Sammy Watkins – Fantasy vs. Reality – 2018
Ahead of the 2018 Fantasy Football Draft season I lectured readers about succumbing to Adverse Recency Bias and evaluating a player’s “real-life” ability through the lens of fantasy football production or lack thereof. As we at Couch Potato General Manager routinely say, “context and coaching matters” a player’s actual utility and ability cannot be measured simply by how he performs for your respective fantasy football team(s). However, I must admit at times I have overestimated a player’s fantasy football value because of their “real-life” ability and importance to their respective team despite inconsistent fantasy production.
Sammy Watkins is one of the poster children for this very phenomenon in which casual and hardcore fantasy footballers are convinced that he isn’t good at football (I fully intend to debunk this ridiculous notion) because he has “under-achieved” statistically, the basis of all things Fantasy Football. And at the same time he has received the benefit of the doubt from those that believe (including myself) in his “real-life” talent and are sensitive to the circumstances under which he has played during his first four years in the NFL. But with experience comes perspective and while this piece focuses primarily on why his lack of fantasy football production doesn’t do him justice in reality it is where fantasy and reality intersect that keeps me hopeful his immense talent translates into consistent fantasy production.
Some context for you…
So I’m certain you’re all too familiar with the Buffalo Bills struggles at quarterback (Kyle Orton, E.J. Manuel and Tyrod Taylor during Watkins’ tenure in Buffalo) and the uninspired coaching of Doug Marrone and Rex Ryan as contributing factors to Sammy Watkins’ struggles as a member of the Bills. I imagine you still maintain that IF Watkins is as good as I am suggesting he is, he would have proven it by now. Well, have you considered the career arch of former Bills receivers: Robert Woods, Chris Hogan and Marquise Goodwin since they escaped Siberia for Wide Receivers? Never mind that. It’s true. There are several examples of wide receivers (DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald) that quarterback notwithstanding manage to be incredibly productive each season. But that’s not due to happenstance or an indictment of Watkins’ ability. Rather in addition to Hopkins’ and Fitzgeralds’ talent the Texans and Cardinals feature their top wide-out on a weekly basis giving them as many opportunities as possible short, intermediate, and deep. Why didn’t the Bills feature Sammy Watkins? Well, have you ever watched a Rex Ryan or Doug Marrone coached team play offense? The forward pass isn’t exactly something they put much stock into. Most anyone that has played fantasy football for a few years understands that volume (opportunity) is a major indicator for fantasy football production. Being routinely pigeonholed as a deep threat on clear out routes and receiving targets sparingly of the lowest completion percentage variety doesn’t equate to consistent fantasy football production nor does it illustrate the quality of Sammy Watkins. In fact, the only time I can recall the Buffalo Bills making a concerted effort to get Watkins the ball early and often was during a 2017 preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings to “showcase” Watkins for potential trade suitors. The Los Angeles Rams subsequently traded a 2nd round pick to acquire Watkins just ahead of the 2017 regular season.
Those of you who are still in the “Say No to Sammy” band may point out how Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and even Todd Gurley were featured in the pass game ahead of Watkins despite improved quarterback play and wunderkind play-caller (designer) Sean McVay running the show in Los Angeles. But you can’t ignore the fact that Watkins joined the Rams just a few weeks prior to the season starting. He had little time to develop a rapport with Jared Goff and was relegated to the “X” receiver position on the backside of the formation where he drew the opposition’s best cornerback routinely and faced frequent double/bracket coverage. That being said, he still managed to lead the Rams in receiving touchdowns with eight despite having little time to get acclimated to the Rams offense.
Touchdown are cool. Big play TD’s are cooler.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) March 15, 2018
Inside the Numbers
I recognize that many fantasy football enthusiasts only “bow” to analytics so here is some data to consider. The following in addition to the “eye-test” and what I expect to be a pass happy Chiefs team with a swinging gate of a defense is why Sammy Watkins was among my favorite mid round targets (Round 6-8) heading into 2018 Fantasy Football Drafts even as what I expect to be the third option in the Chiefs passing attack. It also affirms that Watkins is GOOD at football despite prevailing misconceptions regarding his ability and his uneven fantasy performance is due in large part to being typecast erroneously. Throw him the ball early and often at all levels of the field and I think you have a Superstar on your hands.
- The last time a receiver had 1000+ receiving yards on fewer than 100 targets was during the 2015 NFL Season (Sammy Watkins in 13 games).
- According to Pro Football Focus Jared Goff had a 122.0 passer rating when targeting Sammy Watkins (2017).
- In 10 career games in which Watkins has received at least 10 targets he averages just shy of 7 receptions a game (6.9), 125 receiving yards per game and nearly a touchdown (0.9) a game. (9 of 25 career touchdown receptions; zero such games in 2017)
- Watkins has 30 redzone targets, 16 receptions and 12 TOUCHDOWNS in his career.
- Inside the 10 yard line, 13 targets, 9 receptions and 8 TOUCHDOWNS in his career.
Speaking of typecast… Why is a guy seemingly as effective as Sammy Watkins in the redzone and once heralded for his short area quickness and run-after-catch ability pigeonholed as a deep threat? The following cements this asinine lack of utilization.
Consider Watkins’ meager Target Share in Los Angeles last season (14%) accounted for 25% of the Rams Target Air Yards (TAY).
- That’s an average of 14.4 Air Yards per Target
- Only the following (qualifying) players average more air yards per target and accounted for less than 25% of their team’s total TAY; can you guess what their role is?
- J.J. Nelson
- Desean Jackson
- John Brown
- Will Fuller
- Jaron Brown
- Travis Benjamin
- Paul Richardson
- Kenny Golladay
- Corey Coleman
What of the historic Wide Receiver Class of 2014…?
- Sammy Watkins is the least targeted receiver on a per game basis (ridiculous).
- Watkins’ 15.9 yards per catch is a double-edged sword. It illustrates that he is an excellent vertical threat BUT he has been regulated to that role.
- Watkins is 3rd in fantasy points per target behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks. The Giants clearly understand what they have in OBJ as evidenced by his 10.6 targets per game and his historical contract; and Cooks (certainly not a slouch) has played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Brady, Brees).
- 2 of 3 receivers with fewer games played have more career targets than Sammy Watkins.
- Kelvin Benjamin has played in 6 fewer games than Watkins but ONLY has five fewer career targets and for my money isn’t in the same stratosphere as Watkins as far as talent.
Let’s get rhetorical
Why do some wide receivers get a pass? And Sammy doesn’t? Upon exploring all the receivers who were selected ahead of Sammy Watkins during fantasy drafts two names in particular jumped out at me; Keenan Allen and Amari Cooper. Allen and Cooper have 2nd and 3rd round ADPs respectively. Strictly from a fantasy football perspective it makes sense given the target volume Allen and Cooper have received throughout their careers. Allen is Philip Rivers’ favorite target and Amari Cooper is the presumed #1 in Oakland post Michael Crabtree. However, the general sentiment I get is that Allen and Cooper are considered better “reality” players than Watkins by considerable measure. I cannot subscribe to that logic despite Allen’s god-like route-running and Cooper’s latent ability. Allen has as checkered an injury history (if not more so) than Sammy Watkins. They’ve played a full 16 game slate once in their respective careers but Allen is excused (because he soaks up targets) meanwhile Sammy is held responsible for his paltry target share almost unilaterally by his doubters. Since Amari Cooper has entered the league in 2015 he has struggled to beat physical man coverage, create separation and catch the football. Cooper has approximately 32 drops over the last three seasons… Watkins has 8 (zero in 2017). Hell hath no fury like a fantasy footballer scorned.
The Elephant in the Room — Sammy Watkins’ Injury History
We all know that age old adage, “Availability is the best ability” and considering Watkins’ history of lower body injuries (foot, ankle, calf, groin and hip) he has garnered the injury prone moniker. But a closer look at his injury history reveals that Watkins has demonstrated the ability to play thru ailments (i.e. partially torn labrum in 2014) and only missed a significant amount of time (8 games in 2016) after suffering a fractured foot during the 2016 offseason; only to have the injury re-aggravated by a teammate during a walk-through necessitating a 2nd foot surgery. I believe there are several types of learning curves young players face when entering the NFL. One of which is maintenance of the body and managing their health. Given the fact that Watkins doesn’t suffer from chronic soft tissue issues I am apt to believe that he’s had a bout of tough luck thus far in the injury department and that he will be a much more dependable player in terms of availability as he enters his prime. He’s only 25-years-old.
What to expect in Kansas City?
As I mentioned before I expect Watkins to be third in the pecking order. He will, as he’s always done open things up for his teammates although ideally Andy Reid will use Tyreek Hill’s speed to create opportunities for Watkins and Kelce. On the positive side Sammy is being moved around the formation a ton and learning the X, Y, and Z positions which should create some favorable matchups. He’s had a full offseason to learn Andy Reid’s offense and by most accounts he and Patrick Mahomes demonstrated a connection during mini camps and training camp. Kansas City looks horrendous defensively so Mahomes should eclipse Alex Smith’s 505 pass attempts in 2017 easily and there are 96 unaccounted for targets in Kansas City (Albert Wilson, Charcandrick West) to be had as well. The preseason was less encouraging as Watkins and Mahomes weren’t always on the same page. Overthrows were the main culprit when Watkins was targeted but Sammy will have to do a better job of keeping himself in the play outside of the original play call structure because that’s when Mahomes is at his best. Andy Reid hasn’t featured the WR2 much in his offense historically and while I think Watkins should be the focal point of the passing game that would require a tremendous departure from what Reid has done over the years. Still Reid demonstrated his willingness to adopt spread principles to his offense to accommodate his quarterbacks in Kansas City so it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that the Chiefs get their money’s worth out of Watkins. What will be most telling for me regarding his fantasy prospects in 2018 is how often he’s targeted at the line of scrimmage. You constantly see bubble screens and hitches to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, high percentage throws allowing the receiver to utilize their play-making ability in the open field. As I alluded to previously, Watkins just needs a steady stream of touches and he will pay fantasy football dividends.
That being said, the reality is you’re looking at a WR3 in fantasy football this season with an outside chance of putting up WR2 numbers. Despite his immense arm talent, Patrick Mahomes has a ton to learn and frankly I think he’s a downgrade to Goff. So while I’m certain he will be more involved in Kansas City this season I’m not anticipating the definitive Sammy Watkins “breakout” in 2018. However, if you think Watkins is overrated or a bust in “real-life” you’re living in a fantasy.
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