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When Watkins got the ball, Bills passing game finally took off

This is the third of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the wide receivers.

By Vic Carucci

News Sports Reporter

Sammy Watkins wanted the ball. He got the ball.

There, in a nutshell, is the evolution of the Buffalo Bills’ passing game in 2015.

Through much of the first half of the season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman tried for balance in moving the ball through the air. Tyrod Taylor also was finding his way as a first-time starting quarterback in the NFL and still trying to develop chemistry with his receivers after offseason and preseason work limited by a three-way competition for the No. 1 spot.

Consequently, there was heavy emphasis on throwing to tight end Charles Clay, whose position has always had a key role in Roman’s scheme and who was a safer go-to option for Taylor.

And that helped lead to Watkins being targeted only three times (with no catches) in the season-opener against Indianapolis and twice (for one reception for 39 yards) in Week Three against Miami before he missed the next two games with a calf injury.

It was hardly the sort of thing anyone expected for the player the Bills gave up two picks to make the fourth overall choice of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Once Watkins made public his feelings that he wasn’t being targeted enough – and he returned from an ankle injury he suffered Oct. 18 against Cincinnati – passes began coming his way more often. As a result, he emerged as a breakout player through the second half of the season on the way to leading the Bills with 60 receptions for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns.

Suffice it to say that Watkins has zero regrets about speaking up.

“It played out well,” he said on ESPN2’s “First Take” on Monday. “At the end of the day, it’s a business, it’s my career. And if you drafted up to get me (and) I’m not getting the ball, I mean, I’d rather go out with addressing the problem than (saying), ‘Hey, either I’m in a good situation or bad situation’ whether they got to get us the ball.

“Wideouts, they call us prima donnas and all that, but at the end of the day, we want to make a play and we want our opportunities.”

The breakdown follows:

Signed: Marcus Easley, Marquise Goodwin, Dezmin Lewis, Walter Powell, Greg Salas, Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods.

Pending free agents: Leonard Hankerson, Percy Harvin, Chris Hogan.

What went right: When Watkins spoke, his offensive coordinator and quarterback listened. Perhaps it was a bit too late to help the Bills make the playoffs, but at least they responded.

Watkins’ four highest targets (10 against Kansas City on Nov. 29, 12 against Philadelphia on Dec. 13, 10 against Washington on Dec. 20, and 15 against the New York Jets on Jan. 3) came in the final six games of the season. Through the first four of those (Kansas City, Houston, Philadelphia, and Washington), the Bills were still in the postseason hunt.

Watkins had his best performance of the season against the Chiefs, catching six passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Still, the Bills, thanks mostly to a defensive collapse and poor replay-challenge decisions by Rex Ryan, lost and their postseason hopes took a major hit. Watkins had five receptions for 111 yards and two scores in the playoff-eliminating defeat against the Redskins.

Thanks in no small part to Watkins, 16 of the Bills’ 23 passing touchdowns covered 20 or more yards, while six of those receptions were 40 or more yards.

What went wrong: Watkins becoming an afterthought in the offense through the first half of the season and needing to speak up in the media before being heavily utilized.

His inability to stay healthy the entire season has to be at least somewhat of a concern, considering the injuries with which he dealt throughout his rookie season. The most serious was a torn labrum in his hip that required surgery after the season.

The Bills thought they found a legitimate No. 2 receiver with free-agent speedster Percy Harvin, who seemed to establish himself as Taylor’s favorite target early in the season with 16 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown through the first three games. However, after the fifth game, Harvin was inactive for two weeks, then returned to face Cincinnati on Oct. 18.

Then, his season got weird.

Harvin didn’t travel with the Bills to their game in London against Jacksonville for what coach Rex Ryan and General Manager Doug Whaley said were “personal reasons.”

After reports emerged that he stayed home because he was pondering retirement due to chronic health issues, Harvin was placed on the injured-reserve list for the final nine games with hip and knee problems. He underwent surgery on his knee.

After Harvin’s brief flash, no one established himself as a true No. 2 receiver that opponents had to worry about. Through the bulk of the second half of the season, Woods and Hogan essentially became blockers for the running game and mainly ran clearing routes to help Watkins get open. Clay, who finished the year on the injured-reserve list with a back injury, was second on the team with 51 catches, followed by Woods and Hogan with 47 and 36, respectively.

Clay’s receiving impact also wasn’t consistently significant enough to help draw coverage away from the wide receivers.

Where they go from here: The Bills need to draft a dynamic receiver to complement Watkins. And they might even need to do so within the first two rounds, because they aren’t likely to use any of their limited salary-cap space to sign one in free agency.

The Bills have an option to pick up two more years of Harvin’s contract, and although Ryan has said Harvin has indicated he would like to resume playing if he’s healthy, it seems unlikely they will do so.

The team is expected to retain Hogan and Hankerson, who played for Washington from 2011 to 2014 and spent part of the 2015 season with Atlanta and New England before joining the Bills, to provide depth. The Bills also were highly impressed with Salas, especially for how quickly he learned the offense found a rhythm with Taylor in catching three passes for 41 yards in the season-ending win against the New York Jets.

Next: Tight ends.