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Why Sammy Watkins’ value rises in the playoffs

Often overshadowed in the regular season, the postseason is Watkins’ time to shine.

NFL: AFC Championship-Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Just under two weeks ago, when we didn’t know if the Kansas City Chiefs would win even a single playoff game — much less advance to the Super Bowl — our Ron Kopp, Jr. identified five Chiefs players with something to prove in the playoffs.

At $19.2 million, Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins had the highest 2019 cap hit of all NFL wide receivers. His production certainly did not match his price, with just 52 passes for 673 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season. It is an underwhelming box score — but with a closer look, it gets worse.

Watkins’ performance in the 40-26 Week 1 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars makes up a big chunk of his stat line; the 198 yards he gained that day make up 29% of his season yardage. In fact, that was the last time Watkins gained over 64 yards in a game. That was also the last time he found the end zone; all three of his touchdowns happened almost four months ago.

But during the Chiefs’ 35-24 defeat of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, Watkins came up big — as Matt Stagner noted in these pages.

Give credit where it’s due: Playoff Sammy showed up on Sunday. He was the possession receiver Patrick Mahomes needed in order to move the chains. Then he got free on a big third-down play and scored his first touchdown since Week 1. One more game like this one and the other 16 games of unimpressive play won’t matter.

That reception put the Chiefs up 35-17, ensuring that the Chiefs would spend Super Bowl Sunday on the field in Miami — instead of putting pictures from the Pro Bowl in their scrapbooks.

“That [touchdown] was kind of a play that was off the books,” Watkins said after the game. “My guy fell down, and I just kind of took off. Me and Pat made an eye connection. That’s just from practicing hard and working with each other. He threw one of the best balls to me. I caught it and I ran.”

But Mahomes noted that Watkins’ touchdown catch wasn’t an isolated incident in the game.

“There [were] other plays in the game where he was making big time catches, dragging his feet inbounds, catching the ball before he even turned around it seemed like,” the newly-minted Super Bowl quarterback told reporters. “I think you see that if teams [want] to put attention on other guys like Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce, we have a guy like Sammy Watkins that can beat [their] corner every single day.”

After Sunday’s conference title game, Watkins’ performance caught the league’s eye.

“I was happy for Sammy,” said general manager Brett Veach on Sunday. “He is around a lot of talent, so sometimes he can’t show exactly what he can do. But he is a super-talented player — and he’s a big factor in why we won tonight.”

Last season — after missing seven games with injuries — Watkins gained 519 yards (and scored three touchdowns) on 40 receptions. Much healthier in 2019, he grabbed three more touchdowns and 673 yards on 52 receptions over 14 games.

But right now, we’re talking about Playoff Sammy — because Watkins seems to be able to make things happen when the season is on the line. Through four postseason games with the Chiefs, Watkins has gained 366 yards (and now a touchdown) on 19 catches. Over a full regular season, that kind of production works out to 76 receptions for 1,464 yards.

“We’ve been a playoff team for years,” Veach explained. “Since we got here, we’ve been in the playoffs every year. You make moves like [signing Watkins] to put you over the top. Certainly without Sammy’s performance today, who knows how this game would have turned out?

“When you make offseason moves and you are as aggressive as we are, you do it for games like this — not so much for the regular season,” continued Veach. “When you get in these opportunities to play championship football, [you] have [to have] these guys come through.”

As we learned in 2018, Watkins’ contributions throughout the season can’t necessarily be shown in volume statistics. Last season, when Watkins was out, the Chiefs offense didn’t seem to have quite the same spark; Watkins’ mere presence on the field gave defenses another weapon for which they had to account.

During the regular season, this often leaves Watkins in the shadows. But in the playoffs — when the stakes are higher and the team’s top receivers attract more attention from defenses — it gives him more opportunities.

On Sunday, Watkins reiterated that he doesn’t care about how many targets he gets.

“I don’t too much worry about my number,” he said. “Like I said, my job is to go out there and fight for my brothers. Whether it’s blocking, running routes, catching — it doesn’t matter.”

Watkins said that being a team player is part of the culture the team has built.

“I think it definitely starts from high up,” he said. “We move as our coaches move. We follow as they follow us. It’s a great feeling to be on a staff like this and to have a lot of guys that are unselfish — so we can go out and play our best ball and let the ball go anywhere.”

“A lot of unselfish guys, man,” he marveled. “It’s amazing. Now I look up, last year we fought for the Super Bowl — [and] lost in this round. Now again. we have the opportunity to be in the Super Bowl, and I think that [coming here was] one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.”

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