Without Sammy Watkins, Are the Bills' Receivers Fantasy Football Assets?

Buffalo wide receiver Sammy Watkins needs a screw put in his foot. Can his team game on without him?

There is no board game that puts more stress on elementary-age children who are just refining their fine motor skills than Jenga. One slip when you’re pulling out the precariously piled pieces and, all of a sudden, it’s all over.

Losing one key component of a structure can make the whole thing topple. One piece of a puzzle goes missing, and all of a sudden you don’t have a full picture. Short one trap in Mouse Trap and all of a sudden, the game is beat.

When it was announced that Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins was going to need a screw placed in his stress-fractured foot that he injured in 2015, I had the same sort of sinking feeling I get every time someone hits my battleship.

According to the Buffalo News, the good news is that the surgery apparently took place about a month ago, and the healing time for this kind of procedure is expected to take just six-to-eight weeks. But for fantasy owners, we need to be thinking through the potential ramifications of a slowed -- or out -- Sammy Watkins.

What will the 2016 Bills look like if Sammy Watkins can’t play?


First of all, you might be asking yourself why -- if Watkins’ surgery recovery should only take until around two-to-four weeks from now -- am I entertaining this possibility?

The last time we saw a supremely talented receiver come into a season with a foot injury was Dez Bryant this past year, when he broke his foot in Week 1 and was then hustled back to play in Week 8. After his injury, he put up just 353 yards receiving on 26 catches and 67 targets. This led to a career-worst 38.8 percent Catch Rate and a mediocre 13.58 yards per reception, and Bryant still needed surgery this offseason to get right.

Still, we could chalk up some of his troubles to the quarterback carousel Dallas had going through its doors, right? Are there any other instances of pre-season or early season foot injuries derailing a year?

How about Julio Jones? There was major concern about Jones’ health before he was drafted, due to the foot injuries he had suffered at Alabama. He had a screw inserted into his foot prior to his rookie 2011 season, which then broke and had to be fixed in 2013. How did this affect his production?

Year Game Catch% Yd./Att. TD%
2013 5 68.33% 14.15 3.33%

Now, Jones didn’t play after his injury in 2013; when the screw was shorn off, he was shut down for the year. Fortunately, this didn’t hinder him too much in 2014, as Jones finished with 104 catches for 1,593 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns the year after the injury. However, he had been having troubles with right leg injuries (knee, hamstring) in the preseason of 2013 that may have shown indication that he was favoring his foot before it even was broken.

We run a great risk with trusting wide receivers who have foot injuries before the year, especially when screw insertions are involved. I don’t know that Watkins will have an abbreviated season like Jones or a diminished one like Bryant, but it’s a possibility we have to consider.

The Game of Life

If the worst comes to pass and Watkins is subjected to his own personal game of Operation, who would fill the void?

Before we even consider how targets would shake out, we have to look at what the team as a whole would do without Watkins. We have three instances since Watkins was drafted where the Bills were without him: Weeks 4, 5, and 7 in 2015. That gives us a stable, albeit small, sample to look at.

In these three games, what did the Bills’ offensive composition look like, and how successful were they? We can pick apart this data not just with playcalling and statistics, but value as well, with numberFire’s Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

NEP is a metric that helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and shows how that player or team did versus expectation. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. If Watkins catches a pass for five yards on 3rd-and-2, it means more to the game than it does on 3rd-and-10, and those plays should be valued accordingly. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below depicts the Bills’ games last year without Watkins, in terms of play selection, and Adjusted Offensive NEP per play -- both Passing and Rushing.

Week Pass Run Adj. NEP/P Adj. Pass NEP/P Adj. Rush NEP/P
4 44 24 -0.15 -0.06 -0.17
5 22 28 0.07 -0.08 0.09
7 46 28 -0.15 -0.39 0.09
Average Without Watkins 37 27 -0.09 -0.20 0.01
Season Average 32 32 0.10 0.14 0.10

Oddly, though their biggest passing game weapon was out in these three games, the Bills passed a lot more (1.37 Pass-to-Run Ratio) than when Watkins was in the lineup (1.00). The additional volume per game may have been part of the reason that the Bills’ full season Adjusted Passing NEP per play values are much better than without Watkins, but even the full season Adjusted Rushing NEP per play values are greater. This team does revolve around Sammy Watkins, to an extent.

This data also tells us that, if Sammy Watkins misses time early this year, the Bills might not adapt by simply running the ball more; they may to try to recoup value with volume in the passing game instead.

Ticket to Ride

So, who would step up in his place?

The table below shows the four leading receivers in games without Watkins last year, both in terms of statistical production and Reception NEP per target. They are organized by targets.

Player Targ Catch% Yds. Rec NEP/T
Charles Clay 21 61.90% 144 0.52
Robert Woods 20 65.00% 123 0.40
Chris Hogan 19 73.68% 151 0.68
Percy Harvin 12 25.00% 26 0.16

Two of these four leading receivers have already been released or signed elsewhere this offseason -- Chris Hogan and Percy Harvin -- opening up a little over 10 extra targets per game.

There would certainly be more room for tight end Charles Clay and wide receiver Robert Woods to operate in terms of volume of targets (Clay averaged 7.00 targets per game with Watkins out compared to 4.88 as his season average; Woods 6.67 without, 5.00 season average). That said, Clay was only marginally more efficient in Reception NEP per target (0.02 more) with Watkins gone, and Woods was significantly less so (0.28 less). They may see more looks in event of emergency, but the efficiency will probably not be helped.

Even more interesting than this, the main Buffalo running backs -- Karlos Williams, LeSean McCoy, and Anthony Dixon -- saw an average of just under five targets per game with Watkins out. That’s about 1.5 targets per game, per running back. The backfield likely won’t get touches spread to them if this situation comes to pass.

That means the 10 targets per game that went to Hogan and Harvin will either get split between Clay and Woods or a few will be siphoned off by the likes of Marquise Goodwin, rookie Kolby Listenbee, and maybe Dezmin Lewis, offering extra fantasy value to almost no one.

At least based on our small sample from last year, the Bills just don’t throw enough to begin with to get excited about a few extra targets per game for their wide receivers. If you’re looking for someone to get sneaky value from just in case, though, it’s Clay and Woods. Everyone else is just Apples to Apples.