Thielen (8), Stefon Diggs (19), and Kyle Rudolph (8).
- 2017 Lions: Marvin Jones (11), Golden Tate (12), and Eric Ebron (13)*.
- 2017 Eagles: Nelson Agholor (21), Alshon Jeffery (23), and Zach Ertz (3).
- 2016 Saints: Michael Thomas (7), Brandin Cooks (10), and Willie Snead (32).
- 2016 Vikings: Adam Thielen (29), Stefon Diggs (31), and Kyle Rudolph (2).
- 2016 Washington: Pierre Garcon (22), Jamison Crowder (30), and Jordan Reed (9).
- 2015 Bengals: A.J. Green (8), Marvin Jones (36), and Tyler Eifert (7).
- 2015 Packers: James Jones (30), Randall Cobb (26), and Richard Rodgers (11).
- 2015 Saints: Brandin Cooks (14), Willie Snead (32), and Ben Watson (6).
- 2014 Patriots: Julian Edelman (17), Brandon LaFell (22), and Rob Gronkowski (1).
- 2014 Chargers: Eddie Royal (31), Keenan Allen (35), and Antonio Gates (3).
- 2014 Bears: Alshon Jeffery (10), Brandon Marshall (34), and Martellus Bennett (5).
- 2014 Broncos: Demaryius Thomas (2), Emmanuel Sanders (5), and Julius Thomas (10).
- 2014 Giants: Odell Beckham, Jr. (1), Rueben Randle (32), and Larry Donnell (11).
*Ebron was less than a point from the 12th spot.
For the past four years, the NFL is averaging a little more than three offenses per year with three starting-caliber fantasy options. Only the Vikings and Saints are repeat teams. However, these teams share commonalities:
- 75 percent of the teams listed (Minnesota, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington, Green Bay, Cincinnati, New England, and San Diego) all had at least one wide receiver who the team moved around from the slot to a perimeter position.
- 83 percent had a tight end who could provide a mismatch split from the formation.
- 42 percent of the teams yielded a pair of top-20 fantasy receivers.
- 75 percent of the teams have an outside receiver who is a skilled boundary option.
The Chiefs starting personnel of Watkins, Hill, and Kelce fit all four points from the profile. While there's potential that this trio earns production like the 2014 Broncos and each delivers top-10 production, it's most likely that Hill's 2016 production falls to WR2 value, Watkins' rises to the same range and Kelce's dips from elite production to mid-range TE1 value.
However, Watkins fits the profile of the No. 1 receivers on this list who earned top-five fantasy production better than Hill. He's bigger, he's better at winning the ball against tight coverage, and he's a more versatile route runner. Top-five fantasy producers at the position don't dominate this list, so it's not a huge indicator. Still, it's a reason to consider Watkins' upside is greater than fantasy WR2 value.
Watkins won't need more than 75 catches, 1,100 yards, and 10 touchdowns to earn a career-year. If looking at the past three years of PPR fantasy production, these figures would place Watkins among the top 9-15 receivers.
Considering his versatility, red zone skills that Hill lacks, and an aggressive and talented quarterback, Watkins looks like a value with higher upside than conventional statistical indicators can adequately put into context.