In the first half of the season Bills fans only saw glimpses. Flashes of the dynamic things that Sammy Watkins could do in Buffalo's offense. Offseason hip surgery combined with a calf injury frequently interrupted Watkins' preparations for the 2015 season and his development in a new offense with a new quarterback. While fans were frustrated knowing the kind of difference he can make, Watkins' own frustrations was far greater.
The Bills bye in Week 9 was fortunately a turning point. The extra week to let an ankle injury heal did wonders and when he returned to the lineup in Week 10 he didn't miss another game. His results over Buffalo's last nine games weren't just impressive, they were dominant as Watkins took another step forward in his path to becoming an elite receiver.
"For myself it was really about preparation," said Watkins. "Being healthy, getting healthy and staying healthy was the key. Being on the right page with Tyrod (Taylor). Our offense was already playing okay and then once I came back we just kept doing the same thing. We just kept jelling together and getting better."
In Buffalo's last nine games Watkins rolled up 900 receiving yards and seven of his nine touchdowns. His yardage over that span trailed only Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (1,116) and Atlanta's Julio Jones (979). Watkins also ranked fourth in yards per game (100) over the season's last nine weeks, second in yards per catch (18.4) and was tied for first in plays of 25 yards or more (12) with Jones and Jacksonville's Allen Robinson.
Bills GM Doug Whaley saw a supremely talented player develop into a dominant force over the final half of the 2015 season.
"We feel he is a dominant player," said Whaley. "He himself has put a lot of pressure on himself to be that type of player. He wants to be, believes he can be and he's working to be and we have all the faith in the world that he'll become one of the top tier receivers in the league. We're extremely happy we have him."
A lot of Watkins' second-half success can be chalked up to a blossoming on field rapport with quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Both Watkins and Taylor were new to offensive coordinator Greg Roman's system. Taylor had to split reps three ways in training camp and the preseason due to a quarterback competition and Watkins missed time as he was rehabbing from hip surgery. Taylor also missed a pair of starts due to a knee injury.
It put the tandem behind as the team rolled into the season, but coming out of the bye week Taylor and Watkins found a comfort zone together and Buffalo's quarterback targeted Watkins often. Almost nine times a game on average (8.7) over their final nine outings.
"Of course with a playmaker like Sammy you want to get him the ball," said Taylor. "Our offense can feed off of him, the running game, but of course you'd like to get a guy that talented the ball as much as you can because when you do he can be dangerous."
Nowhere was Watkins' ability to take over a game more apparent than in the season finale against the Jets. Going toe-to-toe for most of the game with Darrelle Revis, Watkins was targeted 15 times and had 11 receptions for 136 yards in Buffalo's 22-17 victory.
"It was a great matchup, one of those classic matchups," said head coach Rex Ryan. "In my opinion this young man is one of the best receivers in football and everybody will see it next year when he's healthy for 16 games. You'll see the numbers and everything else. The guy is a great football player. We knew it was going to be a battle. Revis knew it, this kid has elite speed. Revis wasn't going to get beat over the top. So we thought we had a chance to throw the ball underneath a few times and we did."
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman moved Watkins all around the field as he lined up in different positions to see how much of a mental workload he could put on his star receiver in their final game. By all accounts Watkins passed.
"I had to learn three different positions to hide myself from coverages," said Watkins in a recent ESPN interview. "For me it was a test and different and I took accountability and studied more and at the end of the year we started passing the ball. We had nothing to lose."
Watkins also took it upon himself to step forward as a leader toward the end of the season. Sensing a void of leadership in the locker room the second-year receiver, along with Tyrod Taylor, was not shy in demanding more from any player who they felt was not giving their best over the last two weeks of the season.
"If somebody doesn't live up to the hype or play the way they should play, get them out of here," Watkins said. "I think now everybody understands that we can win. For me I think it's being a leader and taking accountability and speaking up when I need to. Just come together as a whole team and nobody take it personal. It's our job. It's a business. Do your job and if you don't there will be consequences."
"It shows me that he's not in it for himself," said Whaley of Watkins. "It shows me we have the ultimate team player and young player that's learning how to be a pro. He knows if he does what he's supposed to do and everybody else in that locker room does what they're supposed to do and hold each other accountable, the sky is the limit for the team. So I'm very excited about his leadership qualities not only on the field, but off the field."
Looking ahead to 2016, Watkins main goal is to stay healthy so he can put together a dominant 16-game season. His head coach believes if that happens Watkins will be getting the kind of league-wide recognition that goes along with it.
"Let's face it, if he was healthy the whole season this year we would be talking about him possibly being in Hawaii," said Ryan. "He really only got healthy probably the last 10 games of the season. So I would think we would see that happen. We obviously have an elite receiver there."