In hindsight, having an offseason devoted more to healing than preparing might be the best thing to happen to Sammy Watkins.
The slower pace forced by his recovery from February surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, the most serious of multiple injuries he suffered as a rookie, allowed him to put greater focus on the mental part of playing wide receiver in the NFL.
It allowed him to spend more time learning about what to do and how to do it from his new position coach on the Buffalo Bills, lessons that he says he never received from his previous position coach. And it provided such a welcome opportunity to let everything, along his repaired hip, feel better.
“I got time to let my body heal,” Watkins says. “And I got away from football.”
In many ways, he wishes his previous offseason could have unfolded in similar fashion.
Watkins was in great demand after his spectacular career at Clemson. Anticipating that he would be a high pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, everyone wanted a piece of him. There was plenty of traveling as he did his part to feed the pre-draft hype beast.
There also was all of the travel and physical exertion that went with convincing NFL teams that he should be a premiere pick. Watkins did intensive training to make sure he looked and functioned every bit like a top-level, game-changing, franchise-transforming receiver.
The NFL Scouting Combine. The Pro Day workout at Clemson. The visits to teams throughout the league. Getting ready for those auditions, with millions of dollars as stake, was exhausting.
“I think, when I came in fresh out of college, you’re still tired, coming off a long season, bowl game, training for the scouts,” Watkins says. “Your body’s all broken down because you’re doing so much trying to maintain it. In this offseason, I just rested. I had to rest. I had to sit at home, stretch.
“And now my body feels great. I feel like I’m 17.”
He and the Bills can only hope that the results of that post-surgical respite show up on the field.
Statistically, and pretty much in every other way, Watkins’ rookie season was a disappointment. He didn’t set the lofty standard for himself that came with being a top-five draft pick. The Bills did that after making a stunning trade with the Cleveland Browns to vault from No. 9 to No. 4 overall to select Watkins. By paying the exorbitant price of first- and fourth-round choices in 2015 to make the climb, they instantly identified him as the primary solution to making EJ Manuel look much more like the first-round quarterback he didn’t look like as a rookie in 2013.
Fair or not, Watkins had to live with that label and the expectations that came with it. Ultimately, his 65 catches (tying him with Robert Woods for second on the team behind the 66 of running back Fred Jackson) for 982 yards and six touchdowns didn’t come remotely close to fulfilling them. Manuel was benched after four games, and the Bills proceeded to miss the playoffs for a 15th consecutive year.
Worse for Watkins was the fact that, in a draft packed with superb receiving talent, he took a seat many rows behind Odell Beckham Jr., who caught 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns for the New York Giants. The Giants snatched all of that production at No. 12. Yes, had the Bills simply stayed put, they would have had Beckham and a first-round pick on April 30.
But Watkins insists he never thought he was carrying an extra burden, even while Beckham was tearing it up for the Giants and other rookie receivers – such as Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans – were having more productive seasons. He insists he never once begrudged Beckham for outshining him so much.
“Not one bit,” Watkins says. “The whole year, and still to this day, me and him are pretty close. We text back and forth. I love to see guys ball out and have success. With me and him, we’re just the same type of dudes, same receivers. It’s all about the quarterback you get and all about the team you’re on. So, for me, it was just going out there every week and trying to win. I was not down about my yards. I was down about losing.”
Watkins sounds philosophical, succumbing to the idea that a combination of circumstances – those grinding months of draft preparation, the lack of detailed coaching, the quarterback change from Manuel to Kyle Orton, and all of those injuries – conspired to limit his impact.
“I really didn’t feel that much pressure,” he says. “It was just what goes along with it. You’ve got to do a lot of things. You’re tired, a lot of people and things pull you this way, you’re dealing with family issues. And now that I’ve got that behind me, I’m just worried about football. My thing is I just go out there, have fun and compete.I did good” last season. “I left a lot on the field. There were a lot of situations where I could have got the ball and I didn’t get it, so you’ve just got to look at it as this is the whole team goals. It’s not about me. Everybody’s got to do their job, and I think, for the most part, I did mine.”
It all started on the night of Aug. 16, 2014, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. In the first quarter of a preseason game against the Steelers, Watkins ran a slant route on third-and-short. He then took two hard shots – one from cornerback Cortez Allen, who tackled him, and another from linebacker Ryan Shazier, who gave him a second hit for good measure. It was that second blow that caused Watkins to suffer broken ribs that caused him to leave the game.
After that, he would sustain a groin injury that prompted an early departure from practice in early November. Then, on Nov. 30, against the Browns, he wound up with the labral tear in his hip.
Injury prone? Maybe. Tough? Definitely. Watkins started and played in all 16 regular-season games. But he agrees that dealing with those physical ailments, especially the damage to his ribs, had a negative effect on his performance.
“Yeah, because you want to do your best every time you touch the ball every game,” Watkins says. “Your ribs are broke, so you’re going out of bounds on certain plays that you should be finishing. Or you don’t want to go across the middle because you’re going to get hit there again. So certain things” are “in the back of your mind, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to play.”
Watkins vividly remembers that fateful “go” route he ran during the Bills’ 26-10 victory against the Browns. As he cranked up to full speed, his feet suddenly became entangled with those of Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden, who was behind him.
Watkins tripped and went down hard, with his hip taking the brunt of the fall.
“And I got up and I was like, ‘Something is not right,’” Watkins recalled. The hip “was swollen, so you couldn’t really see what was going on. Then a week went by and I was like, ‘Man, I need to go get it checked again.’ And that’s when they diagnosed it.”
Watkins was told he had a slightly torn labrum that would require surgery, but he put it off until the offseason so he wouldn’t miss any games. He knew there was some risk involved with his decision, but intended to manage it as best as he could.
“My thing was I didn’t want to hurt it more than what it was,” Watkins says. “I didn’t want to go out there and it just snaps apart, and I’m just out there laying around. So every game I kind of hindered myself with just playing slow. Some games I came out feeling good, some games I felt bad.
“If you look at it, during the course of the season, my numbers changed. The injury played a little part in that because I wasn’t a hundred percent third or fourth quarter. I was lingering and cold, stiff. It was cold around that time, and it wasn’t helping me.”
Watkins actually had one of his best showings of the season the week after the Cleveland game when he caught seven passes for 127 yards in a 24-17 loss at Denver. But in the final three games of the season, he made only seven receptions for 160 yards.
The Bills stuck to the rehabilitation plan of keeping his involvement in offseason workouts to a minimum. During OTAs, Watkins would join the huddle and then line up behind a receiver who would run the route but not run it himself. In minicamp practices, he ran about five or six plays.
His hip feels “great” and he can “run all day,” but when he left Western New York for his offseason home in his native Ft. Myers, Fla., he planned to work on conditioning himself for all of the movement involved with playing receiver.
“I need to just get used to cutting and jumping and doing the things that” the hip is “not used to doing now.” It’s expected that Watkins should be medically cleared to participate when training camp opens Friday at St. John Fisher.That doesn’t necessarily mean he will be operating at maximum capacity from the start.
“We’ve got to be smart enough to know there has to be a progression,” new Bills receivers coach Sanjay Lal cautions, noting that despite all of the training he did at home, “nothing can mimic true football. So I’m sure we’re going to be smart about how he’s progressed into it. It’s a long season and we want him in January and hopefully in February.”
There’s no dodging the subject. The offseason has been an incredible awakening for Watkins. The difference between what he knows about playing wide receiver now and what he knew at the end of his rookie offseason can be measured in light years.
It’s a testament to new receivers coach Sanjay Lal, of course, but it’s also a major indictment of former Bills receivers coach Rob Moore.
“Now, we’re understanding how to run routes off any press, off any leverage, to where you won’t be covered,” Watkins says. “We were kind of limited last year with certain things. It was, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ All” Moore “wanted to do was just tie-in what he knew and what he did in his career and just do that.
“The way” Lal “coaches now is the way that I know. Everybody knows it that way. Everybody’s like, ‘Man, we wish we had this last year.’ Or, ‘Man, we wish we could do that.’ And” Lal’s “like, ‘No, we want you to do it that way. That’s the way I’m teaching it. Do it that way!’”
Says Lal, “We’re working on everything, from stances to start to drive phase to top of routes to coming out of breaks to run after catch. So basically we’ve broken down his whole game into minutia, starting from step one and going through everything.”
The No. 1 coaching point for all of the Bills’ receivers is to stay low while running routes. The idea is to make it harder on the defensive backs to anticipate where the receivers are going. Give away nothing through body position, regardless of the type of route being run.
“Running high, the DB knows that you’re going to break because you’re raising up or you’re squatting back down,” Watkins says. “So it’s important to stay at the same angle as a running position, whether you’re running full-speed or not. It’s all an act. Say, if I take off full-speed at three yards, I want to stay at that speed rather than raise up and then stay at that speed. You just want to stay down and keep your body angle the same way and, then, boom, cut this way. Boom, cut that way. The cornerback doesn’t know where you’re going. You can throw your eyes this way and go that way, throw your eyes that way and go this way. So it’s harder now to identify what routes we’re running. Not just me. Literally, everybody in our wide-receiving corps is a true route runner. And now they understand the game.”
Coaching Point No. 2: Never allow yourself to be held by a defender.
“If they’re holding us, it’s our fault,” Watkins says. “So we can’t go to the coach and say, ‘They’re holding us.’ He’ll say, ‘No, they were holding because you were letting them.’ So we’re getting the mentality that we can’t be stopped. Whether we take any release, you can get open. You can’t be covered. If he wants me to go outside, I’m going to go outside and still run a dagger” to the inside.
For Lal, doing his part to help maximize Watkins’ skills is as much personal as professional. He doesn’t want to let him down. He doesn’t want to let the team down.
In Lal’s view, Watkins is simply too talented to not be a dominant force because he hasn’t learned all of the tricks of his trade.
“We believe he’s a powerful, physical, fast athlete, and every route he runs has to display that,” Lal says. “A simple thing like being too tall in the route stem takes away the perception of that characteristic. So we want him exploding off the ball, low pad level like he’s just eating up ground, eating up that DB, and then violent at the top of every route. We’re working drills to get him into that mode every play.
“You determine right away if you’re coaching at him or coaching with him. He’s the latter because you teach him the why, in terms of the technique, and then pull it up on film three days later and say, ‘Sammy, what did you do wrong here?’ And he’ll say, ‘Oh, I see that I didn’t do this.’ So you know he’s retaining the coaching and he’s actually understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished rather than taking the attitude that some players do, ‘Well, my coach is making me do it this way.’ ” He’s more like, ‘OK, he’s telling me to do it this way, here’s why, I understand why, and I’m going to perfect these techniques.’ ” “It’s really refreshing for me that someone of his athletic caliber doesn’t want to just rely on his athleticism. Because he could be a good receiver in this league for 10 years just relying on his physical ability. Well, to me it’s a great tragedy if Sammy leaves the game and he was a good receiver. He needs to be a great receiver or one of the best. And that’s how we’re coaching him. I feel that’s my mission – that I would let him down and everyone else down if I didn’t put everything into letting him fulfill his potential.”
Watkins is reluctant to talk specifics about the kind of statistical year he expects for himself. He knows that whatever he discusses in July will be filed away and brought up again and again during and, especially, after the season.
Particularly if he falls short.
Watkins won’t say it, but the fact the Bills have yet to determine their starting quarterback doesn’t exactly bode well for his ability to produce. Another factor is that he is surrounded by many more talented offensive weapons than a year ago.
“You never know,” Watkins says. “I might get a thousand yards this year, I might get 900. You just don’t know how it’s going to play out because we’ve got a great running back” in LeSean McCoy. “We’ve got Robert Woods. We’ve got Marquise Goodwin. We’ve got Percy Harvin. We’ve got Charles Clay. So many pieces that you don’t know who’s going to have the better year. You might have Percy with a thousand yards. And if we’re winning, that’s fine.
“You want 10 or 12 touchdowns. You want over a thousand yards. You want 80-90 catches. But you still have to be truthful and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got another wide receiver that’s just like you.’ We’ve got Robert Woods, who’s great. You’ve got a tight end that’s going to probably get 700 or 600 yards. A running back that might rush for 1,500 or 1,300 yards. So you’ve just got to be truthful to yourself. I understand that.
“I’ve definitely got to make the plays. I don’t care if they throw to me three times. Those three plays are supposed to be made. If it’s 10, those 10 plays need to be made. I need to make all of them. It’s a big part. If I don’t play good and Percy doesn’t play good, it’s going to be a problem. You can’t run the ball 40 times a game. It starts off with running and passing and getting the defense off-balance. And if we aren’t doing our job and getting open, it’s going to be a problem.”
Not just for himself.
By pointing out the dramatic change in the coaching he gets, Watkins has put enormous pressure on Lal. Lal knows it. And he’s fine with it.
“When Sammy steps on the field and goes – even he says he hasn’t gone at full speed yet – just the suddenness and burst and power you feel from him when you’re standing next to him on the field, something as simple as a release, it is so violent and quick and powerful, it’s God-given,” Lal says. “You can’t teach that. You see what he can be at the top of a route. If they try and play him hard bump-and-run, he’ll just throw the DB off, or he’ll shake him and burst past him. I mean, there are just so many things he can do. He’s so gifted.
“His hands are unbelievably natural. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but when you feel how he catches, the sound the ball makes. It’s like it’s a vise clamping onto the ball. You don’t worry, ‘Is it going to come out? Is it going to stay in there?’ No, that thing is ripped out of the air and clamped down. And it’s just a whole different feel from a non-natural catcher.”
A player with all of that skill has to be catching 80-plus passes for a thousand-plus yards and 10 or more touchdowns. What else could Watkins be expecting from himself in Year Two?
“Winning, playoffs, championship,” he says without hesitation. “We’ve got a great team and great coaches. I mean, there’s just no way we shouldn’t be in the playoffs or win a championship. I mean, with the team and coaches and staff that we have, and what they’re doing to bring us together, I think that there’s no doubt that we should win our division and be in the playoffs. It’s a problem if we don’t.”
And if Watkins doesn’t show significant improvement over his rookie year, that’s going to be a problem, too.