Sammy Watkins Is Key to EJ Manuel's Success or Failure with the Buffalo Bills

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Sammy Watkins Is Key to EJ Manuel's Success or Failure with the Buffalo Bills
Bill Wippert/Associated Press

With training camp underway for the Buffalo Bills in Pittsford, New York, all eyes are on quarterback EJ Manuel as he begins his second NFL season.

Manuel may be drawing the most scrutiny, but it's rookie wideout Sammy Watkins who is drawing the most raves from onlookers.

In a way it's fitting; as the former looks to take the next step in his sophomore campaign, the latter is going to need to live up to his Top Five draft status.

It's still too soon, but so far Watkins appears to be living up to his end of the deal:

Granted, as Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk points out, one practice does not a career make:

With that said, though, this latest update regarding Watkins is simply a continuation of positive reports that have followed the former Clemson star ever since the Bills traded up to select Watkins fourth overall in May's NFL draft.

Last month, A.J. Devine of the team's official website reported that Watkins was one of the stars of organized team activities:

He has already been possibly the most impressive player on the field throughout OTAs and minicamp and has looked the part of a true No. 1 wide receiver. Now that defensive backs will have more freedom to jam receivers at the line and get away with more contact during practice, will Watkins continue to impress?

So far at least, the answer appears to be "yes."

That's great news for a Bills team that invested not only a top-five pick in Watkins, but also the 2015 first-rounder it cost to move up in the draft.

In many respects, it was as much an investment in Manuel as it was in Watkins.

Manuel made 10 starts for the Bills as a rookie to mixed results. There were flashes of the talent that spurred the Bills to make Manuel the first quarterback selected in the 2013 NFL draft.

EJ Manuel 2013
G Comp. Att. Pct. Yards TD INT Rating
10 180 306 58.8 1,972 11 9 77.7

Per NFL.com

However, Manuel also ranked 41st of 42 qualifying quarterbacks at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) in 2013. Among NFL starters, only fellow rookie Mike Glennon of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers averaged fewer yards per attempt.

In Manuel's defense, the Bills' 28th-ranked passing game in 2013 wasn't exactly overflowing with talent where receivers were concerned. Only one Buffalo receiver (Marquise Goodwin) ranked inside PFF's top 50 wide receivers last year.

Goodwin was 50th.

Ask yourself this: Where would Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton be in his NFL development had wide receiver A.J. Green not entered the league the same season?

Because Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com thinks that's the sort of impact Watkins can have on the team in 2014:

I think A.J. Green is a good indicator as to what Sammy can be in his rookie season. Green was also the fourth pick in the draft and he played with a young quarterback at the time in Andy Dalton. Green had 65 catches for 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns as the number one receiver in the Cincinnati offense. I don’t think those are unrealistic numbers for Watkins.

According to Mike Rodak of ESPN.com, the chemistry between Manuel and his new top receiver is improving steadily:

EJ Manuel and Sammy Watkins made their debut in front of fans Sunday evening and didn't disappoint. We tracked Manuel as 4-for-4 on passes intended for Watkins during team drills (7-on-7 and 11-on-11), which is a significant improvement from organized team activities and minicamp when the two weren't always on the same page. One of Watkins' catches came on a sideline pattern where we felt Manuel's throw came in late -- Watkins had to slow up on his route -- but overall Manuel looked sharp when throwing to his new top target. The Bills stuck to first and second downs in their team drills Sunday, so we'll have to see how Manuel fares when third-down situations are added to the mix in upcoming practices.

Now, before we go crowning anyone and getting Dennis Green all up in a tizzy, it's important to temper enthusiasm where both Watkins and Manuel are concerned.

After all, even general manager Doug Whaley conceded to Albert Breer of NFL.com that Buffalo's receivers can only be as good as Manuel's ability to get them the ball:

Distribute. Distribute to the playmakers. Now, five years from now? I'm gonna be saying he's our playmaker, so whatever he wants to do, he can do it. But the matriculation has to be like that. I lean on what it was like when I was with Pittsburgh. That's what happened with Ben Roethlisberger. His first year, if you look at his stats, I think we threw over 22 times maybe twice (Editor's note: There were four such regular-season occurrences), but we had a strong running game and we had a good defense. And that's what we got here.

Also, talented though he may be, it's hard for rookie receivers to make a big splash in the NFL. Seasons like those turned in by Green back in 2011 and Keenan Allen of the San Diego Chargers last year are very much the exception, not the rule.

Still, the presence of Watkins (and free-agent addition Mike Williams) can only help Manuel's progression, and that progression is at the heart of the Bills' efforts to reestablish themselves as relevant in the AFC East.

And after 14 years without a playoff appearance and six straight last-place finishes, Bills fans have every right to be excited about that.

 

Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.

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