Early in his career, his focus was only on the numbers. In each game, he was striving to pad his stat sheet, believing that his team’s success depended on getting him the ball.
Things have changed for the talented wide receiver. Five years into his career — and in his first season with the Kansas City Chiefs — both the stats he’s putting up and his approach to the game are different.
Watkins is not only coming off his best game of the season following the Chiefs’ 30-23 victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 8 — in which Watkins set season-highs with eight catches, 107 yards and two touchdowns — but he’s also quintupled his career rushing yard totals. Watkins had just nine yards rushing over his first four years in the league. In Kansas City, all but one of his attempts has gone for nine or more yards.
“It just feels great,” Watkins candidly stated after the game. “Not just to score two times, but to get the win. To do it at a high level and just go out there and play my style of game running around having fun, throw some good blocks and have everybody catch a lot of balls.”
While it was a great feeling, it was one that took some time to experience. Before Sunday’s game, Watkins hadn’t scored a single touchdown since the Chiefs’ Week 3 home opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
The following week — against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium — Watkins was battling a sore hamstring, played only 12 snaps and didn’t record a single catch.
“I kind of went to the Rams [last season] and it was the same situation,” Watkins said about his lessons in learning patience. “That kind of helped my game with blocking and just staying engaged and giving that fuel to other guys out there making plays.”
This newfound patience — and a team-first mentality — are just two of the factors that have contributed to making Watkins the player he is today.
“I was young and I was kind of ego-tripping,” Watkins said about his early years in the league. “Now I’m kind of older, and I understand it’s a team goal and every week it’s going to change. Next week Tyreek might have 180 yards or Kelce might have 180 yards and I might have 30. It’s going to switch up with all these star athletes running around. I know I’m not going to get 50 targets. That’s not realistic.”
Watkins says the other receivers surrounding him on the Chiefs offense have removed the pressure he used to put on himself, which he says allows him to play his game more freely.
“It’s not all about me or any guy on this team,” he said. “If I’m not open, I know Kelce’s going to be open. I can literally run my route, but watch him catch the ball and it feels great to see everybody out there making plays.”
Watkins isn’t the only Chiefs receiver with this share-the-success attitude. Tight end Travis Kelce, who had six catches for 79 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, shared a similar sentiment when asked about Watkins’ big game.
“It’s always good to see Sammy go off,” Kelce said. “Everything he does, you’re happy for the guy — just because of the type of person he is and how hard he works during the week. It’s awesome to see him have a day like he did today.”
One player that has played a major role in fostering that selfless environment is 23-year-old quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who said that before Sunday’s game, he shared some words of encouragement to help get Watkins fired up.
“I kind of said, ‘You owe [the Broncos],’” Mahomes said afterward. “He was hurt in the last game [against Denver] at the very beginning, so they didn’t really know what kind of ability he brought to the offense. I was happy for him, to get out there and [make] a lot of big plays that really turned the tide of the game.”
Head coach Andy Reid also appears to be pleased with Watkins’ growth — both mentally and physically.
“His approach has been unbelievable,” coach Andy Reid said in Sunday’s postgame press conference. “He just comes out, does the same [thing], works hard. He’s not concerned about how many catches he has or any of that. For a big-time receiver, that’s unique.
”I mentioned it to the guys that there’s only one ball and we have a bunch of guys who are pretty good players,” Reid continued. “When you have an opportunity, be a part of that, and he’s done that. He’s done a nice job with it.”