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Watkins’ plays provides Bills with newfound hope

Signs of optimism are fleeting at One Bills Drive. Injuries mount, postseason hopes dwindle, Rex Ryan’s charm fades.

And, hey, did you hear Western New York is about to get blasted by a lake effect storm?

Yes, it’s another dreary limp into the offseason for the Buffalo Bills.

But tucked in the back corner of the locker room is Sammy Watkins. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound receiver sure has had a strange, stressful introduction to pro football, from the seven injuries to the call for 10 targets a game, to the Instagram post ripping fans to “continue working y’all little jobs.”

Then, something funny happened through the Bills’ trudge to a 16th straight playoff-less season: Sammy Watkins started resembling a player absolutely worth the king’s ransom. Doug Whaley’s job will be put under the microscope three weeks from now, but his decision to trade up for Watkins is paying off. Since the bye week, Watkins ranks No. 3 league-wide in receiving with 569 yards, only trailing Odell Beckham Jr. (666) and Antonio Brown (679).

His 20.3 yards per catch over this span ranks first. In the face of scrutiny, of a social-media firestorm Watkins elevated his game to a new level.

How? Part physical, part mental and now he’s proving his GM right.

“I never want to feel like I let somebody down,” Watkins said. “And that’s the worst thing you can do when you’re drafted in the first round, fourth pick and you hear the word ‘bust.’ I just want to give them their money’s worth. Hey, you drafted me with the fourth pick — you came up and got me — that’s the talent you’re going to get on the field.

“I’m going to try to make every play. Just the nature of the business, you want to do the best for not only yourself but for your teammates, your organization and basically the person that put his job on the line for you. The one who moved up in the draft to get you.”

So this is what Watkins meant when he told The News “Just target me,” when he said the team was making itself and himself look bad. See a one-on-one opportunity? Heave it. He had a point all along, proving he can create space even when a safety lurks over the top. In the 23-20 loss at Philadelphia, Watkins toasted a pressing Byron Maxwell with an outside release and hauled in a 47-yard touchdown before safety Ed Reynolds arrived. The week prior, he caught two 53-yarders. On one, Watkins was sandwiched between two defenders.

Make no mistake: Frustration was boiling in late September.

Watkins sprained his calf in Week Three, returned, then injured the ankle. In between, one of his agents reached out to the team to get the receiver more involved. Meanwhile, the rest of this star-studded 2014 draft class flourished. Odell Beckham Jr. Jarvis Landry. Mike Evans. Jordan Matthews. Brandin Cooks. Allen Robinson. John Brown. Martavis Bryant.

The list is long, historic and here he was on the sideline watching.

“You can be negative all you want when you’re off the field and not playing in games,” Watkins said, “and there’s so many things going through your head — that you’re letting the team down, letting the GM down. So my thing was just to get back healthy, get back on the field and make plays.”

That’s exactly what he’s done since against a constellation of coverages. Last week, Eagles coach Chip Kelly said Watkins is on the level of Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson, so defenses scheme that way. He’s seeing more and more attention. The key is not worrying about the double-team — ignore it. Because if he runs his route as crisp, as hard, as determined possible, he has a shot. Beat that initial corner off the line and quarterback Tyrod Taylor will throw the ball.

“I have to beat both of them,” Watkins said. “That’s my mind-set.”

Extra hours spent poring through film is driving his resurgence, too. Watkins now crafts very specific game plans for the cornerback he knows will be covering him each week. Whether it’s been Miami’s Brett Grimes, Kansas City’s Sean Smith, Houston’s Kevin Johnson or Philadelphia’s Byron Maxwell, Watkins has tweaked every route, every release accordingly.

The No. 1 reason Watkins’ athleticism, speed and overall talent is so visible now, his position coach says, is the work between Sundays.

He has embraced the “minutia,” Sanjay Lal explains. Watkins hunts for a weakness, finds it and attacks.

“He studies in our meeting and then he’ll go home and watch the other 100 clips — or whatever he has to — to really know the guy,” Lal said. “By the end of the week, I can say to him, ‘OK, you’re going to run this route, Route X, and he’s going to press you with inside leverage. What’s your plan? Now, he’s pressing you with outside leverage. What’s your plan? Now, he’s off. Now that he’s off, what’s that inside ‘backer going to do?’”

He’s getting a handful of one-on-one looks a game still, too.

“And Tyrod’s been seeing it,” Lal said, “which is great.”

The pressure of the trade in Year One, followed by the turbulent September in Year Two, Lal added, never rocked Watkins’ confidence because “he knows how talented he is.” The more he prepared, the faster he’d play.

“If I’m as prepared as I can be, and I know my opponent, what’s the pressure?” Lal said. “To make that catch? Well, he can make that catch all day.”

OK, so in a perfect re-draft scenario the Bills probably would stay put at No. 8 overall, keep their 2015 first-rounder and take Beckham. The New York Giants wideout defies gravity and logic. It’s as if he plays on an invisible trampoline with invisible Stickum covering his palms.

Watkins does watch the wide receivers in his draft. He feeds off of their success and tries picking up subtle tips when possible.

As good as Beckham is — as deep as this draft ran — Watkins has flashed signs of being a transcendent talent worth chasing. After all, the Bills don’t have a two-time Super Bowl MVP under center. They had EJ Manuel then and Taylor now, so Whaley gambled on the one considered a sure thing.

Who knows what would’ve happened if Whaley never traded up? One silver lining this season has been a healthy, ridiculously talented Watkins gaining chemistry with a first-year starter at quarterback.

“I have all the trust in him to make the pass, to throw me the ball,” Watkins said. “It’s really him having trust in me and I think I’ve gained that. We’ve been on the right page ever since. He’s been looking at me a lot. And everybody’s been making plays. We’ve been spreading the ball around a lot.”

And does Watkins want Taylor to be his quarterback long term?

He says it’s not about what he wants. That’s on the front office. Watkins even referenced Whaley’s comments this week that Taylor’s success wouldn’t “preclude” the Bills from adding a quarterback. But, yes, Watkins is on board with Taylor.

“I’m definitely leaning Tyrod’s way with being here — hopefully a long time,” Watkins said. “That’s what you want. You want to build a relationship with a young QB, and you’re young. He did a lot of great things. He helped us win. He won games by himself sometimes. So that’s what you can build off of.”

Maybe the Bills are below .500 again. But unlike past seasons, there’s pop at the skill positions. Unlike past seasons, a few bold, risky moves have panned out.

Pressure? What pressure. Watkins shakes his head.

He’s in a groove now.

“I know some plays, they’re going to have the right defense, a great play call and I’m going to get covered,” Watkins said. “But at the same time, I’ll try to beat the DB — not for everybody else — but for the guys in this locker room. Not so much for the owners or the organization. I do it for the guys in this locker room.”

email: tdunne@buffnews.com