Where Does Sammy Watkins' Rookie Season Rank Historically?

The 2014 wide receiver class was incredibly historic. Was Sammy Watkins' season just lost in the hype?

The 2014 season was historic for rookie wide receiver production.

Last year's freshman class served up Odell Beckham's dominant breakout, Mike Evans' emergence, Kelvin Benjamin's 1,000-yard season, and a ton of other evolving stars in today's game like Jordan Matthews and Brandin Cooks.

And then there's Buffalo's Sammy Watkins.

Over the past few months, there has been a good deal of debate on Twitter -- among other websites -- about Watkins' future in Buffalo, pauses for concern, and whether or not his rookie season was a disappointment. Looking at the broad picture, we can see that Watkins put up a very respectable line of 65 receptions, 982 yards, and 6 touchdowns.

Was Watkins' rookie season actually quite good and just lost in the shuffle among the other rookie wide receiving studs? Where did his first season rank historically? To answer these questions, we need to take a closer look and examine the Buffalo wide receivers' advanced metrics.

Historically Great, or Just So-So?

For the framework of this article, we'll be looking through the lens of our signature Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP weighs player production based on how the player performs versus expectation given field position and down-and-distance information. Basically, it indicates how far above or below expectation a certain player has performed. If you'd like to learn more about the metric, you can read more about it in our glossary.

So where does the soon-to-be 22-year-old Watkins shake out in all of this? I went back and analyzed rookie wide receiver campaigns and found 30 different individual receivers have procured at least 96 targets (6 targets per game) on their respective teams during their first year in the NFL. Sammy Watkins had 128 targets in 2014 (8 per game). This gives us a group of fairly heavily-targeted receivers' rookie offerings for Watkins' comparison sake.

Instead of posting the entire sample, I denoted the averages below. Overall rankings for Watkins are in parenthesis.

NameTgtsRecYdsY/RTDsRec NEPTgt NEPRec. NEP/Tgt
Watkins128 (7th of 30)65 (T-13th)982 (10th)15.1 (T-6th)6 (T-13th)89.9 (T-10th)25.2 (T-13th)0.70 (11th)

As you can tell, Watkins' numbers last year were pretty solid -- but not earth-shattering -- which should probably be somewhat expected. He finished behind fellow rookies Odell Beckham (2nd), Mike Evans (5th), and Kelvin Benjamin (8th) in Reception NEP (NEP added on catches only), and well behind Beckham (1st), Evans (5th), Benjamin (10th) plus Jordan Matthews (6th) in Target NEP (NEP added on all targets).

For what it's worth, Sammy Watkins' ranking of 11th in Reception NEP per target (0.70) isn't historically bad at all. In fact, that specific ranking holds some fairly prestigious company. Andre Johnson and Anquan Boldin finished just above Watkins on a per-target basis (0.73) in their first NFL season, while Josh Gordon (0.68) and DeSean Jackson's (0.67) rookie Reception NEP per target numbers were just slightly worse.

Bills' fans may be screaming at their screens now saying, "Well, Kyle Orton was our quarterback from Week 5 onward last year -- doesn't that hurt Watkins' numbers overall?" The answer to that is a partial "yes." Orton's 0.04 Passing NEP per drop back finished 25th out of 37 qualified quarterbacks in 2014. But, keep in mind that Mike Evans' quarterbacks, Mike Glennon (0.00 Pass NEP per drop back) and Josh McCown (-0.09), were far worse on the field last year and way below the league average of 0.08. And Mike Evans was better than Watkins.

So, while quarterback play is sometimes inherently baked into young wide receivers' production, Mike Evans is pretty much quarterback-proof. That's not to say Sammy Watkins' abilities aren't quarterback-proof -- it's just a nice reality check for those who think Watkins 2014 season is being slighted due to the historic nature of last year's draft class.

However, on the whole, Watkins was still quite good in 2014. As denoted by the overall rankings and average column, he came in at or above the standard in each production and NEP variable above.

Still, it's probably unfair to say Sammy Watkins didn't live up to expectations last year because said expectations were probably too high to begin with. He was the number-one wide receiver on a lot of draft boards, and if you can recall 2014 draft day, that idea shined through. Buffalo traded their ninth-overall pick plus their first- and fourth-round picks in 2015 to Cleveland for the rights to move up and nab Watkins. That's a lot of pressure for a young wide receiver to come in and be their lone playmaker.

It's also one-sided to say Watkins isn't a clear-cut "X" wide receiver, because he proved he's more than capable of being the Bills' dominant force on offense. He also played through a couple of injuries last year, notably a nagging rib injury. Plus, he apparently played through a labrum (hip) tear that required offseason surgery. That's all to say Watkins' long-term arrow is still pointing way up, but it may be time to temper expectations just slightly.