On Friday, football analytics site Pro Football Focus published an article by Evan McPhillips that laid out the case for Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins to have a career year in 2019.
After noting that Watkins in now on his third team in five seasons — after being drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the first round (fourth overall) in the 2014 NFL draft — McPhillips said that the pairing of Watkins and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had been shown to be “remarkably efficient.”
The Kansas City Chiefs saw Watkins as a fit and snatched him up in free agency prior to the 2018 season, adding another weapon to aid their burgeoning young quarterback in Patrick Mahomes. Watkins played second fiddle to the explosive Tyreek Hill, but he managed to produce efficiency numbers that resembled his career year in Buffalo. The fifth-year veteran only played 581 snaps, but he generated a 124.6 passer rating when targeted (10th) and caught 75.5% of his passes (11th), all while averaging 10.1 yards per target. The Mahomes-Watkins pairing has only had one season together, but they were so efficient that they already rank as a top-10 active quarterback-receiver tandem in the NFL.
The article included a graphic showing that in his five seasons in the league, Watkins is averaging 13.2 yards per target on passes thrown 30 or more yards downfield, which is second only to Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton during that time.
Still, McPhillips pointed out that the Chiefs have frequently used Watkins on slant and hitch routes.
In his lone season with Andy Reid and the Chiefs, 49% of Watkins’ targets came on slants and hitches. Watkins has been very efficient on hitch routes and was recently ranked by PFF as the fifth-best receiver on hitch routes, producing a passer rating of 96.3 when targeted on such route patterns. The Chiefs made an effort the get Watkins the ball in the underneath part of the field and let him work after the catch, as evidenced by the increased use of the slant pattern — Watkins averaged 5.9 yards after the catch per reception on such routes in 2018 which ranked tied 13th among receivers.
There’s never been much question that Watkins has the raw talent to be among the league’s elite wide receivers. In his first two seasons with the Bills — one of them catching passes thrown by E.J. Manuel — he accumulated 2,029 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns on 135 receptions. It was that kind of potential production that led the Chiefs to sign Watkins to a three-year deal worth $48 million after his single season with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.
The issue for Watkins has always been his ability to stay on the field. He hasn’t played a full season since his rookie campaign in Buffalo, and started just nine games for the Chiefs in 2018. But when Watkins was healthy enough to be utilized, the Chiefs offense was too multifaceted to defend against; the Chiefs won all seven regular-season games in which Watkins had five or more targets.
Watkins says he feels great right now. If he can stay on the field in 2019, it’s not unreasonable to think he could finally take his place among the NFL’s elite receivers — and be worth every penny of the big contract the Chiefs gave him.