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Guest Post: Adam Harstad on Sammy Watkins

Today’s guest post comes from Adam Harstad, a co-writer of mine at Footballguys.com. You can follow Adam on twitter at @AdamHarstad.

It’s probably not really news at this point, but the 2014 WR class has been pretty good. How good?

Well, Jarvis Landry just broke the old record for receptions through two seasons… by 26 grabs. Jordan Matthews joined the short-list of receivers to top 800 yards and 8 touchdowns in each of their first two seasons, (a list which, since the merger, contained just five names prior to last year). Mike Evans joined Randy Moss and Josh Gordon as the only players in history with 2200 receiving yards through their age 22 season.

Allen Robinson just became the youngest player to top 1400 yards and 14 touchdowns in the same year. And 2nd-4th on that list? Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, and Lance Alworth.) Outside of the first two years of the AFL, no undrafted receiver in history has produced more yards or touchdowns in his first two years than Robinson’s teammate, Allen Hurns.

Young Brandin Cooks, viewed by some as a disappointment compared to his prolific classmates, has more yards per game through his age-22 season than 49 of the 53 receivers who entered the league at age 21 prior to that magical 2014 draft. The four receivers sitting right behind him on that list are Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins, Percy Harvin, and Jeremy Maclin— not bad company to keep. And I haven’t even yet mentioned John Brown, or Martavis Bryant, or Kelvin Benjamin, or Donte Moncrief.

Nor have I mentioned perhaps the most spectacular performance of them all, a 22-year-old receiver who, after an injury-marred start to his season, put together one of the greatest 9-game runs to close out a season the league has ever seen, regardless of age or experience.

And I haven’t mentioned Odell Beckham Jr. yet, either.

Sammy Watkins’ 2015 Season Was Better Than It Seemed

Watkins’ year got off to an inauspicious start, as he was held without a reception, (on just three targets), in Buffalo’s season-opening win over Indianapolis. Watkins had 6 catches for 60 yards and a touchdown against New England in week 2, but then strained his calf in the first quarter of week 3, an injury that held him out of weeks 4 and 5, as well.

Leading up to a week 6 game against the Bengals, Watkins took to the media to express dissatisfaction with his usage, saying “When I have one-on-one coverage, go to me. I don’t care what’s going on over there. I don’t care if he’s open. When I get one on one, just target me.” Watkins suggested the Bills should be targeting him at least ten times per game.

In week 6, Buffalo was on track to meet his demands, giving him 5 first-half targets. Watkins responded with 4 catches for 48 yards and a touchdown to end the half. Unfortunately, he injured his ankle on that touchdown, an injury that kept him out of the lineup in week 7 as well in preparation for Buffalo’s week 8 bye.

By the time Buffalo was kicking off week 9 of the NFL season against the Miami Dolphins, Watkins’ season had been a total disappointment. His team had played seven games, and Watkins only had 11 receptions, 147 receiving yards, and 2 touchdowns. But from that point on, everything changed.

In a 33-17 thrashing of the Miami Dolphins, Watkins was the Bills’ entire passing offense. He totaled 8 receptions, 168 yards, and 1 touchdown on an afternoon where his team only attempted 12 passes and only had 154 net passing yards. (Yes, thanks to sacks, Watkins finished the day with more yards receiving than his team had passing.)

Watkins, it turns out, was just getting warmed up. Over the final nine games of the season he had 49 receptions, 900 yards, and 7 touchdowns despite a run-heavy gameplan and sometimes spotty quarterback play. During that stretch he repeatedly burned Darrelle Revis as the Buffalo Bills handed their rival Jets a pair of 22-17 losses to keep them out of the playoffs.1

If those totals sound high, it’s because they are; only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham had more yards than Watkins in their teams’ final nine games. Watkins’ 11.54 yards per target over that stretch paced the NFL. (Watkins’ 10.91 yards per target over the full season was also the best mark in the league.)2

No Really, It Was MUCH Better Than It Seemed

So Watkins had a very productive run to end the year, but it seems a bit silly to compare it to Odell Beckham’s scorched-earth run to end 2014, no? After all, while 900 yards and 7 touchdowns are impressive 9-game totals, Beckham’s 81 catches, 1199 receiving yards, and 9 touchdowns3 in nine games are practically unfathomable.

On the surface, that’s undoubtedly true, but we must consider context as well. Even ignoring the difference at quarterback, the 2014 New York Giants were a pass-heavy offense, while the 2015 Buffalo Bills were a run-first team.

How pass-heavy? How run-first? Over the last two years, there have been 64 different “team-seasons”. Of those 64 team-seasons, only two featured more pass attempts over the final 9 games of the year than the Giants’ 377 in 2014. On the complete other end of the spectrum, only one team threw fewer passes over the final nine games of the season than the 2015 Bills’ 243. That’s a massive difference.

How massive? Consider: Odell Beckham’s unfathomable 1199 receiving yards represented 43.8% of New York’s total gross passing yards during that stretch. Which is crazy! For comparison, DeAndre Hopkins led the league in 2014 with 35.0% of his team’s gross passing yards. Watkins, though, produced 49.3% of Buffalo’s gross passing yardage over the final nine games of the season. He was just 26 yards shy of being literally half of Buffalo’s entire passing game.4

Not a “percentage of gross team passing yards” fan? We could always try comparing with another old Football Perspective favorite, Adjusted Catch Yards per Team Pass Attempt5, (or, as I like to call it, the ever-catchy “ACY/TPA”). Beckham had 1199 receiving yards, plus 9 touchdowns, plus an additional 40 first downs that did not result in touchdowns, leaving him with 1739 ACY, or 4.44 ACY/TPA. Which is… well, look, I don’t need to keep saying how crazy these numbers are, do I? Again, for context, Antonio Brown’s league-leading mark in 2014 was 4.07 ACY/TPA.6 Sammy Watkins, on the other hand, had 900 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns, and 29 other first downs that did not result in touchdowns, for a total ACY of 1301 ACY. That doesn’t look quite as crazy, but remember the massive team pass attempt differential; Watkins’ ACY/TPA comes out to a whopping 4.91.

These statistics are incredibly impressive, but I’m still not sure they’re the best way to compare two players when the volume differential is this massive. Thankfully, Football Perspective offers us a third option that seems perhaps a better fit. In 2013, Chase Stuart and Neil Paine asked “how many extra receiving yards should come on extra passes?” Using three different approaches, they found that an increase in team pass attempts historically corresponded to a roughly 50%-as-large increase in individual receiving yards.

So let’s look at the two seasons through that prism. Beckham’s Giants threw 377 passes over the final nine games of 2014, which was 18.8% more than the league average of 317.4 over the last two years. This suggests that Beckham’s statistics were 9.4% higher than we would expect them to be on a team with a “typical” number of pass attempts. Applying this, Beckham’s adjusted receiving numbers would be 74/1096/8.

Those are still some ridiculous totals. But how do they compare to Watkins’ adjusted numbers? Watkins’ Bills passed just 243 times in their final nine games, a total 23.4% below the league average. This suggests that Watkins’ statistics were 11.7% lower than we would expect them to be on a team with a “typical” number of passing attempts. Applying this, Watkins’ adjusted receiving numbers would be 55/1005/8. Beckham still has the edge7, but I would wager that’s a heck of a lot closer than anyone would have guessed at the start of this post.8

Regardless of what the statistics say— and as you can see, some favor Watkins while others favor Beckham— I don’t mean to argue that one receiver was “more” exceptional than the other. Both went on the kind of 9-game hot streaks we’re unaccustomed to seeing even from seasoned all-pros, let alone inexperienced 22-year-olds. But because of the run-heavy nature of his team, (and, some would argue, the smaller market in which he plays), Watkins season doesn’t seem to get anything close to the recognition that Beckham’s earned.

Which is a shame, because the fact that this is even a conversation suggests to me that Sammy Watkins’ 2015 season was much, much better than it seemed.

  1. Sorry, Chase. []
  2. Yards per target is often considered an efficiency stat comparable to a quarterback’s yards per attempt, but in practice it shows a huge bias towards deep threats like Watkins. Regardless, 11.54 is a really, really high number over a 78-target sample. If you prefer something that is more of a “true” efficiency stat and not biased towards deep receivers, Watkins ranked 5th in Pro Football Focus’ “Yards per Route Run” stat over the full season. []
  3. Plus 22 yards rushing. []
  4. I use gross passing yards instead of net because it doesn’t seem fair to me to penalize an individual receiver for his quarterback’s sacks, but it’s worth noting that net further favors Watkins; Beckham accounted for 45.4% of New York’s net passing yards, while Watkins accounted for 52.5% of Buffalo’s net. []
  5. Including sacks this time, which winds up aiding Beckham in the comparison. []
  6. Next week, Chase is updating this for the 2015 season; Brown finished atop the NFL in this category again, this time at 4.33. []
  7. Including in receiving first downs, where Beckham’s 49 and Watkins’ 36 “adjust” to 45 and 40, respectively. []
  8. It was certainly a heck of a lot closer than I would have guessed at the start of this post. []