You don't need me to tell you that the Buffalo Bills' decision to trade their 2015 first-round draft pick to Cleveland for the right to select Sammy Watkins in the 2014 NFL Draft was a historic moment for the franchise. That level of investment is enough to know that it was a move with major implications, both short term and long term.
To add another layer of intrigue to the move, however, there's this fact: Watkins, the junior out of Clemson, was just the tenth receiver drafted in the Top 5 since the New York Jets made Keyshawn Johnson the No. 1 overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. That's 10 receivers drafted that early in a 19-year period, for those counting. It's a select group that Watkins joins, one that includes potential Hall of Fame players (Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, and maybe eventually A.J. Green) and epic draft busts (Charles Rogers, Peter Warrick, and maybe eventually Justin Blackmon), with little in between (Keyshawn Johnson and Braylon Edwards?).
Regardless of career outcome, these Top 5 picks were nearly universally players that became go-to targets from day one. Of the nine Top 5 picks that preceded Watkins, seven (excepting Edwards and, bizarrely, Calvin Johnson) averaged at least seven targets per game in their rookie seasons. By comparison, only one Bills receiver - Stevie Johnson, who was traded to San Francisco after the Watkins pick - averaged that many targets per game in 2013 (he came in at 8.4). Robert Woods averaged 6.1, Scott Chandler was at 5.1, and then it was all downhill from there.
All that is to say that aside from a major leap forward with Woods, which may or may not happen, there's no good reason to believe that Watkins won't be the Bills' go-to receiver this season. And even if Woods does emerge as the preferred target of EJ Manuel, the Bills are still going to be highly reliant on Watkins in the passing game, to the point that he is easily the most important figure (outside of Manuel, of course) in the Bills' revamped passing attack, which seeks to make more big plays this season.
By now, most of the talking points about Watkins' game are fleshed out: he's an explosive playmaker, capable of scoring from anywhere on the field; the way Clemson used him schematically led to his entering the league having limited experience as a route-runner; most receivers drafted early have an unusual height advantage, which the 6'0" Watkins does not possess; it's not especially common for a receiver to be the target of a trade up so early, with the most recent example being Atlanta's 2011 move to nab Julio Jones at No. 6 overall. You've heard it all by now, and you have a clear idea of what the Bills are hoping Watkins brings to the table as a rookie.
If the Bills are going to end their playoff drought, they need to be significantly better offensively - and as they already have an established running game, that means that the biggest leap the team needs to make in any one category is in the passing offense. We all know who bears the most responsibility in making that leap, but the extremely talented Watkins has a huge role to play in that, as well - bigger than the other top receivers on the depth chart, and possibly bigger than some of the biggest Top 5 picks at receiver in the past two decades, as well.
This post continues a series in which we'll discuss the ten most important Bills players entering the new season. We'll update this list each time a new entry in the series posts.
1. coming July 18
2. coming July 16
3. coming July 14
4. LB Kiko Alonso:(
5. WR Sammy Watkins
6. DE Mario Williams
7. OT Cordy Glenn
8. DB Aaron Williams
9. DT Kyle Williams
10. RB C.J. Spiller
11. DE Jerry Hughes