It didn’t matter where the ball was thrown Saturday.
Sammy Watkins was there to catch it.
The Buffalo Bills’ first-round draft pick more than looked the part on the first day of the team’s rookie minicamp.
“He’s smooth,” said Bills coach Doug Marrone, confirming the sentiment shared among the untrained eyes of every media member in attendance. “He’s not a herky-jerky coming out of his cuts type of guy. He’s a smooth guy coming in and out. That’s what makes him a very good receiver. … You like the way he catches it.”
Marrone then flashed a trace of a smile, seeming to indicate Watkins had passed the coach’s eyeball test after one practice.
“He’s a first-round draft pick,” Marrone said. “If he came out here and dropped five balls and fell down five to 10 times, we’d be pissed and crying.”
There was none of that after Watkins snagged everything in his area code. Passes from tryout quarterback Kenny Guiton might have been low … or high … or behind him, and each time, Watkins pulled it out of the air with ease.
“Anybody throwing the ball, my job is to run the route, have the proper yardage, have the proper depth … and catch the ball,” Watkins said. “Wherever the ball’s at, if my hand touches it, I’ve got to catch it.”
Saturday’s practice was just the start of a long process. There are organized team activities to get through and a mandatory minicamp, followed by the grind of training camp and five exhibition games before the Bills open the regular season in Chicago.
But it was easy to see Saturday why Watkins captures the imagination. Given the dear price the Bills paid to move up and draft him (a 2015 first-round pick) and the decision to trade veteran Stevie Johnson the following day, much will be expected of Watkins.
The fourth overall pick embraces the expectations.
“For me, I’ve got to work a little harder than everybody else. Everybody expects me to be this 1,000-yard receiver. That’s what I’ve got to work toward,” he said. “It’s no pressure. I’ve been doing this all my life. I’ve got unbelievable faith in myself and this team, and my coaches, to get me prepared.”
Perhaps in an effort to take some of that pressure off Watkins, Marrone acted like it wasn’t there.
“When people talk about production … this guy can do this and this guy can do that – that doesn’t mean much to me,” he said. “What means a lot to me is when we can get 11 guys on that field and be executing on a high level on offense, a high level on defense and a high level on special teams and win. We’re bringing guys in here to win.
“Whether they catch two balls, 10 balls, I don’t really care. At the end of the day, all I care about is if we win. … I’m not into the individual stuff and everything like that. I talked to the team about it; the one thing I’m into is winning. I don’t want to curse, but we’re going to win.”
Watkins said that message has been made perfectly clear.
“It’s everything on the line. That’s not just with me, that’s with the whole team, with the coaches, everybody,” he said. “We’ve got to win now. We can’t wait a year or two from now. That’s what he’s trying to preach today. We’ve got to win now. … That’s why we out here every day grinding to get better.”
Watkins has noticed an improvement in his game just one week into his professional career.
“I wasn’t like this at Clemson. I came in here in one or two days and I learned immediately how important it was to get out of your routes and how important it was to not be chattering too much, to get your depth, keep your eyes up,” he said. “That’s the perks of the NFL. You learn more. You’ve got smarter guys here. Guys that teach you details. That’s what it’s about on Sundays – details.”
If Watkins was a Ferrari at Clemson, the Tigers utilized him by mashing on the gas pedal. He won with his speed and quickness.
The Bills need to harness that horsepower with precision handling.
“Now it’s more being detailed, being a route runner,” Watkins said.
To that end, he spent a portion of practice chatting with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
“They trust and believe in me to come up five picks” to draft me. “That’s why I trust in them to teach me the plays,” Watkins said. “It takes accountability for me to do what I have to do to learn the playbook, get down with the offensive guys and get everything off on the right foot. That’s what I’ve been trying to do since I’ve been here.
“As an athlete you have to love the grind,” he continued. “You have to love what it takes to be great. This is what it takes, being out here every day and getting coached up and competing with the guys that you’re playing with.”
Watkins paid a visit earlier in the week to Bills legend Jim Kelly as the Hall of Fame quarterback continues his fight against cancer.
“It was a great experience,” Watkins said. “He’s a strong guy. I see a guy that’s fighting every day. A guy that’s positive, not negative. … He looks great to me.”
Watkins said if he’s in town, he’d be happy to volunteer at Kelly’s summer football camp. As far as positive first impressions in the community go, Watkins has looked good there, too.
“He means a lot. I see that he’s everywhere around here,” Watkins said of Kelly. “He’s the quarterback of this franchise. … I talked to him when I was there and he just gave me a lot of wisdom and encouragement of being in Buffalo and all the perks of being a Buffalo Bill. I can’t thank him enough.”
The Bills on Saturday signed their third-round draft choice, Louisville linebacker Preston Brown, to a four-year contract.
Brown started all 12 games in 2013 and led the Cardinals’ defense with 98 tackles and a career-best 4.5 sacks. The 6-foot-1, 251-pounder became just the 12th player in school history to lead the team in tackles in multiple seasons.
Brown is the fourth of Buffalo’s seven draft picks to sign.