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Injury denies Watkins a shot at facing Giants, Beckham

Sammy Watkins says he and Odell Beckham Jr. have a great relationship. They were drafted in the same year. They communicate on social media. Watkins looks forward to watching Beckham play here this weekend and said they’ll swap jerseys afterward.

But if Watkins gives Beckham Jr. a jersey, it might be a spanking clean one. There’s a good chance he will be in street clothes against the Giants on Sunday and won’t get to play against his friend and rival from the 2014 draft class.

Watkins is troubled by a strained calf muscle suffered in the first quarter of the Bills’ win in Miami. He said he would play if he could, but coach Rex Ryan was not encouraging when he appeared on WFAN radio in New York on Wednesday.

“Will he play?” Rex told his old radio audience in the Big Apple. “Probably not.”

Ryan might be playing coy with the Giants. But if Watkins can’t play, it’ll be regrettable on a number of levels. For one, he’s nominally the Bills’ top receiver and would create major problems for a Giants pass defense that’s dead last in the NFL.

You know it would kill Watkins to sit. He’s a competitor who played virtually every offensive snap of his rookie season. He would miss the opportunity to play against Beckham Jr., the one player with whom he is constantly compared.

Once again, the history: In the 2014 draft, the Bills traded the ninth overall pick and their first- and fourth-rounders in 2015 to the Browns for the right to pick Watkins at No. 4 overall. The Giants happily took Beckham with the 12th overall pick.

It’s not Sammy’s fault the Bills paid such a ransom. But you also can’t blame skeptics for questioning the wisdom of making such a deal in one of the richest wide receiver classes in NFL history, with Beckham the biggest prize.

Beckham Jr. didn’t play until the fifth game of his rookie year because of a hamstring injury, but he performed like a superstar and made the Pro Bowl. His stunning, one-handed TD catch against the Cowboys in Week 12 won “Best Play” in the ESPY awards.

In the last eight games alone, Beckham had 73 catches for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns, more than Watkins amassesd in each category over a full 16-game season. Watkins said he’s unmoved by the numbers, though it’s hard to imagine that he’s unaware of Beckham’s statistical rise.

“I don’t look at anybody’s stats,” he said. “It’s not about stats. It’s really about winning, team effort. He’s going to get the stats. He’s going to be great. He’s going to get a lot of yards. That’s what any top receiver should get, a lot of yards and touchdowns.”

He’s better off ignoring the numbers. Beckham has 110 catches for 1,574 yards and 14 touchdowns in his 15 NFL games thus far. Watkins has 55 receptions (exactly half as many) for 884 yards and six TDs in that 15-game stretch.

“Some of the catches he makes are pretty amazing,” Bills safety Corey Graham said of Beckham. “It doesn’t hurt that Eli Manning throws him the ball about 20 times a game.”

Watkins hasn’t benefited from top-flight quarterbacking. He’s also been hampered by a variety of nagging injuries going back to his first training camp. He had injured ribs in training camp, a strained groin in early November.

He tore his hip labrum against the Browns and played through it. He toughed it out in Denver the next week and had the last 100-yard game of his rookie season. Watkins had offseason hip surgery. He was slowed by a sore glute in the summer.

Then came the strained calf on a 39-yard reception against the Dolphins.

Someone asked Watkins if he had been fully healthy at any point in his 19-game NFL career.

“Last year I was up and down with the ribs for six or seven weeks, the torn labrum,” he said. “So first season, I wouldn’t say I was healthy. This season, I’ve felt way better. It’s just this minor injury, which can happen from being dehydrated, anything. It was in Miami. You don’t know what caused it.

“But once I get healthy, I think I’ll be all right.”

Watkins admitted that this ceaseless run of relatively minor ailments had been frustrating.

“Most definitely,” he said, “because you can’t go out and prove you’re top-receiver elite. Injuries hold you back, so now you have to catch up with the quarterback, catch up with the plays and get back in shape. That’s the most critical thing, getting back in shape and trusting that it’s not going to blow out again.”

It’s admirable for athletes to play through injuries, but not always wise. Watkins admits he pushed himself too hard last season, even in practice. He was trying to prove himself, to justify the Bills’ huge investment. He said he hit the rookie wall and felt sorry for himself.

As Watkins sat at his locker, you could sense him calculating, balancing his proud competitive nature with the need to be sensible about his injury. LeSean McCoy is hurting, too, so there’s a chance the Bills will be without their two most prominent skill players Sunday.

“I have be smart,” he said. “I know it’s a long season and we got a great group of guys, so if I cannot play, I will not force myself to play. It’s a long season and it’s only the fourth week. Being that we might be a playoff team and go deep in the playoffs, I won’t go out there and force anything.”

That’s a noble perspective. But at some point, Watkins needs to justify the enormous gamble the Bills made to get him. There are already mutterings that he’s not even the No. 1 receiver. Percy Harvin has established a greater bond with Tyrod Taylor and become Taylor’s favorite target.

Ryan said he has three No. 1 receivers – Watkins, Harvin and Robert Woods. He said Watkins is a “super” talent who will prove he was worth the pick. But the Bills didn’t draft him to be equal to Woods and Harvin. They expected him to be among the top rank of receivers, like Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Beckham Jr.

Until that happens, you can’t blame a critical Bills fan for gesturing toward Beckham on Sunday and saying, “We could have had that guy, and kept our first-round pick, too.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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