- The Bills’ franchise receiver has been asked about his broken foot non-stop for months. Entering a contract year, he’ll now let his play speak for itself
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Sammy Watkins moved deliberately through the autograph line, a white towel draped over his head.
As the Bills came off the practice field at St. John Fisher College Wednesday morning, a local high school football team waited for signatures. One of the young players prattled on excitedly about his team’s upcoming season—high expectations, certainly, are something that Watkins understands. Across another football field, a different cluster of fans spotted his No. 14 jersey, and started chanting for him. “Get Sammy for us!” they implored teammate Corey Brown.
Watkins politely scribbled his name over and over with a Sharpie and smiled for some photos, but he didn’t seem to want anyone to make much of a fuss over him. He pulled the towel off his head only when he put his helmet back on to get some extra catches on the JUGS machine. This is a snapshot of how the 24-year-old receiver is approaching the 2017 season.
“Head down … laser-like focus,” says teammate Richie Incognito. “He’s just trying to be the best player he can be right now.”
The best version of Sammy Watkins is what all of Western New York has been anxious to see since the Bills traded up to select him fourth overall in the 2014 draft. Up to this point, we’ve been teased by flashes. He set Bills rookie records for catches and receiving yards; he’s had spectacular moments, like the time he spun Darrelle Revis around so badly on a game-winning third-down conversion in 2015 that it made the veteran cornerback’s decline suddenly feel imminent.
But the closest thing to a constant through his first three seasons has been a run of injuries. It started with broken ribs in his first training camp and continued with offseason hip surgery; glute, hamstring and calf injuries; and offseason foot surgery, twice. Watkins was in pads for Wednesday’s practice, catching passes from Tyrod Taylor and even running the hurry-up drills. But his workload is still being modulated after January surgery to fix the broken left foot he originally injured last spring.
When he reported for camp at the end of July, he told local reporters unequivocally in a press conference, “I don’t want to hear no more about the foot. The foot is fine. I’m healed.” It was the first time he’d spoken to the media since the surgery, and he hasn’t said anything since. (Watkins, through a team spokesman, declined an interview request for this story.) Both he and the new team brass seem committed to keeping his blinders on—their fortunes, after all, depend on it.
“Did you ever break a bone growing up? I broke my leg in sixth grade, and all I ever remember hearing about coming off the injury is, How is your leg? How is your leg?” says first-year head coach Sean McDermott. “And eventually it’s like, stop planting a seed in my mind. I can relate, and understand why he doesn’t want to talk about. I honestly don’t want to talk about it too much, either. There is a plan in place, and we are going to speak his health into existence, as opposed to the other way around.”
GM Brandon Beane shared an almost identical message: “He is tired of talking about it, and us putting it in his head everyday, How are you doing? Do you feel O.K.? Are we looking for his foot to be bothering him? Let’s just treat him like he’s healthy, and let him go play ball and get it out of his head. I think he’ll play freer, faster.”
Those blinders are about more than just the injury. The Bills’ albatross is the franchise’s 17-year playoff drought, and Watkins is the player for which they mortgaged a big part of their future, trading two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to move up five slots and select him in 2014. That wasn’t the doing of the current regime—Watkins is on his second GM, third head coach and fourth offensive coordinator—but the burden of wanting to live up to his hefty price tag is something that has yet to go away. “It’s not his fault that the organization gave up that for him,” McDermott counters. “I understand it, but that’s not his burden to bear.”
But it has been, and the handy comparisons to healthier, and so far more productive, receivers taken after him in that draft only add to the burden. Mike Evans, selected three spots behind Watkins, is out-pacing him by 1,119 career receiving yards. Odell Beckham, Jr., taken eight spots later, has 1,653 more yards. “He was worth what they gave up,” insists Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, who was Watkins’ offensive coordinator last season. “He’s been hurt, and that’s the only reason why [he hasn’t lived up to expectations].”
Last season was the most trying one for Watkins. He was determined not to be held back by the offseason foot surgery, so he was sprinting on the training-camp field just four months later. He played the first two regular-season games, but then was placed on short-term IR because of lingering soreness in the foot. It was only after Watkins returned in November, after an eight-game absence, that Lynn revealed to the media that the receiver was still dealing with a broken bone. He was limping through walk-throughs. He could only run a certain portion of the route tree. At one point, he was wearing linemen’s cleats to practice, desperate to find anything even slightly more comfortable.
Some around Watkins urged him to just go ahead and get the surgery, but he was determined to play out the season. The fact that he was still the best receiver on the team—in Week 16 against the Dolphins he racked up 154 receiving yards—masked the mental and physical strain.
“It was incredibly difficult,” Incognito says. “All through the offseason, there were lingering questions: Would he be ready for camp? He was battling that. Then we got into the season and the foot wasn’t where it needed to be. It was really a whole gamut of emotions. I felt—as a competitor, as a teammate, as a friend—frustrated for him. You see the frustration because he just wants to be out there with us. I think it speaks to the man that he is and what a great competitor he is because he could’ve just put it on the shelf in 2016. … But he went through the pain and he labored through just to be out there those last couple games.”
In January, Watkins had surgery on his left foot for the second time in a nine-month span. In May, the Bills elected not to pick up his fifth-year option, not willing to commit another year and $13 million to the player for whom the previous GM, Doug Whaley, had pushed all his chips to the center of the table just three years ago.
“I approached him about it, and he said ‘Coach, I believe in you, and whatever you want to do, I'm going to go along with it,’” McDermott says. “He understands this is about Sammy Watkins being healthy, and getting on the field to perform. It’s really nothing other than that. Sammy being at a good place in his mind, understanding that, meant a lot to me in my first couple months on the job.”
Even with his reduced workload, a healthy Watkins is fun to watch. On Wednesday morning, he ran across the field to block on a dump-off pass to fullback Mike Tolbert. A simple five-yard out he caught elicited great cheers from the crowd—flying under the radar will be easier said than done. He signed an endorsement contract with Adidas as a rookie, but he’s now wearing Nike cleats, working with the shoe company and the Bills equipment managers to better protect his feet.
It can’t be overstated how essential Watkins is to the Bills’ success this season. The current state of the receiving corps is such that journeyman Andre Holmes and second-round rookie Zay Jones are running with the first team. But the Bills’ decision to decline Watkins’ option puts them in a bit of an awkward spot: The better he plays, the sillier they look for not locking him down for that fifth year. Beane, who was hired by the Bills after that decision was made, says he’ll simply treat Watkins’ contract situation as if he were a second-round pick who had no option year in his rookie contract.
“I’m not making a decision that I’ve got to do it by this or that [date],” Beane says of addressing Watkins’ contract situation. “I think I will know when I know. I don’t want to put the pressure on me, I don’t want to put it on his agents, I don’t want to put it on him. That’s why I have just told our guys, let’s just go into camp, let him play … and it’s a two-way deal. He may want to just play the whole year and see how it is and feel me and Sean out to see if this is a place he wants to be.”
In his lone press conference, Watkins said that his goal is to stay in Buffalo “forever.” And perhaps it makes sense that he hasn’t talked to the media since; at this point, the most important questions can only be answered on the field.
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