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How Sammy Watkins toyed with the Jaguars defense and what it means moving forward

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The Chiefs wide receiver looked to have a career resurgence Week 1. Can it continue?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs-Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs ran through the Jacksonville Jaguars defense on Sunday, putting up 40 points, which included three touchdowns through the air. All three of those receiving touchdowns were passes from Patrick Mahomes to Sammy Watkins, and that may have been the least impressive part about Watkins’ performance.

Tyreek Hill left the game with a shoulder injury in the first quarter, leaving Watkins as the team’s wide receiver; in fact, he was the only wide receiver to catch more than one pass after Hill’s exit. Despite providing the only true threat at wide receiver, Watkins was able to snag the aforementioned three touchdowns, nine catches and 198 yards against one of the more talented cornerback duos in the NFL.

Whether matched up against Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye or working across the middle of the Jaguars’ defense, Watkins was consistently able to create separation and churn out yards after the catch. With the news coming down that Tyreek Hill is going to be out for four to six weeks, the pressure will be on Watkins to stay healthy and continue to produce like a top-flight wide receiver.

It’s clear he has talent, but the question has to be asked:

Was it a flash-in-the-pan type of performance or is all the hype around his offseason training program and comfort in the Chiefs’ offense ringing true?

This week in the AP Laboratory, we are going to dive into Watkins’ performance and attempt to answer that looming question, given its importance over the next month or more.

Sammy Watkins

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a widely-talked-about detail of Andy Reid’s offense—every wide receiver has to learn each position and it creates a greater learning curve, even for veterans new to the system.

Tyreek Hill is most often utilized as the Z wide receiver — or flanker that plays off the line of scrimmage — and the Chiefs have cycled X wide receiver — possession wide receiver that often lines up on the line of scrimmage — during recent years. While he was with the Los Angeles Rams, Watkins had the reputation of being a deep ball-only wide receiver based on a very weighted usage, but in Kansas City, that role was already filled. With the Chiefs, Watkins has been asked to play much more of the X wide receiver and looks to be fully embracing and excelling in that role the more time he spends there.

Watkins is working on the short side of the field, with minimal space given how close the Chiefs are to the end zone. Watkins is up against one of the better press cornerbacks in the NFL in Jalen Ramsey, but it simply doesn’t matter. He beats the press with great route running and physicality and then creates the perfect throwing window for Mahomes to sling the ball in.

The ability to beat press coverage in such a short field is incredibly impressive but also a highly desired trait out of an X wide receiver that is going to be put in these situations often. The offensive coaching staff also deserves credit here because Watkins is often used in the middle of the field in the red zone.

Whether slants, square-ins, or post routes, he has the size and physicality to play through the middle of the field. The whip route called here is sold perfectly by Watkins but the tendency previously established makes it easy for Ramsey to bite.

Route running

Another example of the Chiefs using Watkins on the line of scrimmage as a traditional X wide receiver is this time against press coverage from AJ Bouye.

Thanks to film study, Watkins feels confident that Bouye isn’t going to step in and punch, so he uses a zero step speed release. He resets his back foot to come to balance but doesn’t move in any direction, just showing a slight inside tilt that affords him the outside release.

Using the speed release, he’s able to eat up ground as fast as possible and get Bouye to flip his hips without hands on Watkins. It is a good hip drop, as he breaks off the curl and is wide open. Then once Watkins has the ball, he turns into a runner immediately and uses that power and size to bully forward for an extra eight yards.

Hands

A major role of a possession wide receiver is the ability to make tough, contested catches, especially across the middle of the field.

The ability to excel on slants and in-routes is pivotal for the success of a possession wide receiver. The routes will often lead a player into linebackers or safeties. While there isn’t a defender directly contending for this pass, Watkins knows a defender is closing fast from behind him and he doesn’t waver. Instead, he uses perfect technique while settling in the hole of the zone and extending to the ball at its apex. Furthermore, since he slowed, the ball was out in front of him, which allowed him to use the momentum of the catch to tuck the football and turn upfield.

Where Watkins can really separate himself from the traditional X wide receiver is his unique athleticism and size combination. He looks not only faster but also quicker overall in 2019 This should allow him to take shorter receptions for much bigger gains.

Yards after the catch

The play design here does the vast majority of the work.

The play-action followed by the boot look based on the route distribution and blocking protection gets the Jaguars defense flowing to the near side. Watkins then slips across on a leak route — the drag into a wheel route — and he is left wide open. The two things that Watkins does perfectly here are avoiding Myles Jack’s re-route attempt and then tracking the ball perfectly so that he can catch it in stride and go straight into accelerating.

Watkins has always been fast, but there seemed to be another level to his top-end speed in this limited sample size provided through just one game.

Here is a better example of how spry Watkins looks this year. After the catch, he gets his shoulders down and accelerates up the sideline, which forces the cornerback to do the same to try and not lose the race up the sideline. Watkins then hits the brakes with one step and is able to burst up the sideline for an extra 10 yards.

This rare explosiveness and speed make Watkins a special blend of athleticism and size for the X wide receiver position and ultimately an extremely dangerous weapon.

Vertical connection

Let’s be clear here: Watkins was not perfect against the Jaguars — he did in fact miss a block on Hardman’s dropped screen pass, but this is something that Mahomes and Watkins need to continue to work on.

The fault of this incompletion is probably more on the blocking than Watkins or Mahomes, but it is a connection that wasn’t on point in 2018 either. Mahomes and Watkins have been great at connecting on horizontal breaking routes, short routes and moderate depth routes, but their vertical connection is still a work in progress.

With the extra year, that should continue to improve, but it is a trait that could carry Watkins into a top tier of wide receivers.

The bottom line

Let’s return to the question of what this game means for Watkins moving forward.

When viewing Watkins through the narrow scope of an X wide receiver, he was doing everything you would expect out of a possession receiver. The ability to beat press coverage with his route running or strength force even the best cornerbacks struggle.

Where Watkins really looks to be standing out early in 2019 is with how much he resembles his Clemson and early Buffalo form in terms of his athleticism. Being able to beat that press coverage, then turn a short gain into a much greater one is what makes quality wide receivers into elite.

To answer our question directly, Watkins’ offseason hype seems entirely real and something Chiefs fans should buy into.

The comfort level in this offense with improved athleticism were on full display Week 1. The Chiefs will need this level of performance from Watkins over the next month, but as long as his health holds up, Watkins should easily maintain WR1 level performances.