It’s not the most loaded class of its kind, but the free agent wide receiver class of 2018 still has some big names to keep in mind. These include Allen Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Albert Wilson of the Kansas City Chiefs, Paul Richardson of the Seattle Seahawks, Taylor Gabriel of the Atlanta Falcons, Adam Humphries of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Marqise Lee of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Sammy Watkins of the Los Angeles Rams.
And it just so happens that the Tennessee Titans could use a wide receiver.
Sammy Watkins, 24, is one of the more hyped receivers of this free agency class. For casual fans that have checked out a boxscore stat sheet, this may come as a surprise. In his lone season with the Rams, Watkins only had 39 catches for 593 yards. He did, however, manage to put up eight touchdowns and 15.2 yards per reception, but wouldn’t his raw stats suggest he’s not that good of a receiver?
Actually, there’s more to it. When watching Watkins, I noticed there wasn’t a decline in athleticism that one would expect from a receiver who put up under 600 yards of receiving and made less than 40 catches. As a matter of fact, two major circumstances greatly impacted how limited his statistical performances were.
First, Rams quarterback Jared Goff could not stop missing him.
In 2017, Watkins was paired with an inaccurate downfield passer in Goff. Goff may be a Pro Bowl quarterback who had improved in his sophomore season, but he was largely carried by an outrageous supporting cast, including head coach Sean McVay, Todd Gurley, Watkins, Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everrett, Cooper Kuup, and a strong offensive line. Receivers were constantly open thanks to McVay’s heavy use of play action and run pass option plays, so Goff wasn’t asked to make difficult throws.
Even then, Goff’s accuracy on throws of 16+ air yards was 43.9%. In the offseason I regularly do The Deep Ball Project, where I study quarterbacks throwing downfield, and Goff’s percentile would’ve ranked 25th if it were charted for the 2016-17 edition.
Needless to say, this showed up regularly when Goff was throwing to #12.
The separation created on this play is phenomenal. It’s against Cover 1 (Notice how the high safety is guarding part of the field instead of a player like in man coverage) and Patrick Peterson is lined up against Watkins. Watkins gets ahead of Peterson by cutting inside, then catching the corner off-guard with a fake crossing route. He manages to get wide open and unfortunately is missed by his Goff.
You’d like see this route on social media if Goff was even close to throwing an accurate pass, but that wasn’t the case.
On this play, the Rams are faced against a Cover 1 Robber defense, meaning all the underneath routes are covered. Watkins is able to cut inside then jets back outside, leaving safety P.J. Williams in the dust and giving Goff an open receiver. Goff does not have the massive arm talent needed to make this pass work, as it is grossly underthrown and tips off Watkins’ hand as he tries to make a play, leading to Williams picking it off.
Even though his hand tipped the ball to the safety, the interception isn’t on Watkins. It’s on Goff for wasting a play where his receiver created enough separation to fit a perfectly thrown ball into.
To put more of an emphasis on how screwed Watkins was, Goff was only accurate on six of 20 passes to him on throws of 16+ air yards. 30% of Goff’s throws to this area or more were accurate, which is horrible.
Unfortunately, this has been the case for Watkins all of 2017. He’s consistently creating separation and yet still gets the short end of the stick from his quarterback. His low numbers aren’t a reflection of his quality.
The second circumstance that prevented Watkins from obtaining big numbers was how Sean McVay was generally using him.
When he was the offensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins from 2014-2016, McVay would use famed downfield receiver DeSean Jackson to create space for other receivers. McVay understood how much defenses feared Jackson, and even when he wasn’t the main target, he was able to attract defenders to him and leave other receivers uncovered.
Last season, McVay used Watkins the exact same way.
On this play, the Giants’ linebackers are playing zone coverage, and Watkins, positioned next to Cooper Kuup, is assigned to a simple shallow crossing route. He stops on the middle right of the field, attracting a swarm of defensive backs. This leaves Kuup, running a deeper crossing route, completely uncovered, allowing Goff to find him on the run and set up a huge 35-yard pass play.
Watkins obviously wasn’t the main target on this play, but his diversion was mainly responsible for Kupp being so wide open, and he’s been frequently used to do such by McVay. It explains why Watkins didn’t have the statistical impact fans expected from him.
But now you’re probably wondering where the explosive plays are, and I’ve got great news for you: This is the part where those come into play. Despite sustaining numerous injuries throughout his career (including a broken foot in 2016), none of them have been able to slow down the incredible athleticism of Sammy Watkins.
When he’s healthy, Watkins is one of the absolute best vertical receivers in the league. His route running, raw speed, and strong hands make him an absolute monster as a possession receiver and a straight up downfield threat.
On this play, McVay calls for a simple, 2 WR combination on play action. The misdirection provided by the offensive line causes the Giants to bite on the play fake. The secondary realizes this a moment too soon, as Watkins has already snuck by them. Now all he needs to do is go full throttle, so he turns on the jets once he sees Goff is bombing to him. The result is an easy touchdown and a rare downfield completion to Watkins, one that highlights his raw speed as a receiver.
When it comes to contested catches, Watkins is no slouch. He burns his man on this play with little sweat, and outruns the secondary help as well. The pass from Goff is catchable, but requires the receiver to make an adjustment. Watkins is able to look up, locate the ball, and pull it down for the explosive play. It’s an awkward adjustment to make, but Watkins is able to make this look natural.
That’s another thing: Watkins is such a natural, fluid receiver. Of course, we say that about any great receiver, but it’s especially impressive for Watkins given his injury history.
It’s an route for Watkins on this play. He cuts on a dime, then stops when he notices Goff is throwing in his direction. The reaction time has to be quick, and Watkins showcases that, maintaining his balance, grabbing the ball, hauling it in to secure it from a defender’s grasp, then turns and picks up a couple yards after the catch. It’s a simple throw and play, but Watkins executes it so smoothly and it’s very pleasing to the eyes.
Watkins even lends himself to being a threat for yards after the catch thanks to his spatial awareness and quick cuts, such as on the play below.
Sammy Watkins would be an excellent signing by the Titans. Not only would he give them an exceptionally talented vertical pass catcher, but he would also be a valuable mentor to guys like Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor. His connection with offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur could additionally draw him to Nashville.
Furthermore, he’s the best wide receiver in this free agency class. Allen Robinson is an incredible player at full health, but he’ll likely be tagged or extended by the Jaguars, and is coming off an ACL tear. Watkins’ skill set and vertical abilities are both better and more versatile than guys like Albert Wilson, Taylor Gabriel and Paul Richardson.
In conclusion, Watkins is a game changing wide receiver when he’s on the field. Defenses fear him, and when he’s getting swarmed by defenders, he’s drawing their attention to him and allowing other receivers to run uncovered. When he’s facing off against man coverage, he has proven how explosive he is on big plays and how easily he can create separation. Watkins is everything you want in a vertical receiver and then some.
Now all he needs is an accurate quarterback.