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Sammy Watkins vs. Odell Beckham Jr. and Why Age Matters

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Sammy Watkins and Odell Beckham Jr. will forever be tied to one another because of the 2014 draft class and the fast starts to their NFL careers. Let's discuss who’s better and why age matters.

Credit: Josh Rawdin, Buffalo Rumblings

Sammy Watkins has been amazingly productive in the NFL when considering his age, and I recently wrote on that topic and included his impact on Tyrod Taylor.

In the comments section of that piece, two main themes debates arose:

  • Why does age matter?
  • Watkins vs. Odell Beckham Jr.

Instead of typing a lengthy response in the doldrums of that comment section, I realized an article explaining my thoughts on those “themes” was more logical.

On Player Age

I’m a big proponent of the “age-adjusted analysis” movement among NFL analysts -- if you’ve followed me on Twitter over the past few years, you’re keenly aware of this — for an assortment of reasons.

To use an example to begin; it makes sense that a tremendous statistical season from an 18-year-old in college should be viewed as more impressive than a 22-year-old who turns in the same year.

Actually, think back to high school... age is universally accepted as being critical to player performance. Generally speaking, 17-year-old seniors will have a physical advantage — and thereby will likely be more successful -- over 16-year-old juniors and 15-year-old sophomores.

Sure, high-school kids experience more noticeable physical growth than players even in their early 20s, which lends credence to age being viewed as a bigger factor before college. However, I don’t simply assume the “development” of a football player (and his body) ends the moment he steps onto a collegiate field. All college players shouldn’t be grouped together for analysis.

(See: Concept of redshirting)

In the NFL, there’s probably an insignificant difference between 26-year-old and 28-year-old veterans in terms of physical prowess and overall capability... but I tend to believe a 21-year-old rookie should be viewed differently than a 23-year-old or even 22-year-old rookie. Most would assume the 21-year-old inherently has the most upside.

Historically, players (especially receivers) who enter the league at a younger age — after proving to be productive a relatively young age in college while primarily facing "older” competition — have performed extremely well as professionals, especially when compared to their elder contemporaries.

Check this 2014 article by Jon Moore on Rotoworld, which details his “Phenom Index,” one of the seminal works of age-adjusted analysis for wide receivers entering the NFL.

(If you don’t have the time to read in its entirety, just check the tables.)

For context on the specific Watkins vs. OBJ discussion, realize this... Beckham Jr. turned 21 in November of his final year at LSU. Watkins turned 21 about a month before his first NFL training camp. Not an enormous disparity, but a disparity nonetheless.

Those facts are why I used the age 22 season cutoff as the crux of my article on Watkins’ age-adjusted production and where it places him in league history.

On Watkins vs. OBJ

This is pretty cut and dry to me. At this point in their NFL careers, Beckham Jr. has been the better, more productive wideout. He’s in Randy Moss territory in terms of amount of success in his first two professional seasons.

Has Beckham Jr. been “helped” by the relative steadiness of Eli Manning? Probably. He’s had a better quarterback situation than Watkins, and I think almost everyone would agree with that.

(Side note: I do wonder how much different the perception of Beckham Jr. would be if “The Catch” never occurred or was dropped. While spectacular, I do believe that catch was almost as integral to his elevation to superstardom as his epic first two years in the NFL. It isn’t the most sound analytical practice for one play, regardless of how brutal or tremendous, to carry considerable weight when trying to form an opinion of a player. Remember what “The Hit” did for Jadeveon Clowney?)

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants NJ Advance Media for NJ.com-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond that, a common Watkins vs. OBJ question centers around whether or not the Bills made the right move by trading up for Watkins in the 2014 draft. In a vacuum, they didn’t.

They surrendered an extra first-round pick (and fourth rounder) to secure Watkins at No. 4 overall, when, in theory, they could have kept all their 2015 choices and taken Beckham at No. 9 overall.

Watkins has not been an extra first-round (and fourth round) selection better than Beckham Jr., and I don't think he will ever be.

Even if Watkins and Beckham Jr. eventually “meet” in terms of overall production, efficiency etc., the Giants wide receiver will always have cost his team just one first-round pick while the price tag for Watkins was two first rounders and that extra fourth.

But just because hindsight allows us to realize the Bills made the less than absolutely ideal decision on draft night in 2014 does not have to mean they made a bad choice by doing what they believed was necessary to land Watkins.