Sammy Watkins caught 65 passes for 982 yards and six touchdowns in his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills last year. "Not bad," you might be thinking, "especially for a banged-up rookie without a bona fide quarterback throwing to him." And you would not necessarily be wrong.
But that's a narrow lens through which to judge play. A wider lens shows that Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, has plenty of room for improvement. Pro Football Focus rated him as the 79th-best wide receiver in the NFL last season. He ranked tied for No. 45 in receptions, No. 24 in receiving yards, and tied for No. 29 in receiving touchdowns as a rookie. Only 19 receivers league-wide saw more targets than Watkins' 128 last season; of the 25 players in the league who were targeted at least 125 times, Watkins' 65 receptions ranked dead last.
The cost to acquire Watkins - the Bills traded their first-round pick in 2015, plus more, to draft Watkins last spring - was cited early and often as Watkins' fellow rookie receivers, led by Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and several others, put up similar (or significantly better) rookie-year production. Watkins fought through several injuries en route to what, in reality, was a highly inconsistent rookie season.
The result of all of that circumstance: heading into his second season, there may not be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL under more pressure to meet expectations in 2015 than Watkins - and that's true despite the fact that his quarterback situation, year-to-year, may have regressed.
Consistency will be difficult for Watkins to achieve, knowing that his quarterback situation is still evolving, and that the offense will rely heavily on the run game philosophically. Staying healthy would help his consistency, however; Watkins suffered a preseason rib injury last year that he played through for most of the season, and a groin injury popped up later on in the year, as well. He also had offseason hip surgery, which kept him from participating in most spring activities (he's expected to be full-go for training camp in a couple of weeks).
What Watkins did make clear as a rookie is that he is immensely gifted, and capable of making game-changing plays regardless of who is throwing him the football. He produced some outstanding performances in the first half of the season; Week 2 versus Miami (8-117-1), Week 5 at Detroit (7-87), Week 7 versus Minnesota (9-122-2), and Week 8 at the New York Jets (3-157-1) stand out in particular. He earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month recognition for his output in October.
But those four games yielded 41.5 percent of his receptions, 49.2 percent of his receiving yards, and two-thirds of his touchdowns on the season, and that's the problem - there were too many games when Watkins was the opposite of outstanding, especially in the second half of the season. The month of November (13 receptions, 105 yards, zero touchdowns in four games) was a particularly dark period for Watkins. If you're looking for a "rookie wall" for Watkins, look no further, and he hit it pretty hard.
Watkins turned 22 years old just last month. He remains an outstanding prospect with enormous potential. But the Bills traded up to pick him with the expectation that he would be great; the 2015 Bills outfit would likely settle for improved and more consistent. In a run-first offense with an unsettled quarterback position, Watkins is the player that will be counted on most to keep Buffalo's offense balanced. He's the player that opposing defenses will key on in the passing game, and the Bills will need him to win and catch passes despite that extra attention. Add in the price paid to acquire him and the dizzying expectations created by his potential and unquestioned status as the top receiver on the team, and you begin to understand the crushing weight of expectation that Watkins faces heading into the 2015 season.
Time will tell if he buckles under the pressure, or if he lives up to his promise and emerges as a bona fide No. 1 NFL receiver in 2015. If he manages the latter, the odds are high that he'll have done it with little to no tangible help from the man throwing him the football. That's why Watkins is unquestionably one of the Bills' most critically important players not just for the 2015 season, but for the foreseeable future.