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Camp Countdown: How will Watkins help the pass game most?

Posted Jul 2, 2014

Aside from 4.4 speed and out-of-this-world catch radius, how does Sammy Watkins upgrade the Bills passing game most?

Every summer leading up to training camp buffalobills.com examines 25 of the more pertinent issues facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we wanted to focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field in addition to what takes place on the field. From now until report day at training camp we’ll address these subjects one at a time. Here now is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 18 and the Sept. 7 opener at Chicago.

It is easy to see why Bills GM Doug Whaley pulled the trigger on trading up for Sammy Watkins in May. Aside from the 4.4 speed and out-of-this-world catch radius, he has soft hands and makes the difficult look routine.

But how do these attributes translate on the field? More importantly, how does Watkins fit into Nathaniel Hackett’s up-tempo offense? In what way does he upgrade the passing game the most?

“He’s a guy we have to get the ball to a whole bunch,” Hackett said. “Good players just naturally start getting the ball, whether you call a play for him or not. I think it just showed here in practice with what we’ve done. It might not necessarily be his number, but EJ just finds him. Throws it to him early, he goes up and catches it. It’s so exciting.”

The more plays that are run, the more chances players like Watkins and CJ Spiller have to break one for a long touchdown. And this is where Watkins can truly make a difference.

One of the biggest criticisms of Watkins coming into the NFL was his relative inexperience with the more complex route tree of most NFL offenses. At Clemson he would usually run quick slants, screens and hitch routes, or rely on his superior speed deep. It resulted in a 77.1 percent catch rate, one of the highest in the NCAA.

But Watkins might not have to do as much adjusting as some may assume. Looking back on the 2013 season, Hackett and head coach Doug Marrone did not ask EJ Manuel to do too much, and many of his passes traveled fewer than 10 yards in the air – a recipe for success for a rookie QB.

Surely the coaching staff will want to open up more of the playbook to Manuel in his second year. But the foundations of Hackett’s scheme will remain. Assuming they do, Watkins will be introduced to the more complex schemes and situations gradually. In the meantime he will only be asked to do what he is comfortable with: taking short passes in order to break tackles and convert them into long gains, and occasionally using his speed to beat one-on-one coverage on fade routes.

“My mentality is to score every play,” Watkins said. “That’s my mentality, to score and catch every ball that touches my hands. To create a problem for the defense, to make the defensive coordinator think hard, to make them double guard me. That’s my job. To dominate cornerbacks, safeties, defense, linebackers and that’s what I take pride in, in scoring all over the field.”

The Buffalo Bills were just 28th in the league in terms of yards after the catch in 2013. Watkins brings an immediate upgrade to that area of the offense, and it is one of the most important for a young quarterback like Manuel. The more he is able to only have to get the ball to his athletes on the outside and let them do the rest, the more success he will have.

“We believe the addition of Sammy is going to be instant impact, not only to our quarterback, but to what our offensive coordinator can come up with game plan wise and how defenses attack us,” Whaley said after the draft.

As the season goes on and Watkins gets more comfortable with the offense and the speed of the NFL game, we should see him running more complex routes downfield, especially across the middle. But Watkins’ calling card will always be his speed and athleticism to get yards after the reception is made. The coaching staff knows this, and will put him in situations to best use those skills accordingly.