Daily Focus: Sammy Watkins poised for a big 2016 season

The Bills' star WR appears to be healthy entering the season. Plus, why Washington is making the smart move with Kirk Cousins, and Arizona's new CB.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

(AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

Daily Focus: Sammy Watkins poised for a big 2016 season

Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

Bills WR Sammy Watkins could have a big 2016 season: One big concern for the Buffalo Bills heading into the 2016 season is the health of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot earlier this offseason. The good news for Bills fans is that Watkins recently started running again, and while it’s still unknown just how much he’ll be able to do throughout training camp, Watkins seems confident that he’s right where he needs to be. That’s big for both him and Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who developed well together last season.

Watkins’ rookie season in 2014 was solid production-wise, with 65 receptions for 982 yards and six touchdowns, but with a fumble, five dropped passes and six penalties committed, he didn’t grade as highly as Bills fans might have been hoping for. Last year he graded much better, with the 10th-highest overall grade among wide receivers at 89.1. His production was up, averaging 17.5 yards per reception after 15.1 in 2014, and was more consistent all-around, including dropping just four passes.

One area where Watkins and Taylor connected that helped improve Watkins production in 2015 was on throws downfield. As a rookie he caught nine of the 31 passes of 20 yards or more downfield thrown his way, for 310 yards and two touchdowns. Last year he caught 16 of 34 for 606 yards and eight touchdowns. Those 606 yards on deep balls were the second-most by a wide receiver in the NFL last year, while his eight touchdowns were the most. Simply put, with an upgrade at quarterback, along with his own progression, Watkins became a much bigger downfield threat in 2015.

Fully healthy, Watkins has the ability to become one of the best and most complete wide receivers in the league, capable of doing damage downfield like he did in 2015, but also with quick enough feet to make people miss on shorter routes. As a rookie he forced 10 missed tackles on 65 receptions, making him dangerous in the open field. That’s not quite at the level of players like Golden Tate and Jarvis Landry, who were first and second in the league last year with 30 and 28 forced missed tackles, respectively, but when you combine it with his ability to win downfield he offers more than either of them overall.

It also helps that Taylor was so good throwing the ball downfield last year. At 81.8 he was our ninth-ranked quarterback, but downfield was where he was at his best, completing 28 passes thrown 20 yards or further downfield, and finishing the season fifth among quarterbacks with 1,104 yards on those throws. 606 of those yards came on throws to Watkins, again showing just how important a healthy Watkins is to that offense.

The Bills are hoping to go one step further and make the playoffs in 2016, but to do that they are almost certainly going to need Watkins to be fully healthy. Provided he is, the Bills could prove to be one of the surprise teams in the AFC this year.

(PFF Fantasy Insight: There isn’t much around Watkins in the Buffalo receiving depth chart — Dezmin Lewis could find himself with a role if anything happens to the star. Watkins is the No. 13 receiver in our staff consensus rankings, but with a run-heavy team and a defense that ought to improve, he might not get the sheer quantity you’d like from a true WR1.)

Mike Jenkins has a chance to start at CB in Arizona: The Cardinals have a lot of talent on defense, but one big question mark heading into the 2015 season is who will start alongside Patrick Peterson at outside cornerback. The latest move to attempt to fill that void is signing free-agent Mike Jenkins, a first-round pick back in 2008 who has had just one season where his grade has justified such a selection. That was in 2009, when he was our 11th-ranked cornerback in coverage, finishing third in the league with 15 pass breakups.

He hasn’t performed like that since, with disappointing performances and injuries filling his career. Despite that, however, he has a chance to be a starter in Arizona, where Justin Bethel was up and down as a starter last year. Bethel is one of the very best special teams players in the league, but that success hasn’t quite transferred to his time at cornerback, where his 69.7 overall grade was just 61st among players at the position last year.

Another potential option is free agent Chris Culliver. He’s coming off an ACL injury, but the Cardinals will reportedly meet with him soon. He struggled in 2015 with the Redskins, but that was the first season since entering the league in 2011 where he had a negative grade. In his time in San Francisco, before joining Washington last year, he impressed, with 22 pass breakups and eight interceptions in three years. Obviously there is a question mark on his health, and last season’s performance was disappointing, but at his best Culliver would be an upgrade on that defense.

Washington is doing the right thing with Kirk Cousins: There seems to be some debate over whether or not the Redskins are making the right choice by keeping quarterback Kirk Cousins under the franchise tag for the 2015 season, as opposed to signing him to a big-money, long-term deal. Based on how Cousins has graded, however, it is clear they are absolutely doing the right thing.

It seems easy for NFL teams to become infatuated by a few big performances from a quarterback, and also one who helps his teams make the playoffs. It’s a big part of the reason Brock Osweiler has just received such an incredible deal from the Houston Texans, despite having just seven starts (and a mediocre overall level of play) to his name.

There’s no denying that Cousins had some big games last year, but there has been a lot of inconsistency there, too. He looked to be ending the season strong with big performances against the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, but then had his second-lowest-graded game against the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs.

Cousins’ big performances show that there is hope that he can develop into a franchise quarterback, but we simply haven’t seen enough of those games to view that development as likely. Washington is doing the smart thing in giving Cousins another 16 games to prove that he is worthy of what will almost certainly be a very large contract extension.

| Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst

Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.

  • crosseyedlemon

    The problem for the Redskins is that unless they provide some run game support they won’t be able to get a truly accurate picture of how effective Cousins could be.