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Bills' Sammy Watkins just beginning to evolve

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Before they agreed to mortgage their future for Sammy Watkins, the Buffalo Bills tried to find a flaw.

During their digging process, though, which expectedly included interviews with members of Clemson's coaching staff and those close to Watkins at home, they only heard more reasons to spend two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to nab the most dynamic player in the draft.

But one story they heard in particular, one that could have very well pushed them over the edge, not only helped define Watson's intelligence, but also foreshadowed his game-winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday -- a quick 2-yard pylon route that beat the Vikings and secured second place for the surprisingly-resilient Bills.

Jeff Scott, the Tigers' wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator, relayed the tale to Around The NFL in a recent phone conversation:

"It was his true freshman year and we're playing Florida State at home in a big-time battle. He came to the sideline after the third offensive series and told myself and offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, he said, 'We're finally getting man coverage every time it's third-and-medium, we need to run the slant-and-go.'

"Because they'd already seen enough video on Sammy over his first two games, they didn't really want to run man coverage against him, but Sammy noticed on his third series when he was getting man coverage and why. So sure enough, the next series, we get down to a third-and-4, we call a slant-and-go and hit Sammy for the touchdown. As a coach, I'm like, 'Wow, that's a true freshman.' That's kind of when we knew."

Despite his gaudy numbers, more than 40 percent of Watkins' 240 collegiate receptions came on spot screens or quick screens, mostly due to the fact that it was the easiest way to get Watkins the ball when facing so much off coverage.

Watkins always had a prolific football mind, but a team concerned with giving up a pair of first-round picks needed to know for sure. The Bills needed to know that he could see the game as an elite receiver and expand his route tree against elite cornerbacks.

They needed to know that Watkins was not just the product of a Clemson offense that was clearly superior talent-wise to the other schools in the ACC, which is exactly what Scott was able to illustrate.

He was also able to show Buffalo that Watkins was ready for something subtle, but surprising like he did against the Vikings on his game-winning touchdown route.

Scouts noticed that a majority of Watkins' non-screen routes at Clemson were breaks toward the field. DeAndre Hopkins, now with the Houston Texans, ran almost all the routes that ended near a sideline or pylon. Both are in the repertoire of a complete receiver, but pass-catchers can sometimes specialize.

"With what we did offensively, we wanted Sammy to the field and he ran those really well. Hopkins had the great ball skills and could win the one-on-one matchups on the boundary," Scott said.

It wasn't that Watkins couldn't run sideline, corner or pylon routes well, it's just that he wasn't asked to, and he might have had less practice at the footwork. It was a detail that the Vikings undoubtedly knew coming into the game.

But Watkins ran the pylon perfectly, which, once again, highlighted his makeup. There is little he can't do, and through seven games he has more receiving yards than any rookie outside of Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers. He's also thriving with a combination of EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton at quarterback.

Scott has seen this coming for years. His father, Brad, recruited Sammy out of high school and still remembers the first he's ever heard of the legend: Watkins scored on his first-ever high school play, a kick return. He scored the first time he touched the ball in college, too.

The only thing that surprised Scott was that he didn't do the same in Buffalo, which he was almost willing to place a bet on.

"Where he really had to develop in his career at Clemson, and even in Buffalo, was at being a complete receiver and being able to run all the different routes in the route tree and not just be a guy who gets a quick screen and makes guys miss. And I think that's what the touchdown route, that's a great example of him going to the next level. He didn't do that here at Clemson."

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Week 7 game and breaks down Peyton Manning's record-breaking night. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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