PITTSFORD – Sammy Watkins was walking toward the sideline Wednesday after his fourth day of training camp when he stopped, took off his cleats and headed for the locker room in his socks. Apparently, he really is serious about keeping his feet on the ground in the NFL. Watkins is acutely aware that he’s become the rage in the first few days of Bills’ camp. The steady hum is getting louder and extending beyond St. John Fisher College. He’s even heard from family, friends and former teammates who already are touting him as the next Offensive Rookie of the Year.
He dismissed praise Wednesday and explained that he’s been on a pedestal since he was in high school. He made sure to say that he hasn’t taken a single snap in an NFL game. He made it clear attention was premature and unwarranted, a product of the Bills trading up and selecting him fourth overall.
“You’re going to hear that type of buzz – first-round, fourth pick,” Watkins said. “My job is to come out here and work every day, to be competitive. That’s what I’ve been doing. It’s funny. You hear all that stuff, but I just have to keep working. I can’t listen to outside factors. What I do on the field is all that matters.”
Fair enough, but Watkins hasn’t just been the Bills’ top rookie in the first week of training camp. He hasn’t simply been their top receiver, either. The former Clemson star was their best player through four days. He has shown all the talent to become an elite NFL receiver, the kind a franchise can build around.
Yes, he’s been that good.
Watkins caught nearly everything in sight in the first week while taking turns burning established NFL veteran cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore. He made a terrific touchdown catch between McKelvin and safety Aaron Williams during 7-on-7 drills Wednesday.
And that was after he made the catch of training camp. Watkins was running a simple post pattern without anyone covering him when he stumbled after making his break. It appeared he was headed for the turf when he regained his footing, kept his composure, stuck out his right arm and made a one-handed grab as if he were catching a Frisbee. “I understand that he hasn’t played a down yet, but I see him every day and the way he goes out and makes plays,” Williams said. “There are certain balls that you don’t think he can get, and all of sudden he one-hands it. It’s things like that. We know he’s going to be a special player.”
Perhaps most appealing is that Watkins carries himself like he’s nothing special, as if he’s about to get cut. He’s humble. He keeps his mouth shut and his ears open. He profusely praised the Bills’ veteran defensive backs Wednesday for teaching him lessons this week when really it looked like the opposite.
In an age in which too many players come off like entitled crybabies, he has been a refreshing change. He celebrated his 21st birthday last month yet acts 10 years older. There’s a sense he’ll quickly assume a leadership role. Who knows? Maybe he can teach Marcell Dareus how to carry himself like a professional.
It’s not to suggest Watkins lacks confidence. He’s aware of his talent, but it comes with a healthy touch of insecurity. He didn’t make a peep the other day when he was ordered to carry a veteran’s equipment into the locker room, a rite of passage for rookies. You would think he was the fourth-last pick, not fourth overall
“I need to find a way for them to keep me another day,” Watkins said. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s been my approach my whole career.”
Watkins could be the best receiver in NFL history, and it’s not going to matter unless EJ Manuel can get him the ball. Questions remain about Manuel, who at times looked out of sorts in the first week despite having more talent around him than he had last season.
It starts with Watkins and his ability to create separation and consistently win battles. He has terrific outside speed. He’s physical and has very strong hands. He didn’t drop his first pass until Wednesday. It seems the only player who hasn’t been overly impressed with Sammy Watkins is Sammy Watkins.
How good is he?
Doug Marrone knew the kid could play before the Bills traded up to take him. He studied Watkins on video. He liked what he saw in rookie camp and organized team activities. Marrone thought Watkins would be a very good player before seeing him on the field at St. John Fisher.
Marrone has since changed his mind. “He has performed better than I would have expected,” Marrone said. “I say that because I don’t think I appreciated the maturity of the kid. When you look at that, you can understand why he’s performing the way he is. I give credit to his parents, I really do, and the people that have been around him. I met his parents. They’re great people. They’ve kept his head on straight. He’s a very humble kid.”
And he’s keeping his feet on the ground.