Is Sammy Watkins a Bust?

by Samuel Feldman ·

Entering his rookie season, Sammy Watkins was the most heralded member of the stacked 2014 wide receiver class.  Watkins excelled from an early age at the college level, which ramped up the hype surrounding him coming into the league.  Unfortunately, the quality of the 2014 receiving class and a slow start to 2015 have frustrated Watkins’ fantasy owners.  As the tide slowly turns against Watkins, and will Watkins be the NFL’s next first round bust wide receiver?

A Roman Wide Receiver Death Sentence

Rex Ryan teams tend to favor strong defensive play and a steady rushing attack, neither of which bode well for Sammy Watkins‘ prospects this season.  Worse still, Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman led the San Francisco 49ers offense for the past four years prior to joining the Bills staff this in 2015.  During Roman’s tenure with the Niners, he had only three receivers produce over 1,000 yards, the best of whom was Anquan Boldin, who topped out at 1,179 receiving yards in 2013.  Boldin was consistently finishing around WR20 while playing under Roman in San Francisco, and on a per-game basis he finished as WR19 in 2013 and WR23 in 2014.

[AnquanBoldin]-Wide Receiver-San Francisco 49ers

Anquan Boldin Advanced Metrics Profile

Going in to the year, many missed the warning signs about the run-oriented offense, and drafted Sammy Watkins as the WR23.  Selecting Watkins this high meant that his owners bought him at his approximate maximal value for the season.  As Greg Roman has previously shown, and did so again in Week 1 this year, he is not worried about featuring his top receiver if it improves his teams odds of winning, which caps Watkins’ value.  While Watkins finished as the WR33 last year, he did so in the offense that threw the ball the 14th most times; if history is any indication, then he is on a less passing oriented team, as the 49ers were the team that threw 27th most in 2014 (and were dead last in 2013).

T-Mobile Bad Reception

While Tyrod Taylor is an improvement from the combination of E.J. Manuel and Kyle Orton, he is not the improvement that is needed to boost his receivers into fantasy stardom.  In this offense, he should be looked at similarly to Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco; his running threat will boost his fantasy value.  If Taylor’s quarterbacking is similar to Kaepernick’s then Watkins’ owners will see lots of weekly volatility in his scoring.

Supporting Castoffs

While Sammy Watkins was very impressive during his time at Clemson, he had an embarrassment of riches surrounding him with Andre Ellington at running back, Dwayne Allen at tight end, and DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, and the perpetually under-appreciated Jaron Brown at wide receiver.  While Watkins was talented enough to start ahead of Brown and Bryant at Clemson, the talent surrounding him also helped him appear better overall.  While Watkins posted a quality 34.2-percent (60th-percentile) College Dominator Rating, Hopkins’ 39.3-percent (74th percentile) College Dominator Rating was more impressive.

[DeAndreHopkins]-Wide Receiver-Houston Texans

DeAndre Hopkins Advanced Metrics Profile

Sammy Watkins professional teammates are inferior to his college teammates.  While Percy Harvin is very athletic, he does not put fear in an opposing defense the way both DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant do.  Last year, Bryant finished 2014 with a +49.2 (No. 1) Production Premium, and Hopkins’ +14.0 Production Premium ranked No. 20.  Meanwhile, Harvin’s -27.3 was No. 94 among NFL wide receivers last season.  Charles Clay may be a more athletic version of Dwayne Allen, but he will not likely draw defenders away from Watkins as his Target Share and Red Zone Target share both ranked 14th amongst Tight Ends, with a 15th-best Hog Rate.   Additionally, Clay’s Production Premium was -10.7, 39th among NFL Tight Ends.

This drop-off in surrounding talent warrants strong consideration when appraising Sammy Watkins value this year.  Only a select few receivers are able to overcome situations that offer limited help around them, and Watkins is not at the same talent level as those who have done so previously.  Most notably, Josh Gordon accomplished this in 2013 as he soared above the surrounding talent in Cleveland to produce an historic season; a major outlier amongst fantasy receivers.

[PercyHarvin]-Wide Receiver-Buffalo Bills

Percy Harvin Advanced Metrics Profile

Sam I Am

While Sammy Watkins had a good rookie year, he will continue to move forward as the Bills focal point in their passing offense as their top receiver.  Consequently, he will face the top defender each week against an already unfriendly (16th-hardest for wide receivers) schedule.  Based on his rookie year, he has many concerns that he needs to improve upon if he is going to make the sophomore year jump.  Watkins was not a target hog (12.5-percent Hog Rate) in a pass-heavy offense last year, and he needs to develop into one to improve his numbers in the new offense.  Additionally, both his Catch Rate and Red Zone Catch Rate placed him 86th and 70th among NFL wide receivers.  Finally, Watkins had the 60th-best Fantasy Points Per Target at 1.55 points, which will need to improve if his volume will not.

[SammyWatkins]-Wide Receiver-Buffalo Bills

Sammy Watkins Advanced Metrics Profile

Overall, Sammy Watkins‘ problems resulted in a Production Premium that was -3.4 (No. 57), potential red flags that cannot be overlooked.  Watkins will need the Bills to be involved in shootouts and become a target hog in the passing game (like Pierre Garçon in 2013) in order for him to reward his owners for their investments.

Conclusion

While Sammy Watkins is not a bust, he is not worth the hype that was placed on him prior to his rookie season.  Fantasy players are in a difficult position: Owners see Watkins as a long-term investment, but buyers are valuing him as a player who has already busted.  In the legendary 2014 receiver class, Watkins has gone from “crown jewel” to “barely in the top-10.”  Overall, Watkins is a good receiver who will never reach his full potential unless his offense is willing to drown him in volume.  Price him accordingly.

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