The three-and-out’s pain Sammy Watkins more than anyone. They sting on the field, sting from the sideline. Once the cameras leave and his corner of the locker room clears out, the Buffalo Bills’ No. 1 wide receiver explains.
Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel, one day, could be great. “Elite" even, he says.
But when healthy, Watkins runs his routes. Gets open. And he doesn’t see the ball.
“That’s what I get mad at,” Watkins said, “when I don’t get looked at. I can look at film and his eyes go straight that way and I’m not getting looked at, at all. That’s when I get frustrated. When I have one-on-one coverage, go to me. I don’t care what’s going on over there. I don’t care if he’s open. When I get one on one, just target me.”
He tracks other top wide receivers, too. Julio Jones. Odell Beckham Jr. A.J. Green. All of them.
“Their quarterbacks go to them in every one-on-one situation,” Watkins said. “Force the ball. The only things that’ll happen are I catch it or knock it out.”
Remember May 8, 2014? That day, Buffalo Bills general manager Doug Whaley unloaded the No. 9 overall pick and 2015 first- and fourth-round picks to take a transcendent talent fourth overall. Watkins certainly remembers and he's itching for the ball, for a major role in this offense when he returns from a calf injury. After making it abundantly clear that he will play Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals — "if it pops, it pops" — Watkins then said he's looking for 10 targets per game.
Two seasons in, nagging injuries and raw quarterback play have threatened to stunt potential greatness.
The team knows how he feels. In a Week 1 win over Indianapolis, he was targeted three times with no receptions. The team won, so he didn't say anything then. After the loss to New England, he spoke to one of his agents.
“Everybody looks at you getting zero catches, zero yards but when you look on film 90 percent of the time you’re open,” said Watkins, who is represented by Eugene Parker. “I understand that these guys are young and they need some time to trust me. Once we get that trust, it’ll be different. But for me, I need the ball at least 10 times — I need 10 targets — and I’ll be fine with however many yards I get. And that’s what I addressed in talking with my agent. We reached out to a couple people and tried to pull some strings like, ‘Hey, I need my targets. You came up to draft me and I’m not getting targets — that’s a problem. You’re making me look bad and you’re making yourself look bad. Why not make both of us look good?’”
Wide receiver is the one position in sports a player has virtually no control — he only impacts a game if the ball is thrown his way. Thus, it often breeds egos, greed, Terrell Owens doing sit-ups in a parking lot. The difference here is that Watkins vows his call for the ball is team-centric.
He makes one very clear distinction. Ten targets a game, to him, directly boosts the offense as a whole. Defenses would stop loading the box with seven or eight defenders and maybe Percy Harvin gets free deep in single coverage. With all due respect to Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Davis, Watkins says he was open throughout the game.
“You really just put it on film," Watkins said, "and go to the coach like, ‘Hey, I’m getting open. What’s the deal here?’ Don’t be an (expletive) about it, just go talk to him about the situation.
"I see the bigger picture. I enjoy spreading the ball around. It makes my job easier. But at the same time, for a guy you go up in the draft to take as your No. 1 receiver, you would love those 15 targets that Julio gets, those 20 targets that Odell gets. Of course I’d have 100 yards every game and a TD, if I’m getting 20 targets."
He has a backer in his head coach. No, Watkins didn't show Rex Ryan film himself getting open the 90 percent of the time, but the coach admits he’s “the leader of that band.” When the Bills installed their offense back in training camp, Ryan actually introduced Watkins half-jokingly to all the quarterbacks.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, by the way, have you met Sammy Watkins? This is Sammy Watkins,’” Ryan said. “So my point is, obviously if I’m choosing and everything’s equal I’m throwing it to Sammy.”
Receivers coach Sanjay Lal noted that, yes, the Colts did roll a safety to Watkins' side on plays but that there were times Watkins was one on one over Davis and beat him.
And Watkins, Lal adds, can “absolutely” win any ball one on one.
“That’s what we’re trying to grow to,” Lal said. “He’s a combination of explosiveness, becoming a very good route runner with the potential to be a great route runner — he will get there — speed, size and then some of the strongest hands I’ve ever seen. He rips that ball out of there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a contested catch. He’s going to attack the ball and that ball is his."
So quite possibly Ralph Wilson Stadium is the site of a grand unveiling on Sunday.
Both coaches cautioned that the Bills would be smart with Watkins' calf. The wideout was a limited participant again at Thursday’s practice. Asked if Watkins has a say in the fight to play, if he can will himself onto the field, Lal did indicate he could if there’s no potential of further injury.
Make no doubt about: Watkins would love to square off with Cincinnati's Green. Relish it.
The beauty in a conversation with Watkins is that he never hides from comparisons. Where other NFL receivers would deflect such a narrative, Watkins doesn't flinch. He makes eye contact and answers directly. Yes, Watkins realizes the name "Odell Beckham Jr." will follow him his entire career. Because Beckham, of course, is the receiver the Bills could’ve drafted by staying put at ninth overall.
Beckham — with a punch or two along the way — has asserted himself as a phenom, a one hand-catching human highlight. He also has a two-time Super Bowl MVP in Eli Manning at quarterback throwing him the ball 11 times per game.
Watkins? He's had Kyle Orton, Manuel and Taylor and is averaging seven targets per game. In time, Orton took a few more chances in close coverage and it paid off.
“I understand that these guys are young," Watkins said. "What you really have to look at is in five or six years, no, they’re not going to be Eli but they’re going to be elite. When you look at Eli, he might be out of the league in four or five years. So when I’m healthy and I’m going into my years, I’ll have a top quarterback who can throw the ball. So that’s how I look at these guys.
“If you take away Eli, I don’t see another quarterback stepping in and making those reads and making those checks at the line. Once these guys grow the next three or four years, if they’re still here, you’ll definitely see those high numbers.”
For now, Taylor (like Manuel before him) plays it safe. He's completing 70 percent of his passes, has a 103.6 passer rating and, in truth, has exceeded most expectations. It's no shock why he's been more conservative. Throws into tight coverage could lead to interceptions... glares from coaches... a short leash... and, ultimately, the bench.
Watkins gets this. He also has two words for his quarterbacks: Trust me.
“Don’t be scared to make plays," Watkins said. "I think they’re young and they don’t want to make that mistake."
Into Week 3, Watkins sensed a change. Taylor uncorked a 39-yarder to him up the sideline, and then he hurt his calf. The receiver believed they were on track, adding that someone "upstairs" likely spoke to Taylor or offensive coordinator Greg Roman about his desire for the 10 targets.
Whoever’s playing quarterback, Watkins expects the tide to keep turning when he returns to action.
“I was told, ‘Look, you’re going to get the targets that you need. You’re going to start getting 100 yards every game,’” Watkins said. “That’s really the focus: winning. If I get 80, 90, 100 yards, we’re winning the majority of our games. That helps, not only me, but the whole offense click. Then I start getting more double-coverage and you run the ball to the right and Percy’s going over the top. That’s the biggest thing.”
Watkins speaks in a blunt, yet measured tone. Frustration isn't boiling over yet.
OK, so he's not on Sportscenter. He's not a household name like Beckham. Lal emphasizes that everyone in the NFL knows Watkins is getting separation, is special. They watch the film. Lal has seen opposing coaches approach him after games to praise his play. Lal makes a good point, too. How often has Watkins even worked with the quarterbacks? He had offseason hip surgery, missed much of training camp with a glute injury, played two full games and then had the calf injury.
Now, they're trying to manufacture trust on the fly. With a season at stake. Through the calf. Since burning defenses for 1,464 yards on 101 receptions with 14 touchdowns at Clemson his final year in college, Watkins has had six injuries.
Last week, with zero hesitation, Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore claimed that Beckham was no Watkins. The one-liner raised eyebrows outside of Western New York, but Gilmore has seen Watkins at his best. In camp, when he was healthy, Watkins hauled in acrobatic catches over the lockdown corner.
“That’s the bad part,” Watkins said. “Everybody knows. It’s just, we’ve got to get it clicking.”
He's finally on the field.
Maybe on Sunday, Sammy Watkins finally gets his chance to be Sammy Watkins.