When Sammy Watkins signed with the Kansas City Chiefs leading up to the 2018 season, he was ready for a change.
So at 3 a.m in the early morning, two weeks out from his first Chiefs training camp, a wide-awake Watkins decided it was time to prove to himself — and others — that change was coming.
And what better way to do so than with a symbolic new ‘do?
With a pair of scissors and an impulse decision, Watkins got up and cut off his long, iconic dreadlocks — a look he had sported for more than a decade.
“Kind of just wanted to be different this season and just be about business,” Watkins said about the late-night chop.
Fast-forward almost a year later, and Watkins has felt much more than a cosmetic change.
And those “changes” didn’t just happen overnight.
Instead, they happened throughout the 2018 season. A season of more injuries, greater perspective and growth as a person and player — and the reigniting of that love and passion for the game that Watkins’ had lost at times earlier in his career.
All of those changes have now set him up both mentally and physically for a new role in 2019: leader.
“I’m actually just trying to be a leader to the young guys,” Watkins said of his goals at Chiefs OTAs on Thursday. “I think that’s kind of my role now with leading. I’m trying to do all the right things so the young guys can look up to me and say that this guy does everything right — finish the reps, uplift everyone, bring that energy every day in practice. That’s kind of my focus now. It’s my sixth year in the league and I’m just trying to build on that.”
One young player that has been a recipient of Watkins’ advice is rookie wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who the Chiefs drafted in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
“I’m always talking to him,” Watkins said. “Just telling him keep going man, play fast. You’re going to make many mistakes right now, but as long as you play fast and finish and do the right things and what the coach is looking for which is speed and being available just continue to get better and listen to the coaches and the guys around you.”
So how did Watkins arrive at this new leadership mentality?
He says to get here, he’s had to push past his “quiet, kind of humble” ways to use his voice and lead by example both on and off the field.
“I’d sit back and observe,” Watkins says of his approach last season — especially in the locker room.
“Now I’m just open with love and trying to learn and continue to get better,” he continued. “Every day, bring that leadership mentality and speaking up in meetings...saying, ‘Hey, I did this wrong” to show the young guys that we do mess up, all of us, and correct everything in the meeting.
“I’m really just trying to focus on being a leader and be a little bit more outspoken and speak up for myself and doing the right things.”
And with all of the questions surrounding the wide receiver position for the Chiefs, the pressure to do the right things, speak up and be a leader is perhaps greater than ever before.
Of course, NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes returning as the now second-year starting quarterback helps. Watkins is in a good spot to succeed and continue building on that chemistry with Mahomes.
“For both of those two (Watkins and Mahomes), everything is a little bit easier – all the verbiage, sorting it out and getting to where you’ve got to go,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said about the duo. “For Sammy, the routes are familiar and he kind of knows how to set them up and Patrick knows what he’s going to do against different coverages. So, that’s been positive.”
And Mahomes seems to agree.
“It is awesome,” Mahomes said when asked about their chemistry. “For him to be out here working hard, you see it every single day stacking on top of each other, you know that he’s primed and ready to go out there this season.”
Another positive? The two are starting 2019 on an already-solid foundation:
Among the top 10 active QB/receiver duos in passer rating with 50+ targets, the #Chiefs duo of Patrick Mahomes and Sammy Watkins rank 9th in passer rating and 3rd in catch percentage.— PFF KC Chiefs (@PFF_Chiefs) May 25, 2019
In addition, Mahomes has thrown 0 interceptions when targeting Watkins.#ChiefsKingdom https://t.co/tI5Wma80Mc
It’s a foundation that Watkins says he’s looking forward to building on, and one Mahomes is going to keep pushing to make stronger — especially out in practice.
Just take this one example from OTAs.
“[Mahomes] kind of got on me a little bit,” Watkins admitted. “I wasn’t coming in first in sprints when I should be.”
So, how did Watkins respond?
“Next day, I came in first about every time,” he said. “He looked at me like, yeah, and I looked back and said, ‘Yeah, I’m on it bro.’”
And while Mahomes’ leadership is a driving force behind Watkins’ motivation going into this season, most of the drive comes from within.
I will be the best this year mark my word I want it more now than I ever did before in my life im sacrificing everything to get to where I once was the world will now get to witness my greatness again..! #STARSHIP14 #LIMITLESS14— King me (@sammywatkins) May 18, 2019
The cause for this confidence?
“Just the work I’ve been putting in,” Watkins said in an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio when asked about this exact tweet earlier this week. “The confidence I have in myself and knowing that my body just feel amazing, that my body is holding up, I’m constantly getting stronger, faster, better and I’m getting the support from my team, from my teammates and the organization, the fans and everyone, all the support I’m getting—it can’t go wrong.”
But should things not go as planned — as Watkins has seen time and time again in his career?
“Even if I don’t have a great year I feel like it’s a great year because I’m out there doing something I love and am blessed to be on the field,” Watkins said. “I’m honestly grateful because I’ve been hurt three years and had catastrophic injuries, and been out, and haven’t played. So me being out on that field, running around blocking, catching balls, communicating, joking, having fun...that’s what it’s about for me.
“I think I’m getting back to that kid again that’s just out there playing, having fun, shaking and baking and catching balls.”