I can't blame you for being excited by Sammy Watkins' talent. I can't blame you for being downright thrilled if you live in Buffalo. So I certainly can't blame you for targeting him in your fantasy football draft this summer.
But I can blame you if you expect him to eventually be a consistent fantasy starter for your team. Because, despite all of his talent, there are more than a few reasons to doubt he'll ever be anything more than a middling WR3 or a risky flex play.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Watkins has obvious playmaking ability, and he's flashed otherworldly talent in training camp. Chris Wesseling of NFL.com has certainly heard that much:
Every training camp observer's best rookie assessment has come down to Brandin Cooks vs. Sammy Watkins. On defense, C.J. Mosley getting love— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) August 14, 2014
And you can see some of Watkins' ability for yourself. Check out this snag, shared by Jonah Javad of WGRZ:
That's impressive. Crazy impressive. We already knew he was an amazing athlete, crisp route-runner and potential game-changer every time he touches the ball.
It turns out he's Spider-Man, too. And surely, the Bills will force-feed him the ball and properly utilize his talents, right?
You would certainly think that, but perhaps it isn't that simple.
For example, the team has an equally explosive and dynamic talent in C.J. Spiller and yet often seem to utilize him in perplexing ways. Mike Rodak of ESPN has been a bit confused by how he's been incorporated into the offense thus far in the preseason, for example:
Bills continue to use C.J. Spiller inside the tackles. That’s not really his game. Puzzling.— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) August 16, 2014
You'd think the Bills would want to get Spiller in one-on-one matchups in space and utilize his abilities in the passing and running game. Yet last year Spiller caught only 33 passes for a meager 185 yards on 40 targets. That was down from his 43 receptions for 459 yards and two touchdowns on 56 targets in 2012.
Sure, his ankle injury hampered everything a year ago—that seems obvious enough given his dramatic decrease in yards per reception—but it doesn't take away from the fact that the Bills have often tried to fit the round Spiller into a square hole.
And there's also the issue of EJ Manuel throwing Watkins the ball.
Manuel, who completed an abysmal 58.8 percent of his passes last year. Manuel, who threw for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 10 games. Manuel, who had a QBR of 42.3 and a quarterback rating of 77.7. Manuel, who inspired Matt Miller of Bleacher Report to say the following in early August:
I feel comfortable saying EJ Manuel is the NFL's worst starting QB going into the season. Could change, he's young, but needs a lot of work— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) August 6, 2014
Manuel very well may continue improving, and Miller said as much. But keep in mind that if you are betting on Watkins, then, to a certain degree, you are also betting on Manuel getting him the ball. How comfortable do you feel making that bet?
But I know what you're thinking.
First, plenty of receivers have overcome poor quarterback play to post big numbers. That's a valid point, though it's also a gamble to assume Watkins can do the same. After all, it's hard to know which players will be able to overcome a shoddy quarterback, especially when the player in question has yet to play a down in an NFL regular season game.
But you've got a second point, right?
Sure, you do. Watkins is a flashy, dynamic player with the ball in his hands. Surely, the Bills will find unique ways to get him involved that will bypass any shortcomings Manuel may have. Maybe Watkins will carry the ball out of the backfield on occasion.
Perhaps they'll hit him on plenty of wide receiver screens or short routes in the flat, where he can beat a corner and gain yards after the catch.
We addressed this with the Bills' usage to Spiller to a degree, but there's also a more philosophical flaw in play here: More than a few folks thought the St. Louis Rams would incorporate Tavon Austin in unique ways last year, for example. Or that the Minnesota Vikings would do so with Cordarrelle Patterson, both very exciting athletes.
That didn't exactly materialize.
Austin finished with 40 receptions, 569 yards from scrimmage and six total touchdowns while Patterson finished with 45 receptions, 627 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns. Those aren't fantasy-friendly numbers, folks.
Now it should be noted that comparing Watkins to either player isn't quite fair.
For starters, Watkins is in a different system, so he could feasibly be utilized in different ways. And Watkins also comes out of college far more polished than Patterson was while he's a more well-rounded weapon than the smaller Austin, whose upside is probably Percy Harvin, whereas Watkins' upside is Julio Jones.
But the point isn't to compare the systems or players directly. Rather, it's to make the point that expecting a rookie wide receiver to produce simply because he could be used in a specialized way is a risky way to approach that player for fantasy purposes. Until you've seen it happen, you're guessing.
And guessing on rookie wideouts has not traditionally ended well for fantasy owners because rookie wide receivers rarely provide satisfying returns. Consider the following from Tristan H. Cockcraft of ESPN:
Only 19 NFL rookie wide receivers since 1960 (that's 54 seasons) and six since 2000 (that's 14 seasons) managed to score 140 or more fantasy points. To put that into perspective, consider that 17 wide receivers managed at least 140 fantasy points in 2013 alone. Raising the bar, only 12 NFL rookie wide receivers during that 54-year span averaged at least 10 fantasy points per game while appearing in at least half their teams' scheduled games; that's one fewer than the total number of wide receivers (any experience level) who did so in 2013.
I know what you are thinking, though—Watkins is different. He's special. And hey, Julio Jones had 139 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues in his rookie season in 2011. And A.J. Green posted 144 that same year while Keenan Allen had 141 last season.
But what that should tell you is that Watkins' absolute ceiling this year is about 140 points, which would make him a low-end WR2 at best. That's a low ceiling for a player whose floor is also pretty low, as is the case for all rookies.
And let's not forget that Jones had Matt Ryan throwing him the ball while Allen had Philip Rivers. Both were on very good offenses with established starters at quarterback and a slew of offensive weapons. As for Green, well, you'd take a young Andy Dalton over a young Manuel any day.
That's the point when it comes to rookie wide receivers—the odds are astronomically higher that they'll be shaky fantasy options rather than consistent starters for your team. Even in a perfect world, Watkins isn't likely to crack the top 15 at the position.
And we've already detailed why Buffalo isn't a perfect world. Here's another reason why—Watkins could miss a chunk of action this preseason with a rib injury, per the team's official Twitter account:
Sammy Watkins (ribs) will not practice tonight at #BillsCamp— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) August 18, 2014
Marrone: "When (Sammy Watkins) comes back, I don't know. Unless I know for sure, I'm not going to comment"— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) August 18, 2014
According to the Associated Press, via Fox Sports, the injury is reportedly bruised ribs, so it probably isn't terribly serious (though it's likely causing him plenty of pain). While his timetable for return remains unknown, any time he does miss is bad news for fantasy owners.
Plus, the Bills may not want to risk him in their next preseason game.
If there is one thing that rookie wide receivers desperately need to develop quickly, it's reps. Lots and lots of reps. If Watkins is sidelined for any extended period of time, the odds of him starting slowly in the regular season is increased.
I know, I know, this article is full of "ifs." But that's the thing when it comes to rookie wide receivers: Because they haven't actually played in the league yet, and because it's hard to know how long it will take them to develop and adjust to the speed of the NFL, the uncertainties generally trump their natural talent.
Watkins isn't the exception.
Luckily for you, you might not have to overpay to get him. In the FantasyPros aggregate average draft position for ESPN, CBS, Yahoo and NFL.com leagues, Watkins had an ADP of 95.0. To account for overzealous owners, you'll probably need to start targeting him in the 70-75 range if you absolutely, positively must have him.
Are you overpaying if you draft him in the eighth round of your draft in a 10-man league? Yes, you are, especially when established players like Ray Rice (72.0), Jeremy Maclin (78.8) and Tony Romo (85.3), among others, could be had in that range.
But if he indeed drops to the 10th round in your draft or later, he's not quite as expensive a gamble, especially if you are managing your expectations. And obviously, in a keeper or dynasty league, his value increases.
So feel free to be as excited as you like about his talent. Most people who have seen him play think he's going to be special.
Just don't assume that means he'll be special for your fantasy team this year.