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Making the Leap, No. 4: Bills WR Sammy Watkins

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Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status. 

The list continues with No. 4 Sammy Watkins

Why Watkins is on the list


Watkins was billed as the best receiver in the 2014 NFL Draft and set a Bills rookie record with four 100-yard games, yet his first season in Buffalo was still tinged with disappointment.

Between a litany of injuries, the draft's No. 4 overall pick showed the ability to get open with ease on shorter and intermediate routes. Veteran cornerbacks were forced to respect his deep speed on potential shot plays downfield. At peak form, he can blow past corners in and out of breaks and create separation early in his routes.

In just his second pro game, Watkins torched the Dolphins' secondary for 117 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions. The box score would have generated a monstrous line of 10 catches, 182 yards and three scores if not for a canny Brent Grimes strip in the end zone and an errant Manuel pass.

That isn't to single out Manuel. Watkins spent a generous portion of the season hopelessly lunging, leaping, diving and reversing course for Kyle Orton's scattershot passes. In addition to the missed opportunities for big plays and touchdowns, those catch-point adjustments cost Watkins a slew of yards after catch.

The rookie even drew high praise from Bill Belichick for his "Larry Fitzgerald-like" balancing act in Week 5, turning an off-target pass into a game-winning field goal opportunity versus the Lions.

When Orton and Manuel did manage to put the ball on his hands, Watkins was as advertised. The former Clemson star showed dynamic acceleration and lower-body explosion to shed tackles and run away from defenders in the open field. With a running back's build, Watkins excels at the end-arounds, bubble screens, swing passes, slants, crossers and go routes typical of a "Z" receiver.

After a midseason slump due to a variety of reasons including the inability to consistently beat No. 1 cornerbacks and double teams, Watkins started making impressive contested catches in December. The show he put on versus the Broncos in the second half of the Week 14 matchup proved that Watkins has all of the tools to emerge as a true No. 1 receiver in 2015.

Obstacles


New coach Rex Ryan recently hyped Watkins as a "one in every 10-year player that comes down the road." For all of that obvious promise, there are several hurdles in Watkins' path to superstardom.

If he's going to graduate to a bonafide No. 1, go-to threat, he must expand his route tree and show more consistent hands to raise a catch percentage (52.0) that ranked with the league's least productive receivers.

Even if we give Watkins a pass for short-arming a few passes while playing through a painful early-season rib injury, a midseason groin pull and a late-season tear in his hip labrum, he didn't sport the type of catch radius that Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin and Odell Beckham used to bail out their quarterbacks on poor throws.

DeAndre Hopkins played that role at Clemson, precluding Watkins from running the sideline and pylon routes that he still needs to master if he's truly going to become "Fitzgerald-like" in the NFL.

Beyond those factors, there are two beyond Watkins' control.

The Bills' quarterback play was so inept in last month's minicamp that Ryan was compelled to remove his first-team defense. There's no reason to believe Watkins will be corralling accurate tosses in his second season.

Armed with the understanding that his defense is a tremendous advantage and his quarterbacks are an equally tremendous disadvantage, Ryan plans to run a ground 'n' pound, ball-control offense. That will put an artificial cap on Watkins' targets as he competes with Percy Harvin, Robert Woods and Charles Clay in a loaded wide receiver corps.

2015 expectations


If not for the injuries and sub-NFL ball placement from Buffalo's quarterbacks, Watkins would have blown past 1,000 yards as a rookie.

A healthy Watkins can be expected to topple that mark in 2015.

On a run-oriented team with designs on playoff contention, the key will be accomplishing that feat without disappearing for weeks at a time -- as he did last season with nine games of 35 yards or fewer.

The question isn't whether Watkins will produce. It's whether he will emerge as one of the best at his position, ultimately proving worthy of the exorbitant price the Bills paid to trade up for him.

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