Transcendent talents at wide receiver are hard to come by, but the Buffalo Bills may have overpaid by giving up next year's first-round selection to move up five spots from No. 9 to No. 4 in the 2014 NFL draft. That being said, wide receiver Sammy Watkins isn't likely to make them look too foolish.
His skill set is a perfect marriage for the Bills offense.
He may need some time to adapt at the next level after spending his Clemson career in a simplistic offense catered to his skill set. There's a much more complicated route tree, and much more complicated defenses, awaiting him in the NFL. His experience in Clemson's offense, however rudimentary, could ably apply to his immediate future in Buffalo.
Sure, Watkins' route tree at Clemson could probably be described in two images, as Doug Farrar of SI.com illustrates here:
Much of head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's offense was predicated on short passes. Quarterback EJ Manuel made a variety of throws as a rookie in 2013 but enjoyed much of his success on throws behind the line of scrimmage to nine yards downfield (201 of 295 aimed pass attempts).
|Production by yards downfield, 2013|
|Source: Rotoworld.com and Bleacher Report research|
Screens were not a huge part of Manuel's repertoire (most of the throws behind the line of scrimmage were swing passes and flares to running backs and fullbacks), and only four of his 16 attempted screens were thrown to wide receivers. Those numbers both figure to take a huge uptick this season with Watkins in the fold. According to Greg Peshek of Rotoworld, 58 of Watkins' 101 receptions came from screen passes.
That's quite the disparity, and while we can't expect Manuel to suddenly complete 58 screens, Watkins should account for more than four receptions on screens.
Watkins was also highly successful on vertical routes, but Manuel struggled in a big way to hit receivers downfield (10-of-37 on throws traveling 20 yards or more downfield; 4-of-11 on go routes; 4-of-8 on seam routes).
Never was the high concentration of screens and vertical routes more evident than in the 2014 Orange Bowl when Clemson took on Ohio State. In that game, 14 of Watkins' 16 receptions were screens, and the other two were vertical routes.
Statistically, it was his finest collegian performance. Watkins dominated the game, finishing with 16 receptions for 227 yards and two touchdowns. He did this by running two of the simplest routes in the entire route tree. Anyone in the stands could probably have guessed what was coming, but Ohio State was almost powerless to stop him.
That's a testament to Watkins' dominant physical ability (see his touchdown catch at four minutes, 21 seconds) and explosiveness (see his long gain on the screen pass at 0:21) but also a promising sign that if Watkins can expand his game, he can keep defenders guessing—and in the process, he can free things up for the screens and vertical routes where he excels.
As physically gifted as Watkins is right now, those physical gifts will be washed up in a sea of simplicity unless he develops into a more complex receiver capable of running the whole route tree. It's been in Watkins' mind since the run-up to the draft.
"I can run any route from curl to comeback to digs to hitches," he said at the scouting combine. "I've become a pretty good route runner, but there are areas I can still improve in with getting out of my routes. What I'm really focused on is my curl routes and my comebacks. I've got to get my transition and know when to run full speed or not and sink my hips and get out of my routes."
He's learning exactly those things at Bills organized team activities.
Check out Watkins' smooth comeback route, courtesy of Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 Buffalo. It's a six-second clip, and the route is against air, but the fundamentals are all there. He sinks the hips, uses a quick stutter step, plants his right foot in the ground and cuts toward the sideline, coming back to the quarterback as he makes the catch in bounds.
He's learning the fundamentals, but there's still a steep learning curve.
"You've got different routes than I was running in college. There are so many routes in this offense," he said at Bills OTAs. "Most of them are similar but you got to have steps, it's more steps now than yards. You got to get the correct steps to get your yardage. So that's been the biggest struggle. But this week, I've been doing all my steps and revolutions, I know how to do them now so now I'm running my routes perfect."
Routes like this post pattern, against Maryland, can help force defenses to back off and respect his long speed. He has the long speed to get past defenders on vertical routes (4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine) and the quickness to create separation in and out of his breaks (6.95-second three-cone drill). Now, it's just about turning raw talent into a route-running machine.
Screens and go routes will help Watkins make an early impact, but he will need to focus on rounding out his game to make a lasting impact. While the Bills wait for that to happen, they will have to find ways to utilize Watkins' skill set as a dynamic player in space with the ball in his hands.
Scouting combine statistics provided by NFL.com. Unless otherwise noted, quotes are obtained first-hand or via team news releases.