New RSP contributor Dwain McFarland uses data, the All-22, and the RSP publication to study Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins, whose career began on a strong trajectory but stalled into an enigmatic state. After an offseason where Watkins could have input over his team fit, it appears he made a wise choice.
By: Dwain McFarland | @dwainmcfarland
Career Summary – Fast Rise to Turbulence
If a pilot were to describe an upcoming flight that parallels Sammy Watkins’ first four years in the league it might sound something like this, “Welcome aboard one of the newest and best aircrafts money can buy, please take your seats quickly.
We will be getting ahead of schedule today by gaining quickly as possible without much fuel. That’s okay though, we have bigger concerns – expect major turbulence once at cruising altitude due to a lack of flight coordinates from the flight tower. We will be lucky to survive.”
Coming out of Clemson in 2014 Sammy Watkins was considered by many to be one of the best wide receivers available in a class loaded with other talents such as Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, DaVante Adams, Jarvis Landry and more. Evaluated as a player who could separate from defenders, run good routes, catch the ball at all levels and cause havoc with his running back mentality after the catch, Watkins graded out as the top receiver in the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.
The Buffalo Bills’ GM at the time, Doug Whaley, seemingly concurred with the assessment as he traded the ninth overall pick in 2014 and a first-round pick in 2015 to the Browns to acquire the fourth overall pick where he would select Watkins. The rookie settled into the Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett offense, rooted in West Coast and Air Coryell concepts.
He was targeted at all levels of the field with 51 percent of targets coming within 10 yards (short), 24 percent between 10 and 19 (intermediate), and 25 percent over 20 (deep). It was a fine rookie campaign with 65 receptions for 982 yards and 6 touchdowns over 16 games.
Of course, the NFL happens. Turbulence struck when Marrone and Hackett were replaced by Rex Ryan and Greg Roman in 2015. The offense moved away from a timing-based attack and leaned on more ‘see it and throw it’ type passes with Tyrod Taylor taking over at quarterback as evidenced by the increased average time to throw of 2.41 (Kyle Orton) to 3.22 seconds per Pro Football Focus.
In the new scheme, Sammy was asked to play a different role as his short and intermediate targets dropped to 44 percent and 19 percent and his deep targets spiked to 37 percent. However, Sammy adapted to his new triggerman and increased average depth of target (up from 13.6 to 18.3), posting another nice production line in his sophomore campaign with 60 receptions for 1,047 yards and 9 touchdowns in only 13 games.
Then, the realities of the NFL happened (again) and hit Watkins even more turbulence. He battled foot ailments and was only able to play eight games during the 2016 season.
Rex Ryan and Greg Roman were relieved of their duties during the season and Doug Whaley was fired as GM shortly after the 2017 draft. He was replaced by Brandon Beane who hired a new head coach in Sean McDermott.
As many GMs do when they arrive, Beane wanted to make his mark on the team with ‘his guys’. Sammy was not one of those and was dealt to the Los Angeles Rams along with a sixth-round pick for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round pick.
As a Ram, Watkins never truly integrated into the offense operating often as a decoy for other options in the passing game – posting his lowest target share per game for his career at 13 percent. Even as the fourth option on the team, he finished with 39 receptions for 593 yards and 8 touchdowns over 15 games, averaging 15.2 yards average depth per target.
Hopefully, you can see the trend for Sammy’s early career – he has maximized the opportunities provided to him despite the turbulence. He has been in three different systems under three different coaches during his four seasons.
Despite battling injuries and garnering limited target exposure he has provided strong production. Below in Chart One, I have provided a summary of his first four years with color coding to give you a sense of how he compares to other WRs with at least 20 targets in a season.
Chart 1: Sammy Watkins Stats 2014 – 2017
Just to give some context to the rarity of his second season:
- 122 WR performances since 2008 have registered between 85 and 95 targets in a season (excludes throw-aways).
- Of those performances, only 4.9 percent (6) have turned that into 1,000 yards or more.
Below in Chart 2 is a list of all WRs since 2008 to post >=900 yards on <=95 targets (using catchable per Pro Football Focus) ranked by receiving yards. You might think to yourself, ‘there are a lot of one-hit wonders on this list’, and you would be right.
Others may think, ‘wow there are some great names on this list’, and you would be right as well. My goal in sharing this is to provide you with some context to the past as we move forward in our quest to understand what Watkins could be in his new offense.
Chart 2: WRs with <95 Targets & >900 Yards Since 2008
That brings us to today, where we find Watkins nestled in the nurturing biosphere of Andy Reid’s offense in Kansas City. An offense, where his target exposure may not go up given the other options on the team, but one where his talents can be maximized at all levels of the field.
Andy Reid’s Offense – Design and Player Utilization
The West Coast offense Andy Reid runs is designed to attack multiple areas of the field, often in a way for the QB to make an ‘easy’ read on defensive coverage. When working at its best there is a vertical threat designed to push safety coverage away from underneath and intermediate routes which help maximize YAC opportunities.
Coincidentally, DeSean Jackson, who appears on the above list four times, worked for Reid in Philadelphia in 2010 and 2011.
In Chart Three below, you can see the average depths of targets for each position by year. Notice that the vertical element has been missing over the past several years versus the years with the Eagles.
Chart 3: Andy Reid Average Depth of Target and Target Market Share per Game by Position
You can see Reid adapted his offense to better fit Alex Smith’s style of play by layering the field differently by limiting the secondary receiver to shorter routes. The deepest average depth of target is in the intermediate range instead – those are signs of strong coaching.
Reid has a scheme for sure, but he adapts it based on personnel and talent. During 2010 & 2011 Reid’s offense was averaging ~265 yards per game through the air at around 7.7 yards per attempt.
This was at a time when the league was averaging 240 yards per game and 7.1 yards per pass attempt. Also, note that the target market share (TAR MS/GM) splits aren’t heavily allocated towards any one player like some schemes.
There is only one season in which a player breaks the 22 percent target share per game barrier. This is also by design – Reid’s scheme demands that the defense respect multiple weapons in the passing game equally. Historically, Reid has targeted his TEs and RBs above the league average – especially when he has a special talent at the position like Travis Kelce or Jamaal Charles.
Now that the Chief’s have added Sammy Watkins to an already good receiving corps with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, we can’t say for sure how the pass distribution will shake out. However, we can look back to 2009 thru 2011 to make an educated guess.
During those years the offense was built around two WRs and either a TE or RB mixed in, which was most like the talent situation now in KC. When considering how Watkins will fit I think a strong argument can be made that he takes on the Maclin role.
Like Maclin, Watkins has a good intermediate and underneath game paired with more size than Tyreek Hill who could settle into the Jackson role. I am getting ahead of myself – more on that after we talk about Watkins’ skill set. For now, just take note of which players and skill sets took on each role and start to consider the current Chiefs roster construction for yourself.
Chart 4: Andy Reid 2009-2011 Eagles
Sammy Watkins’ Game
In the 2014 RSP, Sammy Watkins strengths are illuminated at length – you can also see the write up here. For the purposes of this article, I have summarized the RSP grades for several of the top talents from the class in Chart Five below to provide some context.
For those of you new to the RSP, the uniqueness comes in the evaluation methodology and process which is deeply rooted in film study tied to specific criteria for each area below. Each area is broken down into smaller drivers of performance that are weighted along an array of ‘easy fix’ to ‘hard fix’ to determine how likely a player is to make the transition from college to the NFL.
In the top portion of Chart Five, you will see a key designed to help you understand the bold, italics, normal and underline font in each box for a player. Lastly, each player is calibrated across a grading continuum of Star, Starter, Committee, Reserve, Free Agent or Deficient in each category.
Chart 5 – RSP Wide Receiver Grades for Several 2014 Prospects
One thing you quickly notice is that Sammy graded out at a ‘Star’ level in more categories than any of his peers in the pre-draft evaluation process. What immediately jumps out to me specifically are his high marks in balance, vision, and power.
Most of us have seen Sammy’s ability to separate deep and track the ball over his shoulder. What we haven’t seen enough of is him getting the ball in the shorter and intermediate areas of the field which were a big part of his game at Clemson.
In fact, one of the comments from the 2014 RSP that stuck out most to me when rereading it was, “Watkins is neither as powerful as Mike Evans and Cody Latimer nor as shifty as Bruce Ellington and Odell Beckham, but he runs with a stride that is ready for contact. His skill to catch the ball in the short zone and get his pads, hips, and knees down-hill is a detail that he exhibits with more consistency than any player that I can remember. He has the size, burst, and technique to run through wraps and attack defenders in the open field. He runs through more contact than many big-play artists.”
Matt further details each of these areas and provides recent video examples with the Bills and Rams you can see here if you want to see more.
Sammy and Andy sitting in a tree …
So what kind of match do Sammy Watkins and Andy Reid make? Based on the roles Reid defined in his Eagles offenses along with Sammy’s skill set it appears to be a good one.
Technically, Watkins has proven he can play either the DeSean or Maclin role. Based on what we are seeing in the first two games I expect to see the untapped aspects of Sammy’s short and intermediate game utilized more heavily by the Chiefs. Here are the targets and utilization stats for the top Chief pass catchers in week 1 and 2 of 2018.
Chart 6 – Chiefs 2018 Week 1 and 2 Stats
There are two key takeaways from our first data points on Sammy in his new scheme:
- He has worked underneath and intermediate targets at 6.3 and 12.3 average depth of target, while Hill has operated deeper at 17.6 and 16.2 average depth of target.
- Each WR has taken a turn as the higher-targeted player through two weeks – often a scenario that levels out cumulatively at the end of the season.
Another interesting data point is Sammy’s 8.2 yards after catch (shown as RAC above) in week 2. Reid is creating space underneath for Sammy to utilize his talent as an open field runner. Lastly, take note of the slot route percentages of 41 percent and 46 percent — Reid is moving him around to create mismatches and better looks. This is something his previous coordinators didn’t do enough to unlock his true potential.
Let’s look at some examples of how Reid is utilizing his new weapon on the ‘all-22’ film.
Down & Distance: 2nd & 9 at KC 30
Alignment: Spread; Watkins slot left
Concept: Go Routes Outside + Two Deep Ins + Curl Underneath (Watkins’ Route)
Result: Mahomes makes the easy quick read underneath to Watkins sitting down between two defenders while the other routes clear out defensive backs. Watkins turns it up the field, lowers his pads and creates yards after contact more like a running back would as noted in the RSP. In the third image notice where contact starts and Watkins low pad level which helps him push through and get the first down rather than putting his offense into a third-down situation.
Down & Distance: 1st & 10 at KC 40
Alignment: Guns Twins Right; Watkins wide right
Concept/Routes: Go Route
Result: Watkins gets a release past the pressing CB and gets into the zone behind the flat before the single-high safety can come over to help. Mahomes reads it immediately with bracket coverage on Kelce and lays the ball towards the sideline safe from defenders – 40 yard gain. Nothing super schematic about this play other than Watkins getting a 1:1 and winning.
Down & Distance: 1st & 10 at KC 39
Alignment: Twins Right, Twin TEs Left; Watkins slot right – motions left behind TEs
Concept/Routes: Zone Flood Left w/ Backside Crosser
Result: The motion and alignment create an easy release for Watkins. Kelce and Hill routes keep safety in the middle of the field. Watkins gains easy position outside w/ space to the boundary and gains 17 yards.
Down & Distance: 1st & 10 at KC 25
Alignment: Watkins outside receiver bunch left
Concept/Routes: Curls underneath + clear out corner route w/ running back motion to flat
Result: The running back motion holds the outside corner wide, the corner route by the inside receiver takes the inside defensive back with him, both curl routes are open. Sammy gets a quick four yards. The result of this play isn’t huge, but its just another example of how Reid uses formations, alignments and motion to create space for his receivers.
I chose these specific plays because three of them show you how Reid’s scheme creates space for his players whether it be through slot alignment in the spread, motion behind twin TEs, or a bunch formation.
These are things that will help take advantage of Watkins’ full range of skills in the intermediate and short passing game outlined in the RSP. Really it is what good offensive coaches do and shouldn’t be taken for granted, I for one don’t think Watkins will.
It is finally time for that turbulence to die down and Watkins is about to enjoy what the ‘air up there’ is really like.