When Will the Los Angeles Rams Give Sammy Watkins a Chance to Succeed?

There have been few bigger surprises during the 2017 NFL season than the success of the Los Angeles Rams’ offense. After finishing as the worst offense in the league last season, the Rams have the league’s fourth-best offense by Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play.

A lot of that improvement can be pinpointed to the massive upgrade in coaching from Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay. The talent on the roster was there, and all it took was a real NFL offense to unlock the potential of, among others, Todd Gurley and Jared Goff.

What’s been surprising about the turnaround is how little wide receiver Sammy Watkins has been involved.

Los Angeles traded a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines to the Buffalo Bills to acquire Watkins and a sixth-round pick in August. At the time it appeared Watkins would be set to be the team’s number one receiver along with former teammate and free agent signee Robert Woods, rookie Cooper Kupp, and a probably-not-fit-to-play-wide-receiver Tavon Austin.

To this point in the season, that hasn’t been the case.

Woods has taken over as the go-to option for Goff, and Watkins is fourth on the team in targets behind Woods, Kupp, and Gurley. Through 12 weeks, Watkins only has 6 more targets than second-year tight end Tyler Higbee. It’s not even as if Watkins has been underperforming when the ball goes his way -- it’s been the opposite. Among 78 wide receivers with at least 40 targets on the season, Watkins ranks second in Reception NEP per target (0.98) behind only Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster (1.01).

Despite that success, Watkins saw more than 5 targets in a game just once over the first 11 weeks of the season. But with Robert Woods sidelined with a shoulder injury in Week 12, Watkins took a bigger role and saw a season high 9 targets that resulted in 4 catches for 82 yards and a touchdown -- though Kupp still did lead the team with 11 targets.

This leaves us with two questions we can try to answer. First, why was Watkins not featured more in the offense to start? Second, was this past Sunday a tipping point to getting him as involved as a player of his talent should be?

Getting Involved

Based on Watkins’s NEP numbers above, it’s clear he’s still rather good when he gets involved in the offense. Yet he has less targets on the season than players like Adam Humphries, Jaron Brown, and Ricardo Louis.

Part of why Watkins hasn’t been a main target is in the offense itself. Last week, Greg Cosell of NFL Films noted Watkins has not struggled to get open on his routes, but instead he’s rarely the first read for Goff in his progression. The Rams run a majority of their plays in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) -- 68 percent per Sharp Football Stats -- and they love using Woods, Kupp, and a tight end in trips on one side. Typically they’ll leave Watkins isolated on the backside, but Goff’s first reads go to the trips side, and the ball is usually out before Goff has to make his way to Watkins.

Here’s an example against the Arizona Cardinals -- who happen to be the Rams’ upcoming opponent -- in Week 7. This is Los Angeles’s second play from scrimmage. The trips bunch to the right features Woods, Austin, and Higbee. Watkins is isolated to the left against Patrick Peterson. At the snap, he ran a quick curl with plenty of separation between the bailing Peterson and the oncoming safety, Antoine Bethea. But Goff only looked to his right and unloaded a low pass to Woods. These types of route combinations and progressions as not uncommon for the Rams this season.

Opponents are compounding this use of Watkins by pressing him at the line, more than any Rams receiver and more than just about every other receiver in the league. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Watkins sees an average cushion at the line of 4.3 yards, the second-lowest cushion in the league above only Marvin Jones. Unlike Jones, who has been played like this before, Watkins averaged a 5.6-yard cushion with the Bills last season, much closer to the league average.

Defenses play the other LA receivers vastly different, too. Cooper Kupp gets an average 7.5-yard cushion, the highest in the league among receivers with at least 33 targets (the NFL’s cutoff), and Woods averages 7.0, the 11th-highest. Even with Woods out this past Sunday, the strategy didn’t change for the New Orleans Saints. Kupp was played an average 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, rookie Josh Reynolds was at 8.2 while filling in for Woods, and Watkins was played tight at 3.4.

Goff throws into tight windows on just 12.2 percent of his passes, per Next Gen Stats, the lowest rate in the league. So between the backside read, tight coverage off the line, and wide open throws elsewhere, it’s tough to fault the quarterback for not getting Watkins heavily involved.

Opening It Up

The Rams made a shift against the Saints to get Watkins more passes and they did it early. On their first play of the game, Los Angeles lined up in a 2x1 set with Watkins again the isolated receiver on the backside. The call was a play-action pass with Watkins running a deep in. He was the first read and Goff delivered the ball as soon as the receiver made his break. The play went for 24 yards.

That drive ended just six plays later on a five-yard slant touchdown to Watkins. The Rams gave a heavy run look with only Watkins outside one-on-one against De'Vante Harris. One quick move and Watkins had inside leverage for the easy score.

These are easy plays to get the ball in the hands of who is still probably the best playmaker in this wide receiver corps. With Woods likely out again, Watkins will face the Cardinals and a lot of Patrick Peterson, who he did see most of the time during their first meeting of the year. Still, the Rams are one of the best schemed offenses in the league and now they’re forced to scheme more towards Watkins.

In the long-term, the Woods injury could be a good thing for the offense. Getting Watkins more involved will only help with more options once Woods does return to the field. And if they keep it up, they could turn Watkins’s efficiency into volume and that could make Los Angeles an even more dynamic offense than it’s already been in 2017. That’s the best case scenario for everyone involved.

Except, that is, for opposing defenses.