Sammy Watkins: Proceed With Cautious Optimism
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins is the most hyped rookie wideout entering 2014, and for good reason. He was a top-five draft pick, the incumbent No. 1 in Buffalo (Stevie Johnson) has been traded away, and, in addition to Watkins, Buffalo’s offense features a slew of young playmakers.
Rookie receivers rarely make a splash on the fantasy scene, and expectations are understandably higher for a player drafted in the top-five. So what should we expect from the former Clemson standout in his debut NFL season?
Since 1970, there have been 19 wide receivers drafted in the top-five, including Watkins. That’s not a huge sample size, but some trends do stick out.
Just one rookie receiver drafted in the top-five (A.J. Green) had over 1,000 yards receiving. Green was also one of only three — along with Larry Fitzgerald and Keyshawn Johnson — to score over five touchdown in his rookie season.
In fact, the average rookie receiver drafted in the top-five since 1970 has been subpar at best.
These averages go up significantly for the players’ subsequent seasons, but since we are only examining what to expect from Watkins in 2014 we won’t go there.
For comparison, those stats are close to what Aaron Dobson accomplished last season (11 games, 37 receptions, 519 yards, 4 touchdowns). It’s not terrible, but it’s nothing to get truly excited about.
The average rookie receiver drafted in the top-five since 1970 scores 116 fantasy points in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues. That would have ranked 61st among all fantasy receivers last season — WR5/6 status and on the fringe of your fantasy team’s roster bubble.
But there are a couple of reasons to believe Watkins will be above average, starting with the fact that since 2000, receivers drafted in the top-five have had significantly better rookie season than those drafted between 1970-1999.
Additionally, the above averages include Charles Rogers, who played just five games during his rookie season. If we exclude Rodgers, the numbers are even better.
The average rookie shown in the chart above would have scored 164 fantasy points in PPR leagues, which would have been 37th among all receivers last season — borderline WR3/Flex status (startable). In fact, that’s about where we expect Watkins to be his rookie season. He is currently projected to finish 2014 as the 34th highest-scoring receiver in PPR leagues.
Should Watkins reach these projections, he would score 193 fantasy points. The fact that he is projected to have better stats than the average wide receiver drafted in the top-five since 2000, but is projected to be only marginally more valuable relative to 2014’s other receivers, speaks to the depth at the position this season.
So why do we expect Watkins to be an above-average rookie wide receiver? The most obvious reason, as noted above, is that he steps in as the No. 1 option in Buffalo.
By all accounts, Stevie Johnson had a “down” year last season. However, he still led the team in targets, commanding 95 in just 12 games. Extrapolated over 16 games, that equates to about 127 targets. We can expect second-year wideout Robert Woods to receive more targets next season (he had 81 last season), but that still leaves plenty on the table for Watkins. Health permitting, it’s safe to assume that Watkins will see between 100 and 120 targets.
It’s true that Buffalo was a run-oriented team last season — it ran the ball 46 percent of the time, the third most run-heavy approach in the league behind only San Francisco and Seattle — but part of the reason Buffalo relied on the run so much was because of how unexpectedly effective Fred Jackson was and because E.J. Manuel was injured for a large portion of the season. With a healthy C.J. Spiller expected to see the majority of carries in 2014 and Manuel back at the helm, Buffalo’s offense figures to be more spread out and explosive in 2014.
The purpose of this post is to champion cautious optimism. Historical data and Watkins’ fit in Buffalo suggest you can confidently draft him as a Flex option with WR3 upside this season. There is nothing wrong with that — how often are fantasy games decided by the Flex position? — but make sure you proceed with a level head. Hype surrounding rookies and their potential fantasy impact tends to increase as the season gets closer.