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I wanted to keep you in the conversation as we continue our “Path to WR1” series. Our team of writers examined WRs who are currently ranked outside of the top 15 receivers in Andy, Mike, and Jason’s initial PPR rankings. We identified players that possibly have a shot at finishing the year as a WR1. Let us be clear: we are NOT projecting a WR1 end of the year total merely giving the high-end range of outcomes for players to show what type of ceiling is in the realm of possibilities.

Each of these WRs brings a bit of optimism for 2017 and our job is simply to lay out the “path” to a top 12 finish. This journey ultimately comes down to projecting their target share, receptions, yards, and TDs for the upcoming season.

Let’s recap Sammy Watkins‘ 2016, project what a WR1 season looks like for him this year, and finally give the percentage likelihood of a WR1 campaign.

2016 Season Recap

I’ll admit that I came into 2016 with a bit of optimism as detailed in The Case For Sammy Watkins I wrote during the preseason. What proceeded was the lingering effects of a foot injury that seemed to never fully heal. On average, he was taken at the 3.08 in PPR leagues according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com.

If you owned Watkins, then you had to be disappointed after you brugrudingly placed him in your IR spot for 10 weeks of the year if you hadn’t dropped or traded him by then. When he did return, he simply did not look like the explosive playmaker he was in 2015 nor possess the chemistry we’ve seen with Tyrod Taylor. It wasn’t until Week 16 versus the Dolphins that he shifted into high gear catching 7-of-10 targets for 154 yards and a TD ranking as the WR5 in a high-scoring fantasy championship weekend. Most owners didn’t have the stomach to start Watkins throughout the year after returning from injury much less in a fantasy championship game.

In summation, Watkins’ 2016 was a step back (no foot pun intended) for a player who was the 1st WR drafted from that famed 2014 class that took the league by storm. This offseason did not settle things as the Bills announced that they would not be picking up the fifth-year option on Watkins’ contract. In other words, they will most likely either give him the franchise tag or let him walk. So what does this say for his WR1 outlook in 2017?

The Path for 2017

In order for Watkins to shake the injury bug and ascend to WR1 territory, there are a number of statistical benchmarks he must meet to become truly an elite fantasy option.

Target Share– For Watkins to sustain a WR1 season, he needs to grab hold as the mainstay target hog in Buffalo. With little ancillary pieces other than Zay Jones, Charles Clay, and Andre Holmes, it’s possible Watkins can see upwards of 23% to maybe even a quarter of the volume of targets. This total may seem daunting but let’s put this in perspective: when Watkins did see the field last year (8 games), he saw 23.1% of those Taylor pass attempts.

In 2016, WR1-ville began with players who saw upwards of a 22% share with Davante Adams being the major outlier in last year’s top 12 at 20.03%. His fantasy numbers were fueled by 12 TDs. Remember that in Watkins’ breakout 2015, he held a 26.7% share of the team’s targets in those 12 games. Unless you’re willing to lay claim to another pass catcher stealing looks, I can see a high-end of 130 targets if health is assumed at a 23% target share.

sammy watkins3 300x156 - The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Season: Sammy Watkins

Getty Images Sport / Patrick Smith

Catch Rate– Watkins regressed from 2015 as he caught only 53.8% of his targets in 2016, almost a full 10 percentage points lower. While Taylor is clearly not the most accurate passer in the league, jumping up to 60% is projectable considering 65% is the median for pass catchers in the NFL.

Receptions– If Watkins were to catch 60% of his 130 targets, we’re looking at 78 catches which would be a career high. In this low volume passing offense, Watkins is not as likely as his fellow elite WRs to rack up giant PPR games. However, if we look at his game log, he has had some monster games seeing 10+ targets 6 times over the last two seasons. The game script and change in offensive scheme is what will be the telling factor. When we combine the weighted play averages of new OC Rick Dennison from his tenure in Denver, it’s more than likely the passing offense in Buffalo receives a definite uptick in terms of overall passes. I’m projecting somewhere south of 550 attempts which still would’ve placed the Bills among the bottom 5 in the league last year.

Yards– Watkins was a beast ranking #1 in the league in 2015 in yards per target at 10.9. However, that figure dropped to 8.3 in 2016. Thus far, he has maintained 15+ yards per catch in his career with that stratospheric 17.5 mark in 2015. One of the few useful statistics from his 2016 campaign was the fact his averaged distance of target (aDOT) was 15.1 yards, 7th highest in the league. In other words, he’s not seeing 5-yard outs most of the time.

He is a chain mover for Taylor that was sorely missed last year as the Bills called only 137 pass plays on 3rd down, fewer than any other team in the league. He’s still going to be targeted down-the-field which drives his yardage up even on fewer attempts. As Matt Harmon details in his Reception Perception profile, found in the Ultimate Draft Kit, Watkins’ route tree is plentiful although his contested catch rate fell drastically from 2015.  Given a full 16 game season based on the previous assumed numbers, we’re banking on 1,100+ yards in this WR1 scenario.

TDs– The part of Watkins’ game that must change in 2016 is how he’s utilized in the red zone. Despite seeing a healthy snap percentage when playing, Watkins saw only 4 red zone targets all year long… also known as HALF the amount of washed up teammate Justin Hunter. He has shown a penchant in the last couple of years for being a TD monster as he entered the 2016 season scoring a TD in 60% of his games played. That number dropped to 46% after his injuries but his weekly upside is still immense. This makes him an especially enticing option in standard leagues as he was on a 12 TD pace in 2015. Although TD rates fluctuate, he has shown that he is capable of 9+ TDs.

WR1 Possibility: Coin Flip (50%)

This percentage is based upon the combined average of the Fantasy Footballers writing staff. 50% is essentially saying which side of the coin to do you currently fall on. There are some ready to dismiss Watkins and his plaguing injuries while others can see the daylight of a potential monstrous season on his way. His projected 79/1100/9 line would’ve made Watkins the WR10 in standard and WR12 in PPR leagues last year, also a down year overall for gigantic PPR outputs.

Conclusion

Watkins is more of an asset in standard leagues especially at his current draft price as the 19th WR off the board as the 4.04 according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com. His path to becoming a WR1 is solely dependent on his health as the talent is unquestionable. His WR1 upside should definitely be considered and would be an incredible WR2/FLEX option for teams trying to load up on WR.

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