It’s summertime, so that can only mean one thing: The fantasy community is debating Sammy Watkins’ value, with wildly different opinions. Price is always an important factor in fantasy decisions, but, for now, let’s focus on Watkins, the player, and why you’d want him on your team this season.
The Chiefs offense was awesome in 2018. They averaged more than 35 points per game—two points and change better than the next best offenses, the Rams and Saints. They put up the third most passing yards per game. They were incredibly efficient at finding the end zone. Patrick Mahomes was the league's runaway MVP. It was an offense that destroyed the league and carried fantasy owners.
For 2019, let's start with the bad news: Mahomes and the entire Chiefs offense will likely regress. Red zone efficiency is negatively correlated year to year, so there is every reason to expect the Chiefs to score fewer points. Thanks to their winning ways last season, the Chiefs are expected to have one of the NFL's hardest schedules in 2019.
Despite the looming regression, though, the experts in Vegas still have the Chiefs with the second-highest expected win total in 2019, tied with the Saints and Rams, behind only the Patriots. The Chiefs do not have a defense of the same caliber as the Saints or Rams, meaning they will need to score points to win games. Furthermore, it is the Chiefs rushing schedule that is particularly worrisome—they face the teams with the highest average rushing defense efficiency in the league, per Warren Sharp.
Take that challenging run schedule and add in Andy Reid’s tendencies, and we can expect the Chiefs to again aim to beat teams through the air. As in 2018, their pass catchers should be valuable commodities.
Before succumbing to injury last year, Watkins appeared in eight games where he played at least 50% of the snaps. Here are some key stats from those games:
During those eight games, Watkins matched Tyreek Hill in receptions and saw only 0.5 fewer targets per game. Of course, there was a significant difference in yards and touchdowns. Both of those reflect opportunity: Hill was targeted much farther down the field, averaging 114 air yards per game, compared to Watkins’ 57. That does not tell the whole story, though.
Watkins was more efficient with his targets. His total yardage was 114% of his air yards total, while Hill converted just 79% of his air yards into actual yards, shown in the RACR row. Similarly, Watkins was more efficient at turning his targets into touchdowns. Not all targets are created equal, especially when it comes to touchdowns. A target in the end zone is more likely to result in a score than one at the 10-yard line. Historical data shows us that a target in the end zone turns into a touchdown about 50% of the time, while one at the 10 only gets to paydirt 10% of the time. Using that formula, Watkins achieved 107% of his target-based touchdown expectation, while Hill finished at 95% of his expectation, which is shown in the RATR row. That higher efficiency tends to cause an increase in volume in the future. Since the team wants their air yards converted into real yards and their red zone targets converted into touchdowns, there is a good chance they would shift more of them toward Watkins over time.
Second, we need to look at the actual value of the volume Watkins was seeing, not just how it compares to Hill's. The numbers above give Watkins 13.6 fantasy points per game in PPR scoring, which would have placed him at WR24 or higher in each of the last three seasons. If we regress the overall offense a bit but also give Watkins a bump for the reasons above, that still leaves his most likely outcome as a low-end WR2 or high-end WR3. This is a fair baseline estimate for Watkins in 2019
The reason that the love for Watkins has increased, of course, is the potential of a Hill suspension. If and when Hill is out , Watkins becomes the team's WR1, in competition only with Travis Kelce for the team's top share of targets.
The Chiefs seemingly drafted Mecole Hardman with an eye toward putting him in Hill's role. However, Hardman will likely split that role with Demarcus Robinson. It is a stretch to believe that either one of them could see Hill's share of targets on a per-game basis. Instead, the most likely outcome in the event of a Hill suspension is an uptick in targets for Kelce and Watkins, along with a somewhat increased role for Robinson or Hardman.
Last season's AFC Championship Game provides an interesting data point here. The Patriots adjusted their scheme to limit Hill’s role. As a result, Watkins became the de facto WR1. He had four receptions for 114 yards, underlining his potential to be a top-12 receiver in Hill's absence.
Watkins is currently being drafted in the sixth round of drafts in 12-team leagues. That ADP puts him in the same neighborhood as Tyler Boyd, Calvin Ridley, Jarvis Landry and D.J. Moore. Those are all players that I like, as well, each with an equally strong argument for being a WR2 next season. I would be happy to take any of them in the sixth round.
Watkins’ most likely outcome depends heavily on what happens with Hill. In the event of a long suspension, Watkins has WR1 upside and is the best bet among the above group. Should Hill only receive something like a four-game suspension (where we have him projected now), I think Watkins stays as a likely WR3 with WR2 upside, given his low-end WR2 pace in eight games last season, and usage that was trending upward.
Personally, I like Watkins more than any of the other receivers we have ranked between 23 and 33, a group with similar point projections. Once the two Tylers (Lockett and Boyd) are off the table, I'm looking at Watkins as my next target.