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AP Lab Film Session: the Chiefs and the number two wide receiver

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If Watkins can’t play in the postseason, what can the Chiefs do to replace him?

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Last week, it became public knowledge that Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins had aggravated his foot injury and would be out for the Baltimore Ravens game on Sunday.

Soon after, we learned that the timetable for his return is four to six weeks — but that clock started running when the original injury occurred in Week 9. So his status at this point is day-to-day.

It has been reported that the Chiefs — for precautionary reasons — are considering shutting Watkins down until the playoffs. Late last week — in a move that is likely related to Watkins’ status — the Chiefs signed former first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin to a veteran minimum contract. He didn’t play against the Ravens, but Chiefs head coach Andy Reid sounded optimistic that he could be used in some packaged plays against the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

So here’s the big question: how big of a deal is the loss of Sammy Watkins going to be?

Without Watkins, the Chiefs’ offensive performances have been up and down — all the way from asking Patrick Mahomes to deliver magic in games against the Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens to lighting up the Los Angeles Rams with ease.

While results are all over the board when Watkins doesn’t play, there is a common theme: when there is pressure on the wide receiver to beat a corner in a man-to-man matchup, there is zero consistency. The games in which the Chiefs offense struggled most — especially with receivers-not-named-Tyreek Hill — have been the games where the opposing defense is confident and talented enough to play man-to-man coverage often.

With that in mind, let’s go down to the AP Laboratory to figure out why the Chiefs have struggled to consistently fill Sammy Watkins’ shoes .

Will the number two wide receiver please stand up?

The Chiefs number two wide receiver plays an important role against specific defenses. That may sound rather niche and limiting, but once the playoffs start — when the caliber of competition improves — the importance of the second wide receiver becomes clear. It’s a dynamic role that changes as much as any position in the offense — and that’s why the Chiefs spent big money in free agency to fill it.

Main uses:

  1. Hard horizontal breaking routes: That’s relatively broad, but the Chiefs often use their second wide receiver across the middle, or breaking out to the sideline at 90 degree angles. It’s often a possession-type route, but it can be turned into big yards-after-catch when run to perfection. The key here is selling a vertical route, getting quickly into the break and accelerating out of it.
  2. A possession wide receiver: The Chiefs operate much more through the Y-WR (or flanker) than they do their X, but a possession receiver is still important. The stick routes (curls, hitches, etc.) along with some of the hard-breaking routes into zones require the receiver to handle contact while securing the ball.
  3. Secondary deep threat: Whether as a clear-out route or completely live on the play, the Chiefs’ second wide receiver is the second most-common deep threat — usually on post and corner routes, rather than pure go or nine routes. Those require a bit more nuance in the route running, and the ability to stack defensive backs behind you and handle the contact.

That’s a diverse set of uses, but that’s what makes the position such an integral part of the Chiefs offense — and why the Chiefs have had some struggles when facing good defenses without Watkins. Finding a player that can fulfill any one of these roles on any snap is difficult — about $17 million difficult — so replacing Watkins is near-impossible.

Let’s quickly look at the contenders to be that replacement:

Chris Conley

Roles he fills: Conley definitely fills the possession wide receiver role. That’s been his best use throughout his career, and the Chiefs often use him as one even when he’s the third option on the field. He has a big body and a good catch radius, but he hasn’t been as productive in contested catch situations as one would hope. Most of that is a lack of opportunity — but at this point, it’s a fair question to ask if that’s for a reason.

Roles he doesn’t fill: Despite his extremely impressive NFL Combine numbers, Conley hasn’t ever shown himself to be dynamic on the football field. After his Achilles injury — an injury from which some players would still be recovering — he has looked even less dynamic. On the field, his short-area quickness and initial explosion has always been pedestrian, and that makes him a long-striding player who has to build up speed — and that makes it difficult for him to separate downfield.

Here, there just is no real threat to beat the cornerback downfield — despite being completely on an island with another route occupying the safety inside.

Conley also struggles with hard breaks, so while he’s physical and gritty enough to go over the middle and make tough catches, he doesn’t generate separation on his breaks. He comes into his 90 degree breaks very high, and has a long throttle-down period — which allows defenders to recover if they were out of position. Even if he gets open, there has been a major lack of dynamic playmaking with the ball in his hands — even when opportunities present themselves.

On this play, Conley does a great job of working upfield and extending the play — something at which he is great — but before that, the route is a complete wash. There is a good vertical threat and outside fake, but minimal separation is achieved on the break. The defender is able to stay in position to undercut any pass thrown to Conley because he got a complete reset when Conley broke down to make his break.

Demarcus Robinson

Roles he fills: Robinson has been best when gets the ball in his hands and can get yards after the catch. He’s always been a good open-field runner, and has the ability to make players miss while turning upfield.

Here we see a simple drag across the defense to start the drive. Robinson works around the first defender and picks up a quick nine yards.

As a route runner, Robinson has the necessary traits to excel as a secondary deep threat and as a horizontal-breaking route runner. Whether across the middle or to the sideline, Robinson can create separation off his release, or at the break point.

Here, the ball goes to Conley — who is the hot receiver after the pressure — but Robinson clears the cornerback off the line of scrimmage with a good release and arm-over. This allows him to work a speed-cut with the crossing route, rather than breaking down trying to create separation at the break point, and maintain the space.

Roles he doesn’t fill: Right now, the biggest issue with Robinson is still the mental side of the game. Between silly penalties — and appearing to run the wrong routes and eat up spacing between himself and other receivers — it’s hard to rely on him play-in and play-out. Even later in the play, he sometimes has concentration issues, making his inconsistency even more apparent.

Another area Robinson doesn’t quite fill is the contested catch role. Whether it’s downfield — where he can succeed if he gets a step — or underneath, he doesn’t always attack the ball through (and over) defenders. He can put a defender on his back and make a catch while shielding them, but he doesn’t consistently have a this-ball-is-mine mentality on contested catches.

On the fade here, Mahomes is reading his leverage for the throw. Robinson doesn’t have leverage, so if the ball is out in front, he will be run into the sideline. So Mahomes puts it short. Robinson has to see this and work back to the ball — either drawing a pass interference penalty or making the catch.

What’s in store

It’s pretty clear that the Chiefs don’t have another Sammy Watkins to slide into his role. Teams will continue to use extra defenders on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, forcing the Chiefs’ second and third receivers to beat them. The coaching staff will continue find ways to scheme these guys open, but there will still be times they’ll just have to make plays.

Going forward, the Chiefs will likely continue to use a specialized approach with their receivers, allowing them to (mostly) fill specific roles. Conley will continue to be used as a possession wide receiver, working back to the quarterback and opening up in traffic. Robinson will get the deeper targets, and be used in situations where separation is key. And finally the wild card: Kelvin Benjamin, and what he can provide with his body control and ability at the catch point.

The Chiefs second wide receiver position is something to monitor for the rest of the regular season, because if Watkins is unavailable for the playoffs, that’s going to make things much more difficult for the Chiefs.