Buffalo Bills: Can Sammy Watkins Bounce Back in 2017?

iDec 20, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (14) catches a 48 yard touchdown pass as Washington Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland (26) defends during the second half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
iDec 20, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins (14) catches a 48 yard touchdown pass as Washington Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland (26) defends during the second half at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

The Buffalo Bills’ best wide receiver has fought injuries and inconsistency the past three seasons. Now is the time for Sammy Watkins to step up.

If the 2017 season started today, Sammy Watkins would be the Buffalo Bills number one receiver. That means an injury-prone player with bouts of up-and-down play is currently Tyrod Taylor’s prime target.

When the Buffalo Bills traded three picks with the Cleveland Browns in order to move up and grab Watkins in the 2014 NFL Draft, it was a risky move. A great receiver can be nullified by bad quarterback play — and EJ Manuel wasn’t an inspiring passer.

They made the move, despite quality receivers like Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Mike Evans sitting on the board.

Three years later, that move is looking even worse. Evans, Landry and Beckham are franchise wide outs, each with several 1,000-plus yard seasons. They’re dependable targets for their quarterbacks and between the three of them, have only missed seven games in three years.

In comparison, Watkins has missed eleven games and had two seasons hovering around 1,000 yards. Those aren’t bad stats, but a true number one receiver needs to contribute more than that.

Watkins is certainly capable of it.

In the second half of the 2015 season, he took over the Bills passing attack. Sammy and Tyrod Taylor made a great quarterback/receiver tandem, connecting for 900 yards and seven touchdowns in a nine game span. Project those stats over a full season, and you get a player that catches for 14 scores and 1,800 yards. Those are number one receiver numbers, and things were definitely looking good for 2016.

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But the hope didn’t last. Watkins got foot surgery last off-season and was held out of training camp because of it. He played hurt and mediocre in losses to the Ravens and the Jets before being shut down for half of the 2016 campaign.

When he returned, the results were again unspectacular. Watkins failed to make a difference when facing poor pass defenses of the Raiders and Browns. He did contribute a spectacular game in week 16 against the Miami Dolphins, catching seven passes for 154 yards and a touchdown.

Then there are the injuries.

Mike Rodak of ESPN logged all of them after Watkins’ foot surgery in the 2016 off-season, and it’s not pretty. Since coming into the league in 2014, he’s had issues with his ribs, groin, hip, hamstring, ankle and feet. One of the reasons so many mock drafts have the Bills taking a receiver is to provide insurance in case Watkins goes down.

Again, that’s not the sign of a number one wide out.

If it sounds like I’m painting Watkins as a bust, let’s be fair here. The blame doesn’t go all on him. Tyrod Taylor struggled in 2016 and that had an adverse effect on Watkins’ stats. It’s no coincidence that the best game of the season for both men was that week 16 Miami game. However Tyrod goes, Watkins seems to go.

Not to mention when Watkins is on the field, he’s usually a difference maker. Defenses usually need to roll safety help over whenever Sammy runs a go route. He’s gone up against great corners like Darrelle Revis and held his own. His ability to gain separation gives Tyrod Taylor an ability to take chances in the intermediate-to-deep passing game.

There’s no reason to think he can’t be a difference maker on the field given what we’ve seen.

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That’s why this off-season is critical for Sammy. He needs to stay healthy, both for the team’s sake and his.

In January, he had a second surgery on his foot, with coaching staff saying he’ll be healthy by training camp. Head Coach Sean McDermott said last month that Watkins “looks good” and that “There have been no setbacks.” Bills fans are used to hearing Sammy is rehabbing well, but the coach seems like a straight shooter, so I’ll take his word on this one.

Then there’s the issue of a new contract.

McDermott also noted that the team is considering exercising the fifth-year option on the receiver’s contract. Considering Sammy is still producing despite limited playing time, extending it is an obvious move.

However, Watkins needs to prove he can stay healthy and effective if he wants to land a long-term deal, whether it’s here or somewhere else.

It’s hard to judge what will happen with Sammy Watkins in 2017. This could be the year he gets off the injury report and becomes an elite receiver. Or he could hurt his foot again in training camp and go on IR. It really all depends on the man himself.

Personally, I believe he’ll stay healthy and have his best year yet. Sean McDermott appears to run a tighter ship than Rex Ryan, so I don’t believe the team will let an injured Watkins play to start the season.

Also, great receivers like Julio Jones and Dez Bryant ended up recovering from foot injuries to regain their dominant status. Sammy hasn’t reached their heights yet, but being fully healthy could give him an opportunity to.

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The NFL Draft can also affect Sammy.

Wide receiver is a popular pick for the Buffalo Bills and a player like Mike Williams or Corey Davis gives them another effective passing game weapon. That gives Buffalo the opportunity to use one of them as their number one target, and slowly bring Watkins back.

There’s no scenario here where he doesn’t have time to get healthy.

Some fans are lukewarm on Tyrod Taylor returning as the starting quarterback, but I think that will help Watkins. The two showed incredible chemistry in 2015 and flashes of it were evident in 2016. If quality football includes getting comfortable with your teammates, we owe it to see what a full season of Taylor-to-Watkins would look like.

Finally, the Buffalo Bills are set to face a horde of bad pass defenses in the AFC West (Oakland Raiders), NFC South (basically every team except the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and AFC South (Indianapolis Colts). Those are prime opportunities for a healthy Sammy to feast on weak secondaries.

All of those factors should, and I really mean should, indicate a great year for Sammy Watkins if he stays healthy. Just like it was last year.

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How do YOU think Sammy Watkins’ 2017 season will go? Leave your comments below?