The News will examine 10 questions facing the Buffalo Bills leading up to the start of training camp.
When the Buffalo Bills moved up from No. 9 overall to No. 4 in the 2014 NFL draft, trading away their 2015 first- and fourth-round picks to take wide receiver Sammy Watkins, they were counting on Watkins being a star.
Not a starter. A star.
In what was arguably the most receiver-rich draft in NFL history, the Bills mortgaged plenty for the 6-foot-1, 211-pounder from Clemson. It’s too soon to say if General Manager Doug Whaley made the right call. Watkins caught 65 passes for 982 yards and six touchdowns. He had four 100-yard games. He battled through injuries.
But this was also a historic rookie class – and clearly was before anyone made a pick. With the Bills for sale, and his own future uncertain, Whaley took a huge gamble. Anything less than trips to the Pro Bowl probably won’t be enough. Into Year Two, expectations for Watkins will be high.
The good news for Buffalo? Watkins often dazzled.
He runs routes like a veteran. Known for breaking his steps down to a science at Clemson, Watkins often turned corners into a pretzel last fall. His weaving “go” route left six-year vet Captain Munnerlyn grasping for air on a 26-yard score against Minnesota. Watkins has world-class speed, but he also knows how to harness it on routes underneath to paralyze corners.
He’s unafraid. Through hamstring, hip and rib issues, Watkins went across the middle without much hesitation. His 61-yard touchdown against the New York Jets came on a slant route in which he could’ve been crunched by a safety, who whiffed on the hit. And at Detroit, he made a one-handed catch knowing James Ihedigbo was closing in.
Above all, he goes deep.
With running back LeSean McCoy, tight end Charles Clay and slot receiver Percy Harvin around, defensive coordinators probably can’t afford to double Watkins. In one-on-one coverage, expect the Bills to take more shots deep.
There’s a lot to like. Even then, Watkins was overshadowed by Odell Beckham Jr.
In retrospect, the Bills probably could’ve stayed put at No. 9 and taken the ridiculous talent from LSU. Beckham Jr. averaged 109 yards and one touchdown per game. If Watkins was solid, Beckham Jr. looked potentially transcendent. Beyond him, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans (68 receptions for 1,051 yards with 12 touchdowns), Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin (73-1,008-9), Miami’s Jarvis Landry (84-758-5) and Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews (67-872-8) all burst onto the scene.
The Bills could’ve waited until the second round for Davante Adams (drafted 53rd overall) or even the fourth round for Martavis Bryant (118th overall), two more wideouts who embarrassed cornerbacks themselves.
For years, the assumption was that it took two or three full seasons for an NFL wide receiver to adjust to the pro game. The advent of complex spread offenses in college – and even complex 7-on-7 summer leagues in high school before that – has changed that theory. So while this 2014 class was probably the best ever, this 2015 class up next is loaded, too.
And so will the 2016 group … 2017 … and 2018 classes. Chances are, there will always be a high supply of talented receivers. Receivers are more ready than ever to step in.
To be fair, Watkins didn’t exactly have Eli Manning throwing him the ball as Beckham Jr. did. And Watkins was far from healthy.
This offseason, he had hip surgery. The challenge now is gaining chemistry with three quarterbacks.
“It is,” Watkins said last month. “That’s where training camp comes in. You’re going to get more time with maybe the starter, maybe the backup. So you just have to find your way with where you fit in and get as much work as you can.”
In the process, Watkins hopes to take his game to another level. Considering the Bills could’ve drafted three legitimate starters with those three picks, the pressure is on him to be special.
In Year One, he showed flashes of being this team’s best wide receiver since Eric Moulds. Watkins certainly has a more complete game than the team’s last first-round pick at the position, Lee Evans. He can win deep, he can win underneath. If he stays healthy, count on Watkins being a star. At some point.
Then, the question will become if it’s enough.