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The big Sammy Watkins review: Holy smokes!

Welcome to the Chiefs, Sammy Watkins!

When I heard that the Chiefs were interested in Sammy Watkins, I was somewhat interested. I hadn’t reviewed his film in any meaningfully way, so everything I knew about him was limited to brief highlights and what showed up in the box score. I knew him to be immensely talented, but had struggled with injuries in the past and didn’t really light it up in L.A. last season.

Joel: Why I love the Sammy Watkins signing

When news broke that the Chiefs signed him to a three-year, $48 million deal, I was surprised that the Chiefs were going THAT all in on a receiver. But I didn’t know enough about Watkins as a player to make a real judgment. So it became time to turn on the film.

And what I found was a guy who gets open. A lot.

If you’ve read a wide receiver film review by me before, go ahead and skip to the numbers. If not, here’s a quick breakdown: I review every single route the receiver runs, charting wins, losses, neutral plays, drops, and saves. For a definition of these terms, click here (the Albert Wilson film review, which also provides some context for the numbers). The goal is to separate what Watkins did from the rest of the offense in order to gauge him and him alone (since stats, even on targets, are wildly affected by the scheme and quarterback).

I also, in this case, tracked “catchable targets,” just to see what Watkins was looking at that was catchable on a game-by-game basis. The main reason for this is that the primary complaint people will likely have about Watkins is based on box score analysis. In other words, people will look at Watkins’ 39 catches for 593 yards and decide that means Watkins isn’t a playmaker. The problem with that is that box score analysis leaves out a whole host of things that are important to assess a player, and relies entirely on the QB to get the WR the ball. In Watkins’ case, that is not a reliance that was justified.

When you’re gauging a WR based on catches and yards, you’re missing what he’s actually doing on the field and giving way too much power to the QB/scheme. We’ll come back to this, but the point is that you cannot learn what you need to know about a receiver in the box score. And so, to the film we go.

I’ll start off with the numbers I charted, then talk about what those numbers look like when compared with Albert Wilson (whom many Chiefs fans wanted to re-sign and will be getting a three-year, $24 million contract from the Dolphins based on what I’m seeing). After that, we’ll talk about traits.

If you want some context, again, click here to take a look at Wilson’s film review. I’ll discuss some of his numbers below, though, to provide a comparison to what a decent receiver did for Kansas City last season.

First and foremost, Watkins’ win percentage of 43.1 percent is quite high. By comparison, Wilson was able to win on 25 percent of his snaps. This was reflected on film, as Watkins was consistently able to beat man coverage and was also able to find holes in zone coverage. As I said, he got open very, very frequently.

Flipping that around, Watkins only lost on 13 percent of his snaps. This is only slightly lower than Wilson (15.8 percent), but is more notable in my opinion due to the opponents and the type of coverage Watkins faced. He found himself up against man coverage more frequently than Wilson, and was MUCH more often matched up against teams’ best corners due to lining up outside quite a bit more.

Watkins only dropped one pass in the games I reviewed, and saved a few horrific throws by Rams QB Jared Goff with fantastic catches. In total, of the 16 catchable targets that came Watkins’ way, he hauled in 14 of them (losing one to a PI and another to a pass breakup by the defender).

To create a different perspective on this, when I review a corner’s film, I want a loss percentage (which, of course, would be allowing a win for a WR) of between 20-25 percent. Any higher than that and I get nervous. I also want them to have as high a win percentage (which, of course, would mean a loss for a WR) as possible. What Watkins’ numbers mean is that he turned corners facing him into guys who lost 43 percent of the time and won only 13 percent of the time. In short, Watkins turns corners into approximately what Kenneth Acker did for the Chiefs last year. That’s a good thing.

But how does he do so? And why am I not worried about his box score from last season? It’s pretty simple: Watkins gets open.

Whether you’re talking about deep, intermediate or shorter routes, Watkins is consistently able to create separation against all forms of man and zone coverage. He has very quick feet, doesn’t take false steps, and possesses a great deal of explosion whether he’s cutting or moving down the field (which alleviates my concerns about injuries affecting him).

And again, it’s at all levels of the field. Whether short...

Intermediate (see above), or down the field. Especially down the field.

Something I appreciate about Watkins is that all but the very best presses / jams don’t bother him. As you can see in the GIF above, he’s often able to completely avoid contact due to his quickness. And when defenders miss on him, he’s generally gone. He’s got incredible burst off the line and his top speed is one that most corners can’t match (though it’s not Tyreek Hill’s level, to be clear. No one’s is).

Even when defenders get their hands on him, it doesn’t often throw him off his route. While Watkins isn’t a powerhouse, he’s listed at 6’1 and over 210 pounds and seems more than capable of shrugging off contact, or even initiating it.

Watkins seems to understand handfighting at the line and is generally able to keep himself clear of the muck. The only corner who pressed him with much efficacy was Jalen Ramsey, and even then it wasn’t on a consistent basis. Watkins got his that game too.

Despite Watkins’ ability to get open at all levels of the field, though, his ability to create separation deep really stands out.

Watkins, more than any receiver I can remember watching except Hill, is able to separate down the field with consistency. When he’s up against man coverage he was able to win more often than he lost on go and post routes down the field. His explosion and ability to cut is just too much for most corners to handle.

The problem is that with the Rams, his quarterback was rarely able to capitalize.

In the four games I watched, Watkins repeatedly got open down the field and either:

  1. Goff missed him entirely, or
  2. Goff threw an uncatchable pass, negating the work Watkins had done.

For all that, I never once saw Watkins throw his hands up in frustration or appear to be complaining. I found that interesting, given he’d acquired a reputation in Buffalo as being a bit of a diva. It would appear he’s grown since that time, because again, not once did he throw his quarterback under the bus or even complain about a bad call that I saw. He always just jogged back to the huddle.

It must have been frustrating, though, because in addition to being incredibly explosive down the field, Watkins also possesses the trait that separates true deep threats from other fast guys: the ability to track the ball in the air.

On the rare occasions Goff gave Watkins a catchable ball down the field, he was able to adjust to any inaccuracies and make the catch. I’ve talked about this trait with regards to Tyreek Hill time and again, and it’s an utterly critical one for receivers down the field. The deeper the throw, the less likely it is to be perfectly accurate and the more difficult it is to adjust to in the air. Being able to do so while sprinting is a rare trait, and Watkins possesses it in spades. Goff simply wasn’t able to take advantage of it.

With regards to route-running, Watkins (as I said above) showed good feet and burst in and out of cuts. He rarely rounded out his routes and was asked to run pretty much any route you can think of. He’s probably the best route runner the Chiefs have (though we’ll see where Hill is at when the season begins), and that’s what allows him to separate on short, quick play calls. He’s also able to go through more complex routes with multiple cuts without losing much speed.

Watkins’ hands impressed me as well on multiple snaps. As mentioned above, he’s able to concentrate and adjust to the ball down the field.

He also consistently catches the ball with his hands rather than his body, which is a great (and less common than you’d think) trait for a receiver to have, as it leads to fewer drops and allows the player to make tough catches in traffic.

That “hands catching” showed up most in the red zone, where the Rams often used Watkins when teams were willing to cover him 1x1. While Watkins isn’t a huge player, he plays big in those short yardage situations and has strong hands.

That ability to snatch the ball out of the air prevents defenders from making a viable play on the ball when shielded from it (Watkins is solid with that, using his fairly wide frame to keep corners from reaching around). There were several easy touchdowns like that for Watkins, which aren’t actually that easy at all. They just look like it when you’re a receiver who uses his body well and catches with his hands.

On top of everything else, Watkins demonstrates a good knowledge of coverages and where to sit down against zone defenses.

While this is a more basic wide receiver skill, it’s going to be critical for someone like Patrick Mahomes, who will need receivers who know where to hunker down when defenses play zone. Given the matchup problems the Chiefs now present, it’s hard for me to not think that most teams are going to resort to zone coverage against them (most teams don’t have guys who can cover Hill and Kelce one on one, and the same is now true with Watkins as well).

Because of this, Mahomes will need a veteran (despite being only 24, Watkins has been in the league a number of years now) who knows where he needs to stop and wait for the ball to arrive. Watkins does this, and is also willing and able to fight for yards after the catch when he does so. His work after the catch actually resulted in a touchdown on the above play, despite multiple defenders getting in the way.

A final note for Watkins that I saw on film was that he’s got some natural YAC ability due to his strength (seen above) and acceleration. Because he’s able to hit another gear so quickly, he often gets extra yardage after the catch by messing with angles.

Normally, this is the part of the article where I would talk about the weaknesses I saw on film. The problem with watching Watkins is that there really weren’t any significant weaknesses that I could identify.

He can get beat by a really good press, but that’s true of literally any receiver in the NFL. He has good quickness, runs routes well, has explosive acceleration, great top end speed, catches the ball well, tracks throws down the field, knows where to go against the zone, and isn’t afraid to get physical. He’s also a very willing blocker from the limited snaps I watched.

In short, I’m a Watkins convert. I have no idea what it’ll look like on the field, but Watkins was much, much more impressive than I expected on film. And I went into it with pretty high hopes. His box score last year wasn’t anything to write home about, but his film absolutely was.

The Chiefs now boast the absolute best skill position group in the NFL. Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins are unmatched across the league. Only Pittsburgh is even close, really. If Mahomes is even 80 percent of what I think he might be, this is going to be an incredibly fun offense to watch.

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