The statistics used in this column are those acquired from the Reception Perception methodology for evaluating wide receivers. To see full results of the project’s first full offseason, check out the tables at Backyard Banter. Use the #ReceptionPerception tag on Twitter to follow all the analysis from the series.
When a player enters the league with great fanfare, and with a pedigree that causes analysts to almost universally agree he’ll succeed, it often takes several years to alter the discourse. Our original conclusions on them as college prospects can create a blind optimism, even if the evidence begins to indicate a shift in the tide. While writing off a player too early is just as foolish as succumbing to that blind optimism, we must put a premium on the information presented on their NFL game tape.
One such player who fits this mold, and whose rookie season illuminated some warning signs that are largely glossed over, is Sammy Watkins. The former Clemson star was mostly the consensus top receiver in what was widely regarded as a stacked draft class. There were some dissenting voices, but the conversation regarding Watkins’ NFL outlook was overwhelmingly positive. I was among that sector; listing him as the third best prospect from the 2014 class overall. As such, I joined the collective groan in the wake of Watkins’ landing spot.
When the Buffalo Bills traded up for Sammy Watkins, sacrificing a future first round pick, their quarterback situation was murky. Now over a year later, there is even less clarity. E.J. Manuel was benched faster than many young first round quarterbacks, and Matt Cassel inspires little confidence he will be an upgrade over what the team got from Kyle Orton in 2014. Rumors indicate that the Bills are so desperate that they will give Tyrod Taylor a serious look. Couple the mess behind center with the hiring of Rex Ryan, a coach known for his ignorance of the offensive side of the ball, and Watkins’ fans must be worried. It’s hard to imagine a situation worse for a talented wide receiver to bloom.
All of the factors listed above are legitimate reasons to worry over Sammy Watkins’ future production. Yet, there is a school of thought that a talented wide receiver who mixes in technical skill will usually succeed despite poor play behind center. After all, look at what Andre Johnson accomplished for years with a laundry list of subpar quarterbacks. A.J. Green is still considered one of the best receivers in the game, and it looks as if he is strapped to Andy Dalton for life. Common thought is that the fourth overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft will be the next in that lineage.
While that could very well be true, to say without a doubt that Watkins’ will reach the potential ceiling he brought into the league is still a leap of faith. Yes, he battled through injuries to post a solid rookie stat line. All the obstacles provide his supporters with every excuse in the book to wave off concerns.
However, what does not get talked about enough is that the receiver who was considered head and shoulders above all the others in the legendary 2014 class did not perform with down-to-down consistent good play as a rookie. When looking over his Reception Perception data, especially compared to his peers, it’s hard to not be alarmed.
When Sammy Watkins came into the league, some evaluators were unsure exactly what type of receiver he would be. There was concern over whether his size (6’1, 211 pounds), with good but not great timed speed (4.43 in the 40-yard dash) combination would hinder his ability to thrive as an every down X-receiver. The Bills disagreed with those notions, and that was the primary spot he played as a rookie.
Red indicates the figure is below the NFL average, Green is above and Yellow is within one percentage point.
Over Watkins’ Reception Perception sample, he was on the outside for 93.6% of his snaps. 79% of them saw Watkins with his foot on the line of scrimmage. He spent little time in the slot, or at the flanker (Z-receiver) position.
One of the key components to keep in mind when analyzing Watkins’ rookie season, is that the Bills essentially asked him to be their number-one offensive threat from the very beginning. He played as the split-end, led the team in targets and frequently did battle with the opposition’s top cornerback.
Sammy Watkins was a highly regarded college prospect, but that is still an awfully heavy weight for a rookie to shoulder. Especially given that the Bills cycled substandard quarterbacks last season, and were a middling offense, at best. In some cases, first year receivers can be the primary option for a pristine passing game. However, those instances usually occur in environments more stable than the one Buffalo provided Watkins with in 2014.
As mentioned, the Bills essentially deemed Sammy Watkins their number one receiver the moment he walked into the building. Not surprisingly, his season-long target totals were impressive. However, it is also worth pointing out there were stretches where his involvement in the office waned, as quantified by his “target per route rate”.
Watkins ran 297 qualifying routes over his Reception Perception sample, and was targeted on 24.2% of them. This hovered just under the charted average for NFL receivers. While we do not have to worry about Watkins’ future involvement with the offense, his target-per-route rate does speak to some issues form his rookie season. There were some weeks where the fourth overall pick only saw three to six targets go his way; several of which crept into his Reception Perception sample.
The reason for the disparity in his targets is best outlined in a three-pronged answer. First, anyone who analyzes Watkins’ rookie season without mentioning his health is doing him a disservice. Watching him star at Clemson, it was apparent this player had incredibly flexibility, and fluidity. While there were times those carried over into the NFL game, there were also many games where he looked nothing like that player. As the season wore on, reports surfaced that Watkins was struggling through a hip injury. You don’t have to be a doctor to identify that as a major hindrance to the way he plays the game. Players that are Watkins size often generate power from their hips, as well as dip and sink in their routes with that area of their body. With that part of his body compromised, there were simply too many weapons in his arsenal rendered useless. While Watkins did not miss any time with this malady, it certainly limited him on the field, to the point where he was more of a decoy than an asset. It was in these games where Robert Woods served as the lead receiver, and actually performed at an adequate level.
The nature of the Bills’ quarterback situation also played a role in his below average target-per-route rate. Sammy Watkins played a high number of snaps, but would see long stretches where his quarterbacks failed to locate him. Kyle Orton moved the Buffalo offense at times, but demonstrated on a number of occasions why he was considered retired before the team brought him in. Some of his throws were wildly inaccurate, missing open receivers by a good margin. This helped contribute to Watkins’ catch rate of 52.8%. That is strikingly low considering he only dropped 1.4% of his targets over his sample. Orton also appeared to misread defenses, and failed to recognize opportunities.
Lastly, and this is the most important piece to glean from Watkins’ Reception Perception study, he did not play sound football as a rookie, consistently. This information is best illustrated in his Success Rate Versus Coverage data.
Success Rate Vs. Coverage Data and Route Analysis
Sammy Watkins was the Bills’ number one receiver, and top offensive playmaker. As such, he was asked to carry a tremendous load of work. Quite frankly, there was no 2014 rookie given a more difficult assignment than Watkins during their inaugural NFL campaigns. None of his peers had to contend with top cornerbacks as often as he did. Additionally, the Bills coaching staff asked Watkins to run nearly the entire route tree:
The highest represented route over Watkins’ Reception Perception sample was the nine-route. However, coming in at 20.9%, that still falls right along the charted average for NFL receivers. The same can be said for his curl and post routes figures. Overall, this speaks to a well-balanced route chart, especially for an inexperienced player.
Patterns that did register over the NFL average included the slant, corner and comeback. The high rate of slant route makes more than a fiat bit of sense. In college, Watkins was known for exciting plays with the ball in his hands. Having quick hitting routes on the docket for their young player would allow the Bills opportunities to create big plays. Given that their quarterback play was not at an acceptable level, this made sense for multiple reasons. Having their talented receiver create plays for the team on slant routes would manufacture more yards than asking the passer to make difficult throws. Also, the quick-hitting nature of slant routes is easy for players like Kyle Orton to digest. It made sense to not burden their already limited signal caller, and make things well defined.
In theory, this was a solid plan, if their rookie receiver stepped onto the field and performed like a season veteran. The trouble is, that Sammy Watkins did not consistently win the matchups that the Bills asked him to. Its hard to say that demanding such of him was fair at all.
Throughout all of the charting done for Reception Perception this year, no figures were more shocking than Sammy Watkins’ Success Rate Vs. Coverage (SRVC) metrics. As mentioned, I was very high on his NFL prospects after evaluating him as a collegiate player. Scan over his season long raw stats, and it is easy to convince yourself that optimism came to fruition early. After all, not often do we stick our noses up at 982 yards and 6 TDs for a rookie receiver. However, the deeper dive that Reception Perception and SRVC provides shows Watkins was not excelling on a down-to-down basis.
(SRVC denotes success rate versus coverage for each route. PTS indicates how many PPR fantasy points a receiver earned on each particular route)
Sammy Watkins’ SRVC chart is hard to look at. He only scored above the charted NFL average on one route. And it was the flat, which he ran on only 3.4% of his 297 patterns over the sample. On every other route, Watkins posted an SRVC figure that was poor, in comparison to other players at the wide receiver position.
Of course, Watkins flashed great ability a number of times as a rookie. You do not come close to cracking 1,000-yards, despite lacking a competent passer, if you are completely devoid of skill. There is a laundry list of plays you can find of Watkins integrating skills together, beating a defender and making pristine plays. However, what his SRVC scores broken down by route reveal is that he did not do these things consistently.
His PTS score on slants also illustrates this. One of Watkins’ best statistical games as was his first faceoff with the New York Jets. Yet, this game showed some of what leads to misconceptions about his rookie season. Rex Ryan’s flailing squad was regarded as having one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. Watkins made the Jets pay for this weakness, racking up 157 yards on only three catches. While that looks impressive on paper, it can misrepresent how he played over the course of the entire game. Watkins made a very impressive play on slant routes to cut the Jets right down the middle of the field, display great quickness and break tackles on his way down field for a score. But for the rest of the game, he did not consistently free himself from the defense at appropriate times for his quarterback. Splash plays such as that inspire confidence, but can lead to false positives that you are seeing a finished product in action.
It is hard to believe a player who took opposing defenders to task in college, and is capable of breath-taking moves struggled so mightily to create separation. Yet, that was the case with Watkins in 2014:
No matter what the brand of coverage was, Sammy Watkins scored below the NFL’s average SRVC. The most troubling is certainly his 49.5% success rate against man coverage. This is a score similar to the ones maintained by current NFL disappointments, such as Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. As with all of Watkins’ poor Reception Perception metrics, there are multiple explanations to reach the cause.
Again, we come back to the notion that the Bills simply asked way too much of Watkins in his rookie year. On the vast majority of his routes, he was forced to do battle with the opposition’s best corner. His success in these instances was a bit of a hit and miss proposition. While he fared well against players like Brent Grimes, Watkins predictably struggled when asked to beat Darrelle Revis. In the first matchup against New England, the Patriots star corner held Watkins to a 27.1% SRVC against man. This is one of the lower data points for any one game in Reception Perception history, and its certainly skewed Watkins’ final average.
None of the other rookies faced matchups as difficult as Sammy Watkins. Yet, a look back to his game in college, perhaps it was unreasonable to ever expect him to be ready for such a task this early. While Watkins showed the ability that would indicate he could check all the boxes as a route runner—agile movements, fluid and powerful hips, necessary savvy, etc.—he was not often required to integrate and apply those traits to run professional routes at Clemson. I was one of many who had held the belief that he could excel beyond the gadget role he frequently played in college. He certainly could still meet those expectations, but any hope that he would do so right away now seems foolish with the benefit of hindsight.
We also must, once again, consider Watkins’ health in the equation. The particular malady he had seemed to affect his ability to get free from man coverage. If he stays off the injury report in the future, his SRVC scores could see a significant spike in the coming seasons.
Tackle Breaking Measurements
In college, Sammy Watkins dazzled observers with his ability to make plays in space playing in the ACC. He had unique power for a wide receiver, while displaying great on-field agility and speed. Over the course of his Reception Perception sample, it was surprising to see those plays only used sparingly:
We know that of Watkins’ 297 routes over his Reception Perception sample, only 2.7% of them were screens. Of course, screen passes are not the only route that can qualify for an “in space” attempt. However, Watkins’ total fell right around the charted NFL average. This was an interesting coaching choice, as you’d like to think that if nothing else, Watkins would easily bring those skills to the NFL. That staff in Buffalo had a history of trying to put square pegs in round holes (see C.J. Spiller), and perhaps asking Watkins to be an every down split-end fit that trend.
On the other hand, Sammy Watkins was not exactly prolific on his in space attempts as a rookie. He was brought down on first contact at a higher rate than the average NFL receiver, and rarely broke multiple tackles once he made a catch. While his health is not the only answer for his poor SRVC scores, and overall route quality as a rookie, it does provide an adequate excuse for poor play on in space attempts. This is an area where you can reasonably expect Watkins to get better, once he is healthy.
Contested Catch Conversion Rate
For bigger receivers, poor SRVC scores can sometimes be rendered negligible if they are proficient at making catches in traffic. While Sammy Watkins is not considered a “big” receiver, we’ve seen players with his dimensions like Anquan Boldin thrive on contested catches. Unfortunately, as a rookie, Watkins did not show himself as one of those players:
On his 13 contested catch attempts over his eight-game sample, Watkins converted less than 50%, and fell well below the league average. A fearless player in traffic, but one who does not have the frame to regularly post defenders up. There is some ability to make contested catches in Watkins’ arsenal, and he’s more than a finesse or satellite player, but it will likely never be strength of his game. If he wants to post better statistics, or craft his game into that of an NFL superstar, it will have to be through improving his SRVC scores.
Conclusions and Future Outlook
One theme that presented itself throughout Sammy Watkins’ Reception Perception evaluation was “context”. Yes, this player scored poorly across the board, especially when compared to some of the other highly rookies from his draft class. However, analyzing his metrics, especially his SRVC, without taking into account the difficulty of his assignments and depreciating health would be an injustice. As he gets used to the NFL game, and if he spends less time in the training room in further seasons, his metrics and performance could improve by leaps and bounds.
On the other hand, it would be just as foolish to wistfully wave off Sammy Watkins’ poor Reception Perception data. His situation was difficult and uninspiring, but this is was a player regarded as clear top-5 talent; one that an NFL team surrendered major draft capital to secure. The community often uses the term “transcendent” to describe the potentially game changing talents taken at the highest selections of the NFL Draft. What Reception Perception shows is that, despite some nice raw stats, Watkins did not truly transcend his situation. It also casts a warning for future seasons when scouting a college player who is raw as a route runner, but carries the necessary applicable skills to become one. So naturally assuming that they will beat NFL coverage on a variety of patterns, despite never being asked to do so in college, can be a foolish proposition. Even in light of a devesitating injruy from a route running perspective, it is at least fair to ask the questrion if it was for Sammy Watkins in 2014.
As a Sammy Watkins supporter during his days in college, and as a draft prospect, the data was hard to digest. Taking into account my evaluation of him as a prospect, the context of his situation and the injury he suffered through, I do think that Sammy Watkins will become an excellent starting NFL wide receiver. All Reception Perception cautions us on is that it may take longer than many expected it to happen. His draft stock may look a tad overblown, in hindsight, and perhaps his ceiling is lower than popularly. However, it would still be shocking if he ended up being labeled a “bust”, based on his merit alone, a few years from now. If anything, it will be the Bills’ wild trade up to get him that will doom his reputation in the coming years.
As of early July, Sammy Watkins is being drafted in the fourth or fifth round of MFL 10s and seasonal fantasy leagues. Weighing all the factors, this seems too high a price to pay. Watkins’ Reception Perception data indicates he still needs plenty of seasoning to beat NFL defenders on a consistent basis. Of course, there is the hope that his health will improve to a place where his play and these metrics would drastically improve. Yet, Watkins already underwent a procedure this offseason, so that is far from a given. Even if his individual performance greatly improves, there is still the matter of his situation, which has not improved after an offseason turnover. Watkins is looking at catching passes from a Cassel-Manuel-Taylor trifecta. He’ll also be playing under “ground and pound” evangelist, Rex Ryan, whose wide receivers just do not get enough work to be more than fantasy fill-ins. It is hard to imagine Watkins elevating himself out of the murk to fulfill the duties of a regular WR2 in your fantasy lineups.
As for dynasty, if these metrics scare you enough and you believe it will never improve; you can likely still sell Watkins for what you paid for him last year. This will likely be the last window to get that value, so if you do not believe he will turn out fine, you should go ahead and trade him. Conversely, if you are not a current owner, the smartest move would be to wait a year, or even two to pounce. His statistics are unlikely to improve under these quarterbacks in this offense, and may even regress from what he posted last year. In a year from now, his owners will have grown increasingly frustrated with a player who is giving them middling production, but one that they likely drafted with the 1.01 rookie pick. By then, the sticker price may come down a bit, and buying him will be much more reasonable. You also have to hope at that time the Bills will at least be closer to settling their quarterback position, and likely be close to moving on from Rex Ryan.
If you believed in Sammy Watkins as a draft prospect, it is hard to change course so early in his NFL career. But Reception Perception clearly shows that the endeavor of reaching his perceived potential is at best going to take a little longer to reach than hoped for. And yet, with data this poor, it is fair to wonder if that he will ever become what many staunchly believed he would be coming out of school. If you take one thing away from Sammy Watkins’ Reception Perception evaluation, it should be to consider the entire range of outcomes with this player. The data demands it, whether you like it or not.