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Getting his game back the last hurdle for Sammy Watkins

Posted Aug 10, 2016

Sammy Watkins believes his foot is healed, it's the new twist on his route running techniques designed to keep him healthy long term that have him unsure if he can be the play making receiver he has always been.

From the time he was 13-years old Sammy Watkins has dominated on the football field. He’s been through serious injuries before and come back with the same ability to take over games. Watkins’ latest injury however, required a surgical repair of his foot. It’s an injury that has carried a risk of recurrence in other NFL players (see: Dez Bryant, Julio Jones). But the health of his foot is not the last mental hurdle he harbors in his return to the field. Instead it’s his personal game.

Watkins is convinced that his foot is healed. He’s been running routes for the better part of the last six weeks, some at top speed. What had to change in the wake of his foot surgery is how he runs some of those routes. The Bills strength and conditioning staff along with the athletic training staff has worked with Watkins to re-invent some of his route running gait to reduce the chances of his surgically repaired foot becoming a problem again.

“I think the trainers did a great job, not with just the injury. We worked on things I need to work on. Fixed things that needed to be fixed with my body,” said Watkins. “We worked on routes and the technique part more so than just the injury and how I can protect the injury and help the injury out by not putting as much weight on it and run better routes. Those things can help me in the long run.”

But as Watkins stepped back on the practice field Monday he had concern that his game with some of his new route running techniques would not allow him to be as dynamic and game breaking as everyone remembers.

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“I’m not so much worried about my foot, it’s really technique and getting back in the groove of things,” he said. “You see the other guys out there doing everything perfect and I’m trying to get to that point. Everything is mental just with my route running, my stance and starts and really breaking everything down and being low and being explosive.”

Watkins looked to be making the adjustment as Monday’s practice wore on, though he had just a handful of team reps. The receiver said he was running faster and faster as practice progressed.

Encouraging signs certainly, but Watkins is building parts of his game from the ground up, and in what will be a very abbreviated period of time on the field leading up to the 2016 season he’s understandably concerned.

As much of a “mental block” as it might be for him, Watkins knows these new techniques will accomplish the most important goal for his career. To stay on the field.

More than anything Watkins wants to rid himself of injuries that have cost him months away from the game. As a rookie he suffered cracked ribs in the preseason and played through a few minor injuries in the second half of 2014, where his production took a noticeable dip. An offseason hip surgery following the 2014 season cost him almost six months. This latest foot surgery in early spring, three months.

For a player who is a perfectionist and wants to be the best he can be, time away from the field makes the task harder, even for someone as talented as Watkins.

“That’s what I’ve been fighting the last three years, just being healthy and I think now I’m at a point where I’m getting there,” he said. “I need to keep on doing the things that the trainers are telling me to do and I think if I keep doing that and be a professional I’ll be alright.”

But until the new route running techniques he’s been working on to keep his body healthy and reduce wear and tear prove successful on the field it could take time to convince himself that he’s still the same difference making receiver he’s always been. And time is anything but plentiful right now.

Through his own introspection he knows he hasn’t reached the point of complete self-confidence.

“I’m not where I need to be at, but for right now, for what I’m doing, I think I've got confidence in running routes and stuff like that,” he said. “And I’m going to keep getting better.”

The process figures to be painstaking as it would be surprising if Watkins participated on back-to-back days at any point during the first half of training camp. Still, offensive coordinator Greg Roman sees any reps with Watkins on the practice field as an advantage.

“Sammy is a special player,” said Roman. “He’s in his third year. We’ve got to get him physically right. He’s been totally and mentally engaged in everything we do. There’s some chemistry now that we get to build, and that’s big time.”

How quickly it’ll come remains to be seen. Will he play in preseason games? Will he prove as difficult to cover as he always has in one-on-one situations? These are answers Watkins is seeking just as much as the Bills organization.

“I need to get over the mental block and just go out there and play freely and not think about it,” he said. “I think once I get there I’ll be fine. If you’re going out there timid and playing slow you’re going to get hurt. So my mindset is I’m healed, I’ve prayed up, so just go out there and have fun and run around and do what you’ve been doing. Just going out there and competing, that’s where I need to get my mindset.”