There are many tongue-in-cheek ways to expand the NFL abbreviation. Cynics will say ‘No Fun League’, although the league is attempting to be more relaxed with how players express themselves. The one layered in ‘coach speak’, used to motivate players young and old, is ‘Not For Long.’
Heroes one season, relative unknowns the next. High draft picks with all the pomp and ceremony of a Royal Wedding petering out until they are little more than another name through the NFL annals. Be it injury, off the field problems or bad play there are a multitude of reasons that a potential franchise-altering player drops off the face of the earth within a season or two.
Every year players face this crossroads, but in 2018 there is perhaps not a more high-profile star confronting that uncertainty than Sammy Watkins.
Watkins has seen his stock slide ever since his career year with the Buffalo Bills in 2015 – his sophomore season. The Kansas City Chiefs have thrown the pass catching misfit a lifeline, a chance to recapture his early promise. Kansas City gave Watkins a three-year $48 million contract, including $30 million in guarantees, during free agency after a mediocre year in Los Angeles with the Rams.
The numbers make Watkins the fourth highest paid receiver in the NFL, level with the recently tied down Brandin Cooks. For many, it will be hard to swallow should Watkins produce anything but elite output, the kind which has eluded him so far in his five-year career.
Having said that, as with most contracts now, Watkins’ is structured to give KC an element of control. A base salary of $790,000 is due this coming season, that could skyrocket up to $11.95 million in 2019 per spotrac.com. After that, the Chiefs can cut their losses if they feel their investment has not provided an adequate return, although releasing Watkins after next year will result in seven million in dead cap.
Tied to the career of the former Clemson wide out is the uncontrollable nature of what Buffalo gave up when selecting Watkins fourth overall in the 2014 draft – their ninth overall pick in 2014 as well as their first round and fourth-round choices of the 2015 draft.
Compounding that, when compared to the wide receivers picked not far after him – Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans – then it is easy to say Watkins has been a bust, or at the very least has not lived up to lofty expectations. That would be harsh. Watkins has at times flattered to deceive but nobody should consider him a bust.
After a breakout year in his second campaign, in which he corralled 60 balls for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns, production has been at a premium for the 25-year-old. Foot injuries saw him feature in just eight games in 2016 and his production nosedived to 430 receiving yards and two scores.
A small revival did take place while under the tutelage of Sean McVay with the Rams. In fact, the former first-round pick saw all seven of his catches inside the redzone result in touchdowns. Ultimately, however, the Rams did not think his 573 yards and eight TDs were enough to keep the wide out around for the long term.
During his introductory press conference, the former LA Ram said: “I chose this. I chose to come out here and hopefully spend the rest of my career here.”
The tone suggests maybe Watkins had several teams enquiring about his services, considering his youth and huge upside it would not be surprising. But the Chiefs chose him as much as he chose the Chiefs.
Head Coach Andy Reid spoke about where he feels his new receiver’s strengths lie, which could be foreshadowing as to why he has been brought in.
“Getting off jam coverage, that’s one of his strengths. He’ll line up at the ‘X’ to start with. Then we have the flexibility to move him around.” Said the former Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach.
Reid was confident in the abilities of Watkins, adding in the presser: “If you’re putting the word out there we’re okay with that.” He added, half-jokingly, when quizzed about the 25-year-old’s strengths and fit into the offense.
Patrick Mahomes has one electric playmaker on the perimeter, Tyreek Hill, but perhaps there are concerns with his ability to beat press coverage. Hill has lit the league up with his supersonic speed, but at 5”10 and 185 pounds a question has to be asked about his ability to separate against the more physical corners when jammed at the line of scrimmage. While Watkins is a more imposing physical specimen, he did run a 4.43 40-yard dash at his combine workout, easy to forget when he has been dogged by foot problems.
The former Clemson Tiger is clearly highly thought of inside the Arrowhead Stadium with General Manager Brett Veach speaking of his eagerness to get Watkins in their offense.
“One of the first trade calls I made was to Brandon [Beane, Buffalo Bills GM] about Sammy. We’d have like to have had Sammy last year.” Said Veach.
The message inside KC is clear: they believe in Sammy Watkins – perhaps more than his former employers, even the franchise who traded up for him, ever have done. The contract and the praise being showered on the receiver speaks to an organisation who is delighted with all aspects of the deal.
The onus is now on Watkins to put his injury problems and inconsistencies behind him and tap into the obvious potential he has – Kansas City is banking on it. Traded up for then trafficked away by Buffalo. Effective if not effervescent in California. The fifth-year pro can repay the faith shown in him and hush the critics who doubt him.
Achieve that, and the deal penned in March will be a bargain from a Chiefs standpoint and Watkins will no longer be at a career crossroads. If not, you know what they say the NFL stands for.
Photograph Copyright: The Kansas City Star