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Was trading up for Sammy Watkins worth it? What the numbers & some pundits say

Rex Ryan sounds like a guy who is happy to watch from the sidelines as the first round of the NFL Draft plays out on Thursday.

“I’d much rather have Sammy Watkins than a first-round pick,” Ryan said in February. “That’s fine, to feel left out that way. I like watching No. 14 out there.”

Of course, the Buffalo Bills’ head coach – and anyone else in the organization – has to say as much. Anything else would be tantamount to admitting the team made a mistake in trading up with the Cleveland Browns to take Watkins in the first round of the 2014 draft.

“I really like what they did last year trading up to get that receiver, because Watkins is one heck of a player,” ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden said last week on a conference call, without being prompted.

Are the Bills really better off having made the trade? That’s a simple question without an easy answer.

The transaction ultimately broke down like this: The Bills moved up to No. 4 overall by dealing their 2014 first-round pick, No. 9 overall, to the Browns along with first- and fourth-round selections this year. Those picks ended up being No. 19 and No. 115 overall after the Bills’ 9-7 season.

The Browns ended up with Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert last year. So far, that move hasn’t worked out – Gilbert had a miserable rookie season.

Watkins, on the other hand, simply had an uneven one. He finished with 65 catches for 982 yards (15.1 yards per reception) and six touchdowns. His catches and yards set rookie team records, as did his four 100-yard games. So calling his season a disappointment is a stretch.

But he did finish sixth among rookie receivers in receptions, fourth in yards and tied for sixth in touchdowns. That wasn’t the plan when General Manager Doug Whaley made the bold move up to get him.

“Buffalo had to try to go for the biggest playmaker it could,” said KC Joyner, a regular contributor to ESPN and one of the pioneers of analytical research in football. “When you don’t have a great quarterback, you’ve got to make that up with other talent. That was another reason to say, ‘We want to go ahead and move up to get this guy who could be this elite playmaker.’ ”

Of course, Whaley had no idea at the time of the trade he’d even be around to use this year’s first-round pick. The Bills were for sale at the time, and staring at a 15th straight season out of the playoffs. Even though that unsightly streak continued, new owners Terry and Kim Pegula opted not to make sweeping front-office changes.

So if Whaley knew then what he knows now … “They’d take Odell Beckham,” Joyner said. “They don’t make the trade.”

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20 when it comes to the draft. Every NFL team can look at their uninspired selections and shake their head at the Pro Bowlers left on the board (cough, Torell Troup over Rob Gronkowski, cough, cough) at the time.

“It’s too easy to say, ‘Well, they could have just stayed where they were and taken Odell Beckham,’ ” former Bills great James Lofton, a current analyst for Westwood One’s radio coverage of Sunday Night Football, said in a phone interview with The Buffalo News. “They identified a player who they thought was going to be a game-changer for them. You have to give them credit.”

Beckham is the player Bills fans point to most often when lamenting the Watkins trade. The LSU product became a star in his first season with the New York Giants, finishing with 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in just 12 games.

“There’s no telling what kind of season Odell Beckham would have had in Buffalo with the same quarterback situation that Sammy Watkins had,” Lofton said.

While Beckham has become the standard to which Watkins will be held, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin had more catches, yards and touchdowns. Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews, a second-round pick, had more catches and touchdowns, while fellow second-rounder Jarvis Landry had more receptions.

Watkins’ struggles – if that’s the right term – can be traced to two primary issues: The quarterback situation Lofton alluded to, and injuries. Although he played in all 16 games, Watkins had injuries to his ribs, hamstring and hip that factored into his performance.

Watkins was targeted 124 times according to the website Pro Football Focus, meaning he caught just 52.4 percent of the passes intended for him. That figure (which takes into account his five drops) ranked 98th in the NFL and means way too many passes in his direction were high, wide or too low.

Unfortunately for Watkins, both of those issues are largely out of his control. A franchise quarterback isn’t going to magically appear on the Bills’ roster (although, to be fair, part of the reason for the trade was the idea that Watkins could make EJ Manuel’s life easier) and only so much can be done to prevent injuries.

“We didn’t see the playmaker that we saw in college,” Joyner said. “Buffalo needs to utilize him in different ways than what they did last year. Look at his yards-per-reception total. Four of his games last year, he’s in single digits. A guy of his caliber should have very, very few games like that.”

If it sounds like Joyner is down on Watkins, it shouldn’t. In fact, he was one of the bigger supporters of the former Clemson star prior to the 2014 draft.

In an article for ESPN Insider, Joyner analyzed the top eight wide receivers in the 2014 class, looking at the normal height/weight/speed numbers, but putting an analytical spin on their statistics. He ranked each player in the following categories: Overall yards per attempt, vertical yards per attempt, stretch vertical yards per attempt, targets per game, overall success rate, success rate on vertical and stretch levels (passes that travel more than 11 and 20 yards downfield, respectively) and yards per attempt when facing a cornerback or safety in direct coverage.

“He lapped the field in his metrics,” Joyner said. “He beat every other receiver, and it wasn’t even close.”

For example, Watkins’ yards per attempt when facing a cornerback or safety was 25.0 – 10.5 yards better than the second-place finisher (Evans). On vertical yards per attempt, he averaged 28.3 – again more than 10 yards better than anyone else.

Compared to just Beckham, who admittedly played in a conference with better defenses, Watkins’ numbers were across-the-board better.

“That’s the kind of playmaker you thought you were getting is a guy who is just head-and-shoulders above everybody else,” Joyner said. “I’ve never seen a receiver put up metrics of the caliber of what Watkins put up that last year at Clemson. I would imagine that’s one of the things the Bills were looking at at the time – this incredible explosive ability.”

So the question becomes, can he still give them that?

Lofton thinks so.

“When I was coaching with Marty Schottenheimer, he had a word he only used for the best players: ‘Rare,’ ” Lofton said. “That’s what I see when I watch Sammy Watkins. His short-area quickness, the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands, he’s going to be a special player.”

Joyner agreed, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if Watkins “catches up to Beckham,” provided he gets “the right kind of quarterback play.”

“I think he can put up the kinds of numbers we saw out of Odell Beckham,” Joyner said. “But even if he equals Beckham, you’re still talking about what you had to trade to go up to get him. That’s what it boils down to. It’s not, ‘Can he equal a guy like Beckham?’ It’s, ‘Can he do better than Beckham?’

“That book is still to be written. … Watkins was the best playmaking wide receiver in last year’s draft. To be aggressive and go after somebody of that caliber of talent – that’s the kind of move you want to make. I still think his ceiling can be higher than Odell Beckham Jr.’s ceiling.”

Lofton’s advice to Bills fans is not to sweat making constant comparisons between Watkins and the player the Browns will draft at No. 19.

“You’ve got a great player there,” he said. “Enjoy him.”

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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