Sammy Watkins' raw talent, limited route tree might be the best fit for Buffalo's offense
It's one of the most daunting adjustments certain collegiate receivers must make when they come to the NFL, no matter their professional offense: When your NCAA route tree was more of a route bush, how do you adapt to a far more complex playbook? This is the challenge ahead for ex-Clemson and current Buffalo Bills receiver Sammy Watkins, who caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013, cementing his status in many minds as the finest receiver in a loaded 2014 draft class. The Bills agreed with that notion, not only selecting him in the first round, but also trading up from the ninth overall pick to the fourth -- and giving up their 2015 first-round pick in the process -- to ensure that Watkins would be on their roster. And in case anyone was wondering how sure Buffalo is about Watkins' potential, they traded former leading receiver Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers on May 9.
Obviously, the Bills have cleared the decks for their flashiest new addition. CEO Russ Brandon said after the "swing-for-the-fences" decision that it had no ties to the franchise's shaky ownership and stadium situations following the March 25 death of Ralph Wilson, the only owner the team has ever known.
"It has nothing to do with the future," Brandon insisted. "It is everything about the future is now [sic]. [General manager] Doug Whaley and our player personnel department are empowered and have full autonomy to make football decisions. That was a football decision, and it wasn't tied to the future of the organization. It is business as usual. We're making football decisions, no matter what. We're making business decisions as we would, in a very prepared and methodical way. Doug Whaley did a great job preparing for the draft -- they stayed true to doing what they wanted to do, and that was to move up to take Sammy Watkins. Everything is about winning. I know it's a cliché. It has not one iota of an impact on who the future owner may be."
That may well be true -- after all, Watkins has been compared to Julio Jones, and the Atlanta Falcons gave up a king's ransom (five draft picks, including two first-round slots) for the right to select the uber-talented Alabama target. Jones has proven worthy when healthy, but it's always a risk to give up extra currency for one player -- especially when that player will need time to move into an NFL playbook, based on the rudimentary approach taken by his college offense.
And no matter how talented Watkins is -- there's little doubt regarding his athletic ability -- it's a process that head coach Doug Marrone, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and receivers coach Rob Moore will have to move into over time. Of Watkins' 101 receptions in 2013, 44 came from screen passes, tied for most qualifying receivers with ex-Vanderbilt and current Philadelphia Eagles pass-catcher Jordan Matthews. And it's not that Watkins never ran a route with an angle in offensive coordinator Chad Morris' passing game, but he didn't do it that often. Watkins was asked to do three things over and over, with little diversity -- take the ball out of the backfield, hang at the sideline on a bubble screen, and blast off from the slot or outside, running past whichever unfortunate defenders were trying to keep up with him.
Following my restudying Watkins' games for his SI 64 draft profile, I came up with this bit of levity:
After comprehensive film study, I have summarized the Clemson route tree for Sammy Watkins. pic.twitter.com/imGl9UrMzI
— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) April 22, 2014
It was a (hopefully) humorous exaggeration to make a point -- after all, I left off the backfield option -- but the point remained clear. Unless his NFL offense tailors itself to his strengths and limitations, Watkins is going to have an uphill battle ahead of him. He seems to understand this, talking at the combine about the perception that he had a long way to go.
“I’ve become a pretty good route runner, but there are areas I can still improve in with getting out of my routes,” he said. “What I’m really focused on is my curl routes and my comebacks. I’ve got to get my transitions, and know when to run full speed or not, and sync my hips and get out of my routes."
A look at the Tigers' 40-35 win over Ohio State in the 2014 Orange Bowl displayed early and often what Watkins did (and did not do). In the first three plays shown, you see Watkins take the ball out of the backfield; then running upfield from a slot stack left as the ball is thrown short the other way; then hitting a long gain after the catch with a quick screen from outside. On the next play, Watkins blows past his coverage for a touchdown with a straight seam route on the right side. Then, a screen from backfield motion. Then, a quick block upfield. There's one little curl outside in the second quarter, but other than that, nothing in which Watkins had the advantage of route complexity to gain separation from defenders. Everything came from pre-snap concepts, and from Watkins' own athleticism -- his ability to outrun and outjump his opponents. Despite that seeming schematic disadvantage, Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns in the game.
It's difficult to know what Watkins will be doing in Buffalo's offense in his first NFL season -- last season was Marrone's first as the team's head coach. With three young quarterbacks (E.J. Manuel, Thaddeus Lewis and Jeff Tuel), there wasn't much to brag about in terms of productivity. The Bills ranked 27th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted rankings in overall passing, and none of their quarterbacks ranked higher than 33rd in cumulative efficiency. Perhaps in an offense that never amassed more than 287 passing yards in a single game, Marrone is willing to risk a simplified offense with players who can beat coverage with their own physical gifts.
That's what he did at Syracuse in 2012, when the Orange turned everything around one season after finishing 90th in offense and 74th in passing offense among Division I teams. In that subsequent offseason, Marrone and Hackett (then his offensive coordinator as well) studied the quick-tempo, quick-release offenses of Oregon and West Virginia, among others, to try to give their passing game a jump-start.
“My first thoughts are reducing what we’re doing from a concept standpoint,” Marrone said in August 2012. “We probably had too much in from a passing game standpoint. We’ve had a lot of volume, and [quarterback] Ryan [Nassib] has been able to grasp an understanding of that volume. But at the same point I think we had to do a better job of cutting that stuff out and reducing it to a point where we get more repetitions at the things we’re doing well.”
What you saw in that revised offense was similar to what you saw from the Bills in 2013 -- a lot of shotgun, multi-receiver sets, and several quick-release concepts out of route ideas designed to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally at the same time. Perhaps most interesting and indicative is that you don't see a lot of route complexity here; it's about getting separation in other ways.
Sound familiar? But it worked -- the 2012 Orange team ranked 21st in total offense and 23rd in passing yards, leading to Marrone's NFL promotion. And one year after a rough baptism in the pros as a head coach, Marone possibly sees Watkins as the key to a similar turnaround.
In 2013, per Pro Football Focus, the Bills didn't enjoy a lot of route diversity -- more than half of their total routes were either hitches (24.5 percent) or go routes (31.1 percent). With that many deep vertical concepts, it's interesting that Manuel led the team with just 41 passes over 20 yards in the air (ranking 23rd in the NFL; Joe Flacco led the league with 88 attempts). It's also interesting that, per PFF's charting, the Bills ran receiver screens just 0.7 percent of the time, tied with Baltimore for the third-lowest in the league behind New Orleans and San Diego. You can certainly expect that number to take a serious rise.
"I thought after having watched him now for a couple days, my assessment of him is that he probably has better hand-eye coordination than I thought coming into it," Marrone said of Watkins after the Bills' 2014 rookie minicamp. "I'm excited to see him. I really look forward to when the pads come on and we start playing football and really evaluating people then ... Someone told me that he was in here at like 6:45 [a.m.] running routes on air. I think those are the things you want to hear. You want to hear about that. You don't want to leave anything to chance, and you just want to make sure the performance on the field proves whether you're good enough or you're not good enough." Will Watkins be good enough? Athletically, there's not a realistic doubt. And for this Bills team at this point in time, that might be all that's required. We'll see how the NFL reacts to such a notion.