Struggling through his second year in the NFL, Sammy Watkins is unhappy with his role in Buffalo. He has made it known that he wants to be used more in the offense and needs the ball thrown his way more often. Watkins is only in his second year in the NFL but it would seem that he already has his eye on his 2nd contract with comments like these. He may have a lot to lose if he can’t get the ball thrown his way more often so let’s examine where he is coming from with his argument.
The Importance of Targets
From a contractual standpoint targets certainly help. The more you are used the more important you are to a team’s offensive philosophy. The more you get targeted the more receiving yards and touchdowns you put up. The more you land on ESPN. The more you land on ESPN the more people begin to talk about how great you are. Eventually it leads to big money.
When we look at the biggest money contracts for players coming off their rookie deals, those players clearly have high usage levels. They had them when they started and they had them when they earned their new extensions.
|Player||1st/2nd Year Tgt||2 Year Before Contract Tgt|
Watkins got the type of targets most of these players received as a rookie with 128. Those numbers would put him in the upper echelon of how these players produced over their first two years. This year he has just 13 targets in his games. That puts him on pace for just about 60 targets this year. Usually receivers grow in usage unless they suffer serious injury so this would not be a good sign for him. Being phased out of an offense doesn’t help you hit the important number which is the targets received in the two years leading up to your contract extension.
Seeing that the Bills just signed Marcell Dareus to a monstrous extension with one year remaining on his contract, Watkins peak contractual performance period needs to be 2016 and 2017. He needs his numbers to be in the 130-140 target per year range to get in the discussion with these others. Though some were lower, those players usually had some injury setback and hit the big numbers when healthy. The wheels for those targets are set in motion now not later.
Offensive System Issues
The other noticeable thing about that list is the quarterback that most of these players played with- Rodgers, the Mannings, Romo, Roethlisberger, Ryan, etc…In general most played with top tier players who were going to put the ball where they needed it and let the stats explode. It is far more work to do it with the likes of Tyrod Taylor and EJ Manuel, especially in the system that Rex Ryan would likely run.
When you look at Ryan’s short tenure with the Bills it has played out very similar to his longer stint coaching the Jets. It is a high emphasis put on a defense and high emphasis put on telling the offense to “not screw it up”. It’s not a system designed to inflate the stats, and worth, of receivers.
In Ryan’s six year’s coaching the Jets the highest number of targets that ever went to one receiver was 115, which came in 2014 with Eric Decker. The only other players to get over 100 were Braylon Edwards in 2010 and Santonio Holmes in 2011. He never produced one 1,000 yard receiver in his entire tenure. Sure the QB was bad, but plenty of teams have bad quarterbacks that have a receiver who puts up 1,000 yards, especially in a six year stretch and it’s not like the QB play is any better in Buffalo.
The Perception Problem
The goal of any receiver is to be considered a “number 1” when it comes to contract negotiations. Players that have that perception earn far more than the players who receive the “number 1A” type distinction, even if the results on the field may state differently. When you play with a below average QB getting targeted can shift the blame, even if your stats underachieve the draft status you carry, from receiver to QB.
How often do we hear “this guy is great if only he had a quarterback”. Dwayne Bowe used that logic to nail down a huge contract with the Chiefs who went out and upgraded the QB only to find Bowe was pretty much the same guy whether playing with Matt Cassel, Brady Quinn or Alex Smith. But people didn’t harp on Bowe’s flaws because he was being utilized and while his yardage and efficiency number were dropping the blame was placed on the QB. His importance during the down years to the KC offense couldn’t be understated. When they threw it was coming to him. So he got paid and the Chiefs regretted it as soon as he took the field with a new contract. But had he simply never gotten the ball he never would have received that contract that looks so foolish in hindsight.
The opposite situation played out with Michael Crabtree in San Francisco. The former 10th overall pick more or less saw his numbers max out around 100 targets a season and his production declined overall. He was not as effective as the much older Anquan Boldin and his importance to the 49ers was considered minimal. They certainly make no real attempt to re-sign him and Crabtree was looked upon as damaged goods. He had to settle for a one year deal from the Raiders to salvage his career. You will never change the perception of you ceiling if your team doesn’t use you enough.
The Bust Label
While being a top draft pick being great rewards when you are successful it also brings the added pressure of avoiding the bust label. The bust label is going to happen when teams decide to limit your use in the offense. At the least, a highly drafted wide receiver, in my opinion, needs a few seasons around 1,000 yards or one year well above and the others in the 800-900 range to avoid the bust tag. Watkins had that last year with 982 yards simply because of how often he was thrown at. This year he is on pace for under 500 yards because he isn’t being thrown at. 500 yards would clearly bring on the start of the bust label, especially considering the Bills gave up so much in a trade to get him. A season under 500 yards, unless shut down for injury, requires something special over the next two years to recover from its impact. With the offense that they run and QB they have it might be near impossible to have that season in Buffalo. Quite frankly he needs to find a way to back into 800 yards this year.
Darrius Heyward Bey saw that happen in Oakland. He struggled coming out of the gate and by his 4th year had become just a name in the offense. While he peaked with 975 yards, his other three rookie contract seasons went for 124, 366, and 606 yards. He’s gone on to a series of low value one year contracts to stay in the NFL. How different would things have been if he could have forced his way into 130 targets a year? If he had the same efficiency, he would have produced 730, 1100, and 985 yards and at the least gotten a $4 millionish type of contract and maybe more considering his draft status. But instead he was a bust. Watkins could be on that same path.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.