When the Bills traded up to the 4th pick in this year’s draft to take Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins they knew they were taking a talented player. Among all the resident “experts” Watkins is said to be the best wide receiver drafted since AJ Green and Julio Jones, maybe even since Calvin Johnson. Big things are expected from Watkins, and with Mike Williams and Robert Woods both more number 2 then number 1 wide receivers Watkins is expected to be the go to guy right away. My question is twofold, should the Bills go to Watkins right out of the gate and if so what kind of production can we expect in 2014.
Rookie wide receivers often take some time to develop; good and even great wide receivers sometimes take years to figure the game out (hello Eric Moulds). To assume Watkins is going to come in and light up the league with a 1,300 yard season seems a bit unrealistic. Just like any wide receiver, a lot of Watkins production will be based on the pieces around him, his offensive line (which looks solid), his running game, his fellow wide receivers (a group that’s about as deep as it’s ever been) and most importantly his QB (?). The biggest factor in Watkins success besides his own skill will be the development of EJ Manuel. If EJ plays like his rookie year it will certainly hinder Watkins production, however all signs out of OTA’s so far is that EJ is continuing to grow as a QB and that offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is liking what he sees so far.
Next thing I’d like to take a look at is the production of wide receivers in the first round of the draft over the last 3 years, especially WR’s taken in the top 10 as Watkins was. As I mentioned earlier, just because a player here didn’t have a good rookie season doesn’t mean he’s a bust, also a good rookie year can lead to nothing afterwards (remember Michael Clayton of the Bucs).
2013 NFL Draft
Tavon Austin (8th overall to St. Louis) 40 catches 418 yards 4 touchdowns
DeAndre Hopkins (27th overall to Houston) 52 catches 802 yards 2 touchdowns
Cordarrelle Patterson (29th overall to Minnesota) 45 catches 469 yards 4 touchdowns
Overall (average): 46 catches 563 yards 3 touchdowns
So last year’s first round (in which none of the players are the caliber of Watkins) basically averaged number 3 type wide receiver numbers. In fairness, Austin and Patterson did both help their teams in the return game but this exercise is focused on receiving numbers. The best rookie season of any wide receiver in the 2013 draft class was 3rd round pick Keenan Allen (taken 2 picks before the Bills selected Marquise Goodwin) who finished with 71 catches 1,046 yards and 8 touchdowns.
2012 NFL Draft
Justin Blackmon (5th overall to Jacksonville) 64 catches 865 yards 5 touchdowns
Michael Floyd (13th overall to Arizona) 45 catches 465 yards 2 touchdowns
Kendall Wright (20th overall to Tennessee) 64 catches 646 yards 4 touchdowns
AJ Jenkins (30th overall to San Francisco) 0 catches 0 yards 0 touchdowns
Overall (average): 58 catches 659 yards 4 touchdowns
For the averages I elected not to count AJ Jenkins in. Jenkins was plain and simple a bust (who was dealt to the Chiefs for Jon Baldwin, another bust). If Jenkins was drafted in the top 15 I would have counted him but since he is really not comparable to Watkins I elected to hold him out. Out of all the wide receivers examined so far, I think Blackmon is the most comparable, not in style of play but in impact. They are both came out as the consensus best receiver in their class, both went to teams with 2nd year Quarterbacks and were both expected to be number 1 wide receivers sooner than later. If Watkins finishes with a similar stat line to Blackmon’s rookie year I would not be surprised.
2011 NFL Draft
AJ Green (4th overall to Cincinnati) 65 catches 1,057 yards 7 touchdowns
Julio Jones (6th overall to Atlanta) 54 catches 959 yards 8 touchdowns
Jon Baldwin (26th overall to Kansas City) 21 catches 254 yards 1 touchdown
Overall (average): 47 catches 757 yards 5 touchdowns
Let’s choose to take Baldwin out and just focus on Green and Jones (the two receivers that Watkins was compared to most often leading up to the draft in terms of talent). Green and Jones together averaged 60 catches 1,008 yards and 7.5 touchdowns. I think most Bills fans would be pleased with this production. Jones is often compared to Watkins because they both were traded up to get (both with the Browns) and they play similar styles. The difference I see is Jones went to a team that already possessed a Pro Bowl QB in Matt Ryan and a legit number 1 wide receiver in Julio Jones. I see more of a comparison in situations with AJ Green, Green played with a rookie QB in Andy Dalton and was expected to be the number 1 wide receiver from the get go.
Just for fun I decided to take a look at Megatron and Larry Fitzgerald’s rookie seasons, knowing that these are two of the best wide receivers in the game.
Calvin Johnson (2nd overall to Detroit, 2007) 48 catches 756 yards 4 touchdowns
Larry Fitzgerald (2nd overall to Arizona, 2004) 58 catches 780 yards 8 touchdowns
We know that Calvin and Larry are two of the best in the game but when you look at their rookie year production you realize that our own Lee Evans out produced them as a rookie. My point being that I think Watkins is going to be great, but I want to temper some rookie expectations. If he ends up putting up the numbers that Calvin Johnson did as rookie I want everyone to understand that the sky is not falling. My guess, I say something in between Justin Blackmon and Julio Jones’ numbers.