Does Sammy Watkins Have a Point About His Targets?

Sammy Watkins wants more love in the passing game, but does he deserve it?

Sammy Watkins wants the ball. That’s the message he told his agents to tell the team, via a report from the Buffalo News. Regardless of how that game of telephone played out, the main message remains: Sammy Watkins wants the ball. 

That’s not completely surprising, since wide receivers have very little control during games regarding how much they get the ball. The most they can do is get open and hope the quarterback looks that way.

What’s a bit more surprising is this sentiment coming from Watkins. The Clemson product was the first receiver taken in the historic 2014 draft, and the Buffalo Bills paid quite a premium to select him -- the Bills gave up the ninth overall pick in 2014, along with first- and fourth-round picks in 2015 to move up to the fourth overall selection to take Watkins. Because of the capital used to attain the receiver, Watkins’ rookie season felt a little underwhelming compared to the class that produced Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry and a list that can keep going on.

But, in a vacuum, Watkins’ play was not quite as disappointing as it would seem, at least by our  Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures how well a player performs above or below expectation. 47 players were targeted at least 100 times last season, and Watkins ranked 19th in Reception NEP per target in that group. His 0.70 Reception NEP per target was just above the average of those players, who were at 0.66. It wasn’t the 0.91 of Beckham (ranked fourth), but right now, this is not about Beckham, it’s about Watkins and his role in the Buffalo offense.

Too Many Targets?

Last season, Watkins had 128 targets over all 16 games, which averages out to eight targets per game. In his comments, Watkins stated he wants to be targeted 10 times per game, which, over a 16-game season, would equate to 160 targets. Only three receivers -- Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown and Julio Jones -- were above that mark in 2014.

One of Watkins’ comments also came across as an unrealistic request, “Of course I’d have 100 yards every game and a touchdown if I’m getting 20 targets." Of course, but that’s not a feasible task for even the best receivers in the most pass-happy offenses. Per the Pro Football Reference's play index, only 34 times since 1999 has a receiver been targeted 20 or more instances in a game. Watkins was right on one thing: each of those receivers had at least 100 receiving yards in the game, but 10 of them failed to score a touchdown. None of those 34 instances, though, were by the same receiver in the same season.

For the Good of the Team

Something Watkins stated was revealing for his motivation behind this, and also mostly avoided by many media outlets picking up the story:

“That’s really the focus: winning. If I get 80, 90, 100 yards, we’re winning the majority of our games. That helps, not only me, but the whole offense click. Then I start getting more double-coverage and you run the ball to the right and Percy [Harvin]’s going over the top. That’s the biggest thing.”

On the surface, that’s not the most illogical of arguments. To Watkins, this is more about game theory than a need for individual statistics. This is also something we’re capable of looking into. There’ve been five instances, all in 2014, obviously, when Watkins had at least 80 receiving yards in a game, and the table below shows Watkins’s involvement in the offense, along with the second most productive Bills receiver in the given game.

SW Yards SW Recptions SW Targets WR2 Yards WR2 Recptions
157 3 6 50 3
127 7 12 81 8
122 9 14 63 5
117 8 11 27 2
87 7 12 58 7

Only once when Watkins went over 80 yards receiving did the Bills not have another receiver with at least 50 yards in the same game. That gives some credence to the point given, but for Buffalo, this hasn’t been something exclusive to Watkins’ participation. 13 times since the start of 2014 the Bills had two receivers in a game gain at least 50 receiving yards, but only six times was Watkins one of the receivers.

Watkins no doubt has the ability to be a playmaking wide receiver that can carry an offense, but right now the Bills don’t necessarily need that type of production to be successful. The Bills enter Week 6 with the sixth most efficient offense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play, 11th best when just considering the passing offense. That’s also with the top receiver missing the past two games due to a calf injury.

While Watkins’s comments weren’t as malicious as many have made them out to be, and there is some logic to his thought process, it’s not completely what the Bills need to succeed right now. Having a true number-one receiver is rarely a bad thing for an offense, but it can be dangerous to create one in spite of an offense that’s been one of the most efficient in the league so far.