Why Watkins is on the list
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.