Two years ago, Doug Whaley put his job on the line. The Buffalo Bills general manager traded away first- and fourth-round picks to move up five slots and draft wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Very rarely do NFL teams ever give up draft capital to this degree. But the Bills saw a star, a transcendent talent, a player worth a king's ransom.
So, two seasons in, on the verge of another NFL draft, was it worth it?
When healthy, arguably no receiver was better last season. Watkins finished with 60 receptions for 1,047 yards (17.4 avg.) and nine touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 211-pounder from Clemson burnt corners deep, thwarted double-teams and punctuated the season by opening up new condos all over "Revis Island" in the season finale.
And yet, Watkins has also suffered seven injuries in two seasons. That 2014 draft? Probably the best ever for the position. Buffalo could’ve stayed at No. 9, kept their picks and landed three starters instead of one.
So to get the answer, The News turned to a panel of wide receivers, including four Hall of Famers. All see a special talent in Watkins, a talent that’ll need to stay on the field for the Bills to truly reap the rewards.
Andre Reed: Seven-time Pro Bowler was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. Caught 951 passes for 13,198 yards with 88 touchdowns in 16 seasons, the go-to receiver through Buffalo’s four Super Bowl runs. Reed also worked with Watkins daily at training camp in 2015 on a coaching fellowship.
James Lofton: Inducted into the Hall after totaling 14,004 yards (10th all time) on 764 receptions with 76 touchdowns. Made eight Pro Bowls. Spent four of 16 seasons in Buffalo. Now serves as a NFL commentator for Westwood One.
Tim Brown: Longtime Oakland Raider finally earned Hall bid in 2015 after totaling 1,094 catches for 14,934 yards (sixth all time) with 105 scores. If Watkins’ QB play has been shoddy, his was so often downright shoddy. Rotten. Unlike Reed and Lofton, Brown never had a long-term, established quarterback — catching balls from 19 different quarterbacks.
Eric Moulds: Like Brown, Moulds was hamstrung by constant instability at QB. Still managed to finish with 9,995 yards on 764 career catches with 49 touchdowns. Spent 10 of 12 seasons in Buffalo. Played on the last Bills team to make the playoffs.
Cris Carter: One of the best ever broke the Hall logjam in 2013, catching 1,101 balls for 13,899 yards and his 130 touchdowns. One of the best players to ever not win a ring. His 130 receiving scores are the fourth-most all time.
So what was so enticing about Watkins in the first place? His raw, freakish physical ability. Be it Reed at training camp in St. John Fisher, Brown calling college football games or others from afar, Watkins’ game was eye-popping to all.
Reed: “To me, he was the class of the draft. He’s as talented as anybody at the position in the league.”
Brown: “When I was covering games in college, we did quite a few of his games at Clemson. And I kept telling people this kid has the ability to be one of the best ever to play the game.”
Carter: “I think Sammy Watkins could be one of the stars in the league. It’s hard when the weather changes to have a dominant passing game. Tyrod played some fabulous football, so it’s nice that they do have an established quarterback. They can build on that.”
Moulds: “His discipline. Usually young receivers use a ‘U’ release, when a receiver releases too wide and the defensive back pushes him to the sideline and you can never get a good throw. With Sammy, he uses a ‘V.’ He has a quick release and gets back on the corner — it’s a shorter distance to the go route. It usually takes a guy two, three or four years to learn how to do that. He figured it out.”
Reed: “I don’t think there’s a part of the game he’s really lacking in. He’s got the size, he’s got the strength, he’s got the speed, he’s got good hands. He’s got everything you want in a No. 1 guy.”
Lofton: “He’s obviously very strong physically. In today’s passing game where there’s so much emphasis on the run after the catch, that’s always a huge bonus. Sometimes your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. Well, the fact that he’s very strong and runs well after the catch is probably his biggest weakness also because he’s going to take those hits.”
Brown: “The mark of a good receiver to me is somebody who, once he catches the ball, the fun just starts. The thing about Sammy is he can turn a five-yard play into a 50-yard touchdown. … One Clemson game, he caught a little sit route. No one could tackle him because of his speed and because of his ability to make people miss. That kind of guy is so dangerous.”
Reed: “I was actually at Bruce Arians’ golf tournament two weeks ago in Arizona and Patrick Peterson was there. It was the first time I met him. I said, ‘I consider you one of the best corners in the league right now and this year you come to Buffalo. Give me your take on Sammy Watkins.’ He said, ‘Man, that dude is a beast. That’s going to be a tough battle right there.’”
Lofton: “He runs through a lot of people just like a running back would.”
Reed: “He’s 205, 210. He’s hard to tackle because he’s really strong after he catches the ball. That was me. I was 200 pounds but it was like trying to bring down a 230-pounder.”
Brown: “You talk about Megatron. You talk about Alshon Jeffery — 6-4, 6-5 guys. These are the guys who are going to run, jump over peoples’ heads, score a lot of touchdowns and catch a lot of balls. But they’re not going to catch a five-yard route and turn it into a 75-yard touchdown. There are only two guys in the league who have that kind of ability. Sammy is certainly one of them.”
Moulds: “The first time they played, Revis got the best of him. For the second game, Sammy really studied him and got an understanding of how Revis plays. And he realized if he got that ‘V’ release and he put pressure on Revis, he can eat his lunch. He has great speed, so you have to respect that speed. He was running great routes and stopping on a dime and he really ate Revis’ lunch the last game of the season. He made him look really bad.”
Reed: “He wants to be in the Top 5 in the league, he wants to be up there with the Beckhams, Antonio Browns, A.J. Greens — he’s in that class — I believe he’s in that class. He’ll be able to do that with his quarterback being a little more solid this year, rather than coming into training camp not knowing who’ll be the quarterback.”
A month into the season, Watkins told The News he needed the ball 10 times a game and got his agent involved, adding “You’re making me look bad and you’re making yourself look bad.”
He was right. Tyrod Taylor looked his way. He heated up. The next nine full games, Watkins averaged 8.9 targets, 5.4 catches, 100 yards and one touchdown.
Speaking up paid off, setting a course for Watkins’ season and, maybe, his career.
Reed: “He’s right! He needs 10 targets a game. Ten targets a game, he catches seven balls, one of them for a touchdown. He was right about that. Did he say it in the right context? Maybe not. But he’s a competitor. And he wants to the team to know that ‘When I get the ball, things happen.’ I was the same way. That’s not being selfish. That’s being confident in what you can do.”
Brown: “When you’re talking about ‘I, I, I,’ it’s not good. I never said anything publicly. Never in my 17 years did I say something publicly that was about Tim Brown. Now, I had conversations privately. But once you go public like that, then somebody in the locker room — and some guys may agree with them — but there will be some guys who say ‘That was selfish. He’s in it for himself.’”
Carter: “Sammy Watkins is not the problem. He needs opportunities. He needs to be targeted. He needs to be put in a scheme where he can take advantage of his route running, his big-play ability. In certain games, they did that.”
Reed: “There were a lot of people I had to share the ball with. I don’t think it’s being selfish. It’s just knowing ‘I want to be a part of this.’ That’s how I looked at it — I want to be a part of this offense. Because if I’m a part of it, we have a better chance to win.”
Moulds: “As receivers, people say we’re selfish. But with Sammy, you want to get him involved early. Throw him a hitch here, throw him a slant there. Take a deep shot downfield in the first two or three series of the game.”
Brown: “How did it help the team? Was it a momentum-builder for the team? That’s the issue. This is a team game we play. When you drop a ball, people will start mumbling, ‘Ah, geeze, he wants the ball and now he’s dropping balls.’”
Moulds: “When you get him involved early, then he’s really focused in what he has to do as far as blocking, going downfield, making plays and getting guys open. As a receiver, if you touch the ball early, you tend to have a better game. But if you go through two or three quarters without having a ball thrown your way or even a catch, he can get into a funk and not be the consistent player he’s been.”
Carter: “How else is he going to develop? How do you develop a wide receiver? You cannot develop a wide receiver unless he’s got the football. So people say he called them out — he’s not calling them out. He’s trying to do his job. You have a job to do. The only way you can do your job (in the media) is to get access. So what if people take away your access? You’d be telling them, ‘Hey, man, I need access.’ That’s what he’s saying when ‘I need the football!’ People depict a wide receiver but how is he going to do his job? Like how else?!”
Better than Odell?
In hindsight, yes, the Bills could’ve stayed put at No. 9 and drafted Odell Beckham Jr., who went at No. 12 to the New York Giants. They also could've waited and taken the likes of Kelvin Benjamin, Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson, Jordan Matthews, Davante Adams, Martavis Bryant or John Brown later. Beckham was the one who took the league by storm as a rookie, hauled in possibly the greatest catch of all time and has averaged 102 yards and a touchdown in 27 games one new endorsement deal at a time.
Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore has said repeatedly Watkins is better. What do the wide receivers think?
This is the player Watkins will always be compared to.
Moulds: “To me, Sammy is a better receiver than Odell Beckham but you won’t know that because Odell Beckham has Eli Manning at quarterback who’s won two Super Bowls and been there every year and he consistently throws the ball to Odell Beckham. … Sammy is a better route runner than Odell Beckham. He’s a bigger receiver. He’s a faster receiver. I think it’s just a matter of getting a consistent guy to throw the football.”
Moulds: “The big thing for a young receiver is to have a quarterback he can grow with. So for him to reach that upside, they need a consistent quarterback for the next 4-5 years. If he’s in the situation I was in where it’s quarterback to quarterback, a committee, he’s always going to have to adjust his game to that quarterback and you’ll never see his full potential.”
Brown: “I don’t want to hear it! When Sammy gets to No. 20 and No. 21 (quarterbacks), then I’ll listen to him. But until then, I don’t want to hear it. Seven head coaches. Ten offensive coordinators. When he gets to that number, I’ll listen to his cry. But the fact of the matter is, if you’re determined to get something done in the NFL and everybody in the organization knows you’re trying to get something done, it can happen for you. You have to be willing to put the work in. What is your focus?”
Lofton: “I think it really boils down to, when top players get into the postseason, what do they do?”
Moulds: “Odell Beckham is really a great athlete that’s playing receiver. Sammy’s a great athlete that can run routes. He can run any route on the route tree. He can play in the slot, he can play outside. And when you look at Sammy, he’s a way better deep-ball threat than Odell Beckham.”
Reed: “With Sammy, if there’s anything he has to work on, it’s route running. Against the press, he’s explosive. The guy can stop on a dime and give you a nickel and five pennies change. It’s just the small things at the top of a route. Just getting better at setting a guy up. He has the speed. He comes out of breaks fast. He’s probably better at the initial part of a route, setting the guy up.”
Moulds: “I think Odell Beckham is quicker. He’s a little smaller, so he’s quicker in short spaces. But overall running routes and getting open and being a technician, I think Sammy is a lot better.”
Lofton: “When you get a good player — I don’t care if you move up in the third round and you give up a fifth-round pick — and you get a guy that you really want. That’s not really different than moving up in the first round.”
And yet many talented players in NFL history have seen their careers stunted by injuries. That’s the No. 1 concern these receivers have with Watkins — he’s had seven injuries in two seasons. Hip. Calf. Groin. You name it. While he's only missed three full games, injuries hounded the first year and a half of his career.
Frustration boiled over last season when Watkins lashed out on Instagram for fans to “continue working y'all little jobs.”
Is he injury prone? This is the concern. Watkins is only 22 years old.
Reed: “If anything can stop Sammy Watkins, it’s his health. There’s really nothing else that can derail him from being a Top 5 guy in the league. But it’s just staying on the field. Sometimes he needs to work through some of these injuries he’s had.”
Moulds: “With Sammy, his biggest weakness is staying on the field.”
Carter: “I had a coach one time who said, ‘Boy, you’re hell when you’re well. But you stay sick. That’s not a good quality!”
Brown: “The only way you’re not going to get injured during the season is you have to take care of your body in the off-season. I know what I did, what Cris Carter did, what Jerry Rice did. You don’t miss workouts.”
Lofton: “Once you get into the season, it’s all about availability. As you look around the league, the elite players are not the guys who played 13 or 14 games a year. It’s the guys who show up every week and somehow they find a way to get out there.”
Moulds: “He’ll have to change up his workouts to get a little bit stronger. The weaknesses he’s had as far as the injuries are concerned, he’ll have to build those muscles up.”
Lofton: “Why it happens to some guys and not others? Who knows? I’m sure there are guys who are more tightly wound physically than others.”
Moulds: “I played through a tweaked hamstring and I played through a groin pull. … I shouldn’t have played this one game. I really couldn’t run but, at the same time, I could come in and take pressure off the other receivers. I ended up catching nine passes, when Drew Bledsoe said ‘I just need you out there.’ So you can really do it if you block your mind from it. … There will be situations where you have this nick, this bruise and you have a slight pull here, a slight pull there. Sammy has to realize that a 70 percent Sammy is better than a 100 percent guy who’s not Sammy Watkins.”
Brown: “The injury bug will kill your career, man. It’s so difficult because you get started, then you have to stop.”
All receivers agree Watkins must put in the necessary work to avoid injuries, stay hungry and capitalize on his ridiculous talent. No doubt, he possesses the entire package. Yet something different ticks inside the Reeds, the stratosphere Buffalo hopes Watkins will reach one day.
When the Bills were waxed by the Washington Redskins, Watkins spoke up in saying players needed to start calling each other out and "forget about anybody's feelings." They’re hoping they have a pro who’s wired... differently.
Brown: “Every day, when you wake up, your first thought should be ‘How can I get better as a football player?’ If you say, ‘I’m going to take a week off here, a day off here,’ I can honestly tell you — and this is no exaggeration — if I was home and not traveling, I can’t think of one day where I did not get up and work out.”
Reed: “Right now, he can’t be complacent. He has to want to get better every single year, every single game, every single practice. That’s where the great ones come in. To be great, you don’t rest on what you did the year before.”
Brown: “Man, a guy like Sammy Watkins has the ability to tear this NFL up if that’s where his heart is.”
Reed: “He’s the first one up in every drill. That’s the telltale sign for a leader. So going into his third year, you need to become that leader the team’s looking for. They’re a young team and they need leaders on the team. I think Sammy could really be that guy with not only what he does on the field but off the field, being a leader in that locker room.”
Lofton: “Sometimes you go to those real fancy restaurants and you have an appetizer. But sometimes, they give you something else before the appetizer. So you haven’t even looked at the menu yet. You know it’s a pricey place though.”
Reed: “I had four or five guys on my team that were the voice of the team. I really didn’t have to say too much. I had Thurman and Jim and Bruce, those guys were the ones who talked a lot on the team. I led more by example. I was considered one of them but I wasn’t the vocal leader. I think he’ll have to realize in his third year, that’s going to happen.”
Was it worth the trade?
There’s no turning back. Buffalo gambled that Watkins would star. So far, he has absolutely shown flashes from a one-man clinic against Miami to acrobatic touchdowns at Kansas City.
A ton depends on Tyrod Taylor’s development and stability at quarterback — just ask Brown and Moulds and countless other talented receivers — but the duo did find chemistry in Year 1 together.
Now, comes the hard part. Reaching that next level.
Reed: “It was worth it. Why would somebody doubt it? Why would somebody say it wasn’t worth it? I don’t know why the fans would even question that. He’s shown what he can do. It’s just a matter of the quarterback getting him the ball. That’s it. It’s not like he’s a bust. He’s what they drafted him for. The first two years he’s given them a little bit of what they expect.”
Carter: “I judge them on, the ones who perform the best. Those are the ones in the elite category. Not on potential. So the consistency hasn’t been there yet. It hasn’t been there with their passing game and he’s missed time on the field. When you’ve missed time on the field, it’s hard to be in the category with the guys who’ve been out there.”
Brown: “Certainly, the jury is still out. That’s a lot to give up for anybody. But this guy’s got that potential, no doubt about it. I certainly understood. I was hoping the Raiders would move up and get him.”
Reed: “Everybody’s going to look to you for guidance, everybody’s going to look to you to make plays. And everybody’s going to look to you to be the voice of the team when things aren’t going well.”
Lofton: “At the time, everybody was excited about it. When you look at those guys physically, his physical talents kind of stood out. What round was Andre Reed drafted in? (The fourth.) So it’s hard to know when it’s all going to click. And obviously, Andre Reed without Jim Kelly or Jim Kelly without Andre Reed… that was a marriage made in football heaven. It takes that chemistry.”
Moulds: “It was worth it because you have a dynamic player with tremendous upside. There’s really no ceiling with Sammy. It’s really on Sammy to not put pressure on himself. Just play. Be Sammy.”
Brown: “Somebody has to make up their mind that they’re going to make him the focal point of the franchise. Not just of the offense. The franchise. And once he understands that, now, maybe that pressure on him, that spotlight on him, is the thing that he needs. Some guys, that’s what they have to have. They’ve got to have all the spotlight.”
Reed: “I think this year really is a year where he needs to take it to the next level. For some fans to say ‘Was it worth what they did?’ Hell yeah it was worth it.”