How Good Can Sammy Watkins Be with the Buffalo Bills?

The Bills made some major moves at the receiver position this offseason, adding Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins to their WR corps and ditching Stevie Johnson. But did they make the right moves?

The Buffalo Bills made a major splash at the top of the 2014 NFL Draft, trading up in the first round (and giving up a future first-round pick) to select Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Watkins was seen by most draft experts as the best receiver available, and figured to go to one of the wide receiver-needy teams near the top of the draft order.

But the Bills weren't going to wait and hope that a good receiver fell to them, and instead moved up to take a player they obviously feel very strongly about. But did they make the right decision? Is the Buffalo receiving corps better today than it was a couple of weeks ago, when Stevie Johnson sat atop the depth chart with Mike Williams and Robert Woods providing strength?

Let's take a look at the numbers to determine if the Buffalo front office made the right move by throwing an extra first-round pick at the top receiver in the draft, and getting rid of Johnson in a trade with the 49ers. We'll use numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) data to see how the Buffalo receiving corps stacks up, and you can learn more about NEP by heading to our glossary.

Starting Under Center

In order to understand the NEP data for the receivers in Buffalo, we first have to consider the guy throwing them the football. Last season, the Bills had an unholy trinity of E.J. Manuel, Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis throwing the ball, none of whom posted anything resembling impressive numbers as a passer. In terms of Passing NEP among regular starters (players who dropped back to pass over 300 times), Manuel ranked second-to-last in the league, ahead of only the horribly bad Geno Smith. Had Manuel dropped back as often as Smith, who went back to pass almost 150 more times, the Bills' quarterback would have been very close to matching his inept AFC East quarterback colleague, as both players had similar per-play NEP losses.

So what does this mean for the receivers? It means the Buffalo offense was predicated by snapping the ball to a player on every single play whose performance stole expected points away from the team. When the ball left E.J. Manuel's hand, it usually lost his team over a tenth of an expected point. If he threw it 30 times in a game, he lost his team more than a field goal in expected points through his inefficiency. Obviously, this is going to impact his receivers, as they're the ones having to haul in these inefficient targets.

But just how did the Bills' receivers perform considering their disadvantage at quarterback? Let's consider how they compare to some other players dealing with poor play from under center.

The Unlucky 13

There were 13 receivers and tight ends playing for the teams with the five worst quarterbacks (who threw more than 300 passes) in 2013, all while catching between 30 to 60 passes. That happens to be the range in which our main protagonists (Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods, along with Scott Chandler, the tight end) fall. The other teams suffering from subpar quarterback play that make this list are the Giants, Texans, Jaguars and, of course, the Jets.

It should be noted that the Jets and Bills had quarterbacks who were approximately twice as bad on a per-play basis as the other teams listed, but all of them fall in the bottom five range among regular starters. Playing with poor quarterbacks can lead to a big difference in our Reception NEP metric and our Target NEP metric. Reception NEP is derived from all the passes a player catches, and among our unlucky group of 13 receivers, Hakeem Nicks posted the best total in this area. However, when considering Target NEP, the story changes quite a bit.

Nicks, for example, was targeted 101 times, catching only 56 passes. Now, not every incompletion was his fault (in fact, many weren't). So by some combination of his failure and the failure of his quarterback, 45 passes fell to the turf. That led to a loss of 49.33 expected points, or 1.1 NEP per incompletion - when the ball was thrown at Nicks and fell incomplete, it usually lost the Giants one expected point, according to our algorithms. Below is a list of the 13 receivers in question, showing the NEP loss and the average loss per non-catch.

NameTeamNEP LossAvg Loss
David NelsonJets39.101.63
Rueben RandleGiants54.441.47
Brandon MyersGiants36.531.26
Steve JohnsonBills55.791.14
Garrett GrahamTexans45.241.13
Jeremy KerleyJets32.011.10
Ace SandersJaguars39.611.10
Hakeem NicksGiants49.331.10
DeAndre HopkinsTexans42.111.08
Mike BrownJaguars25.701.07
Scott ChandlerBills29.731.06
Robert WoodsBills44.070.98
Kellen Winslow Jr.Jets11.000.69

Again, with this chart, NEP loss is the difference between Reception NEP and Target NEP, or the amount of lost NEP on incompletions and interceptions at the targeted receiver. Average loss takes that total loss and divides it over the amount of incompletions, to get a "per incompletions NEP loss" number. And according to this chart, the Bills' receivers are in pretty good shape.

It's important to note that the more highly targeted a receiver is, the more prone he is to have a big difference in his Reception and Target NEP scores. Force-feeding a player the ball will often result in bad throws for a quarterback. Johnson and Nicks are the only two players on the list with over 100 targets, and both come in near the middle of the pack on a per play basis with very high total NEP loss on incompletions. Contrast that to Randle and Nelson, who were targeted only 78 and 60 times, respectively. When Eli and Geno threw the ball toward either of these receivers, it was usually destructive for their respective teams.

But not so for the Bills. Robert Woods and Scott Chandler had two of the least offensive average loss numbers of the group, and as two of the primary returning targets for E.J. Manuel, that should be encouraging for fans of the Bills. Woods in particular did well to limit the damage on his 85 targets, still maintaining a positive target NEP despite seeing 45 incompletions thrown in his direction. The departed Johnson was the worst Bills receiver in all of these metrics, and his role as the highest-volume receiver in Buffalo figures to be now spread out between Woods, Mike Williams and the rookie Watkins. This should benefit E.J. Manuel, who didn't seem to have that much trouble throwing to any one specific receiver, but rather a general lack of efficiency as a passer that could improve as he enters his second season.

The Watkins Impact

So what does Watkins bring to the Bills, and how will he help replace Stevie Johnson and balance out the receiving corps in Buffalo? Using our READ projections, we can determine what sort of players Watkins is expected to compare to based on combine measurables and rookie situations. (You can read more about READ in this article about new Browns' quarterback Johnny Manziel.)

The first comparison that READ spits out for Watkins, and the one with the most similarity, is Steve Breaston, who is unfortunately a bit irrelevant for what we're trying to do, as Breaston did nothing as a rookie. He was a fifth-round pick of the Cardinals, and didn't see the field enough to make an impact. So let's instead consider some of the more highly touted comparables for Watkins, just to have data to work with in order to comprehend the potential quarterback impact. This isn't to say that Watkins can't become Breaston, however.

A.J. Green20116510577
Kendall Wright2012646264
Dwayne Bowe2007709955
Marques Colston20067010388
Eddie Royal2008919805
Denarius Moore2011336186
Greg Little2011617092

Obviously the comparison to A.J. Green stands out as a best-case scenario for Watkins, as having the instant impact that Green did with the Bengals would be a huge asset for the Bills. Not having Andy Dalton, who posted a positive Passing NEP score in his rookie campaign with Green, does provide a bit of pessimism, however, as Watkins is unlikely to have that good of a quarterback throwing him the ball. Kendall Wright, on the other hand, had the inefficient Jake Locker and Matt Hasselbeck throwing him the ball, meaning his situation was much more comparable to Watkins.

Dwayne Bowe had Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard throwing him the rock as a rookie, while Greg Little had Colt McCoy throwing him passes, making them two other strong comparisons for what we can expect from Watkins in his first year. So a ballpark of 60-70 catches (which replaces Johnson's catch production almost exactly) with 600-900 yards and 3-4 touchdowns would seem like the range of outcomes for the highly coveted rookie. That's not a bad total, all things considered, but was it worth trading up in the first round?

Watkins must produce like Green or Colston past Year 1 to justify the pick, which will be difficult given his current quarterback situation. No one would say that Kendall Wright, Dwayne Bowe or Greg Little were worth two first round picks, so following a career path of any of those players would be catastrophic for the Bills. But having good receivers around him in Buffalo will help.

In addition to Woods, who I mentioned above, Watkins will be joined by Mike Williams, who joined the Bills from Tampa Bay this offseason. And while Williams had a troubling and tumultuous season on and off the field in 2013, he was one of the most intriguing players heading into the season thanks to his performance in 2012. Coming from an offense with a bad quarterback in Tampa, Williams brings the experience of two very productive and efficient years in a bad offense to add to Robert Woods, to help keep the pressure off of Watkins and allow for a better chance of an open receiver and a good decision from E.J. Manuel.

So it might not be worth it at first, but if E.J. Manuel can improve as a passer, and Mike Williams and Robert Woods can continue their trend of performing well with poor quarterback play, the selection of Watkins could pay off in the short term by bolstering an offense that finished fourth from the bottom in Adjusted Passing NEP (adjusted for strength of schedule) last season. He's almost certain to replace the production of Stevie Johnson from day one, or at least help split that burden with his other receivers. But he has a lot of work to do to justify the two first round picks spent on him over the long haul.