The Buffalo Bills traded up for wide receiver Sammy Watkins during the 2014 NFL Draft. In a year loaded with top-flight receivers, the Bills shipped a future first-round pick plus their 2015 first-round pick to move up and select Watkins. It didn’t end up working out in Buffalo and he was traded, but that’s just scratching the surface of the story.
In a wide-ranging, meandering, and at times unbelievable interview with Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report, Watkins opened up about his problems in Buffalo and with the Bills. Dunne previously covered Watkins for The Buffalo News while the pair were in Western New York.
“I would go out and get wasted,” Watkins told Dunne. “Wasted wasted.”
“Every night,” according to Watkins, who repeated the phrase again for emphasis. Beer, liquor, and weed were his drugs of choice, and it hindered his ability to stay healthy while in Buffalo.
“Then he’d wake up, go to practice and suffer the consequences,” writes Dunne. “Along the way, his body deteriorated. When he thinks back on it, he admits now: Those injuries were largely a result of his own behavior.”
After playing 16 games in his rookie year, he missed three games in his second season and eight games in his third season with the Bills. He was frequently on the injury report even if he played.
Even with the injuries and partying, he was able to be productive in his first two seasons, totaling 982 and 1047 yards in those seasons and combining for 15 touchdowns despite a whirlwind of quarterback changes.
As he saw others from his draft class rise to stardom, writes Dunne, Watkins became increasingly sour to Bills fans who wanted the same thing from him. He lashed out on social media, publicly demanded the football more, isolated himself from his teammates and coaches, and saw his relationships with fans and those in the building suffer because of it. He was a dark cloud.
As he continued slipping into a deep depression, he started skipping his injury rehab meetings with Bills staff. Following foot surgery, he took off his own walking boot against medical advice, only to re-injure the foot. His mental hurdles were starting to become physical ones.
Everything got worse when Sean McDermott was hired to replace Rex Ryan as head coach of the Bills in the beginning part of 2017. Ryan, known as a players’ coach, was much different than the strict McDermott. Watkins had been in self-imposed isolation, finding himself through the study of religions, and when he returned to his first training camp with McDermott, he immediately felt like he didn’t belong. He says he prayed to his mirror at St. John Fisher College:
“Get me out of here. Please, God.”
The Bills’ obliged, shipping him to the Los Angeles Rams for a second-round pick and starting cornerback E.J. Gaines during the 2017 preseason. The Bills used the pick as part of the package to trade up and draft quarterback Josh Allen.
It was a sad end for a player who carried so much hope for the Bills, general manager Doug Whaley, quarterback EJ Manuel, and fans of the team. It contributed to Whaley and Manuel losing their jobs.
Watkins went on to be somewhat productive in Los Angeles before signing as a free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs. With more of a players’ coach in Andy Reid, Watkins has found a role in which to excel in the pass-happy Chiefs’ offense. He’s never regained the form he had in his first two NFL seasons, but he contributed to Kansas City’s playoff run and exploded for 288 yards on 14 catches with a touchdown during their 2019 run to the Super Bowl title.
After reading the profile in Bleacher Report (which I’d suggest you all read), you don’t leave feeling sorry for Watkins in the traditional sense. Most of his problems were self-inflicted. You do gain some understanding for his perspective on things and there are questions about what Buffalo did to support him during this time. Could Doug Marrone or Rex Ryan have done more to help him through his depression and the demons that followed him? Could Doug Whaley have seen it coming before trading up for him and putting the weight of a franchise on his shoulders?
Watkins will return to Buffalo to face his former team for the first time this October. It’s unclear if fans will be in the stands for the contest, but if they are, it’s unlikely Watkins will receive a warm welcome from his former hometown crowd.