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Free Agency Roundtable: Sammy Watkins and Patrick Mahomes

Various staff members share their views on Sammy Watkins' fantasy prospects with the Chiefs and his impact on Patrick Mahomes.

Kansas City’s signing of Sammy Watkins to a three-year, $48 million contract has been met with mixed reactions in fantasy circles. Whether Watkins can bounce back to elite WR1 levels or not, adding him to an offense that already includes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt has created lofty expectations for Chiefs second-year quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is currently the 13th quarterback being selected in early MFL best ball drafts and a splashy preseason can easily catapult him inside the top-10.

Are you on board with Mahomes as a starter in 12-team leagues next season?

Jason Wood: My response is colored by being a lifelong Eagles fan and having nearly two decades of experience dealing with Andy Reid as a coach and offensive designer. While I think Reid is a terrific head coach and a reasonably gifted offensive mind, I worry the Chiefs hype train is going to derail this year.

One of the reasons Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill were so valuable in 2017 was thier near-perfect situational opportunity. Everyone else in the receiving corps was below league average. There was no logical justification for the offense to target other players, and Alex Smith is nothing if not a smart decision-maker.

Now you’ve got an added target in Watkins, which to my mind muddies the waters. On top of that, I see a lot of people believing in Patrick Mahomes II. The logic is sound. Reid handpicked Mahomes to replace Smith and then jettisoned Smith in the offseason in spite of another rock solid year offensively. Reid wouldn’t have dumped Smith if he didn’t believe Mahomes could be productive. That’s true.

What’s also true is Andy Reid once felt the same way about Kevin Kolb. Kolb was a hyped young quarterback and Philadelphia fans hoped he could be elite since McNabb was good but never great (in their minds). When Reid traded McNabb, it was to hand the reins to Kolb. Kolb didn’t last long, although it had more to do with concussions and Michael Vick playing out of his mind in 2010 than it was Kolb’s own performance. Either way, my point is Reid is not an infallible quarterback evaluator.

Will Grant: Mahomes is still a giant question mark. Preseason play and practicing with the second team doesn’t compare to regular season games, especially when you’re hyped as the franchise’s savior and the pressure is on. Until he proves himself, I'll let someone else grab him as their QB1 and look to him as part of a committee.

Daniel Simpkins: No offense, Will, but I can’t stand the term “unproven”. There is a point where all players are unproven, but if you spend time analyzing their skill sets and scheme fit before they play, you can establish a reasonable hypothesis of what that player will do. Mahomes is a quarterback who can work well inside and outside the pocket, is very accurate, has great arm strength, and can break the pocket to scramble away from a pass rush. A year of NFL experience before being asked to play is something rookies rarely get these days, but it will likely prove beneficial for an already competent signal caller. To use Sigmund Bloom’s analogy, I believe the offensive pie in Kansas City has grown with Mahomes at quarterback.

Alessandro Miglio: Here's the thing about Mahomes: he's no Alex Smith.

Granted, that sounds ludicrous, but Smith's game could not be more different than Mahomes'. That could be a great thing for Mahomes and the Chiefs, but it's easy to forget how well Smith ran the offense in Kansas City last season, at least until it sputtered towards the end.

Jason is right about Reid and Mahomes. The latter is a gunslinger, for better or worse, and that tells me we are in for some fantasy frustration in 2018. Mahomes is much more palatable as a best-ball candidate -- perhaps why he's being drafted so high in MFL drafts -- than in season-long leagues. He is going to turn the ball over a lot more than Smith did, and it's tough to see him performing as consistently well for long stretches as a second-year player.

Andy Hicks: People fall in love with upside and fail to be realistic. Mahomes has yet to throw an NFL touchdown and facing a week 17 Broncos defense will be a whole lot different than facing a Week 1 NFL defense. The schedule will be key for the Chiefs and Mahomes as he begins his NFL career for real. How will he handle his first bad interception? What about two interceptions in a short period of time? Will he take the short route rather than going for the flashy big play? The Chiefs had an average offensive line in 2017 and at times Alex Smith got this offense out of a jam with his mobility. Will the Chiefs improve their line play and can Mahomes move in and out of the pocket?

Those questions aside, it’s easy to fall in love with Mahomes’ arm and the speed Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins bring to take advantage of it. The problem is the industry hype. Ideally, Mahomes should fall in the QB14-20 range and be allowed to develop as a fantasy option, but in reality, he’s already being drafted ahead of his career curve. Unless he can rush for four or more rushing touchdowns, he is going to struggle to make it as a starting fantasy quarterback in his first year as a starter. But whatever happens, it should be a fun ride. The league is much more fun when a player like Mahomes is successful.

Dan Hindery: I'm completely buying Mahomes ending up a top-12 fantasy quarterback next season. Alex Smith was the fourth-highest scoring fantasy quarterback in 2017 (despite sitting out Week 17). He outscored the 13th-ranked quarterback by 43 points, so Mahomes doesn't even have to equal Smith's production to end up in the top-12. When you take into account how good Mahomes looked both in the preseason and his late-season start against Denver, plus the addition of Sammy Watkins, it is easy to see Mahomes posting similar fantasy production to what Smith did last season.

What do you think of Watkins’ bounce back potential in Kansas City?

Jason Wood: I’m mystified by any Watkins hype. His injury history is problematic, to say the least. The Bills didn’t exercise their fifth-year option on Watkins, in spite of needing playmakers. And the Rams made nary an attempt to keep him after trading for him less than a year ago. I won’t be on Watkins, and frankly, I would be happier to bet on Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill at their ADPs if Watkins were to get injured. If all three are on the field, along with Kareem Hunt, I don’t think there are enough targets to go around.

Will Grant: I’m with Jason. Watkins has always been an over-promise, under-deliver kind of player. His 2.6 catches per game average over the second half of last season was a pretty clear indication he wouldn’t be part of the Rams’ future. If he makes it a full 16 games, how many receptions does he project for given Kelce, Hill and Hunt’s target shares -- 40? Maybe 50 tops? His ceiling can’t be higher than 800 yards. YAWN.

Daniel Simpkins: I’m optimistic the Chiefs will not use him as a field stretcher or decoy option the way the Rams did. The Chiefs have the speedy Hill to stretch defenses. Kelce will continue to rip the seam. Reid has already said that Watkins will play the X receiver, which will still send him down the field at times, but also allow for targets on short and intermediate routes. Top-20 fantasy wide receiver production is back in play for Watkins in this system.

Alessandro Miglio: I'll believe in Watkins once he does something. The Rams had a terrific offense last season, and Watkins was a terrible fantasy option in spite of it. I agree with Daniel that Los Angeles used him poorly, but Watkins has failed to deliver for his fantasy owners since he got into the league. He's got an injury-riddled history, and he's on his third team already. Big contract aside, I see him as the fourth-best fantasy option on his own team, at best.

Andy Hicks: Watkins’ contract is interesting. He is almost certainly guaranteed at least two years with the Chiefs, as his cap hit is over $22 million for the 2019 season. How he develops a rapport with Mahomes during training camp will be interesting. As others have pointed out, he’s a clear health risk and Jared Goff much preferred targeting Robert Woods ahead of Watkins last year. It is hard to have Watkins as anything but a WR2/WR3 at this stage, but he could easily rise in the rankings should he stay fit and click with Mahomes. What happens to Hill's ADP will be fascinating, as he finished 2017 ranked as the WR4.

Dan Hindery: I’m not optimistic about Watkins' chances at fantasy stardom. Andy Reid's offenses typically spread the ball around quite a bit and haven't produced many big fantasy seasons for wide receivers. Tyreek Hill's WR1 season in 2017 was a historical outlier. When looking at all of the options available for Mahomes, I am not sold on Watkins seeing enough targets to be a top-15 fantasy receiver.

Phil Alexander: Watkins' lousy 2017 with the Rams has been mentioned a few times, but wasn't he set up to fail? How many times have we seen big-name wide receivers flop the year after changing teams with the benefit of a full training camp to learn a new system? Watkins only joined the Rams on August 11th last year -- after the preseason had already kicked off -- leaving him zero time to get on the same page with Jared Goff.

If it sounds like I'm making excuses for Watkins -- who, by the way, led the NFL in touchdowns per target last season (minimum 50 targets) -- it's because the potential reward of owning him in 2018 outweighs the risk. Judging by most of my colleagues' responses, I'd guess Watkins enters the season valued as a fringe top-25 wide receiver. Outside of Josh Gordon, how many receivers being drafted in the same range legitimately have a top-10 finish in their range of possible outcomes?

Watkins remains one of only six wide receivers to accumulate at least 2,000 yards in his first two seasons by the age of 22 (Gordon, Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Larry Fitzgerald, and DeAndre Hopkins are the others), and he's only two seasons removed from racking up 900 yards and 7 touchdowns over his final six games in 2015.

A green quarterback, storied injury history, and the surplus of quality pass catchers in Kansas City are understandable concerns, but there are flip sides to each of those arguments:

  • Mahomes (the aforementioned green quarterback) can extend plays with his legs and has undeniable arm talent. He's going to throw deep to Watkins often.
  • In his four seasons, Watkins has failed to play at least 13 games only once. He's not exactly the injury risk he's made out to be.
  • The presence of Kelce, Hill, and Hunt mean opposing defenses can't sell out to eliminate Watkins from the game plan. Perhaps 100 targets are his absolute ceiling, but the quality of those targets ought to be above average.
  • The Chiefs defense finished dead-last in DVOA last season and they don't look any better on paper -- they should lean pass-heavy as a result.

These points and counterpoints highlight Watkins' clear boom/bust potential as a member of the Chiefs. But I'd still be glad to draft him as a WR2 who has the potential to finish in the top 8-12 at his position if things break his way.

Alessandro Miglio: I agree there is always potential with Watkins, but would you agree he's the fourth-best fantasy option in Kansas City, Phil? If so, I would argue the odds he cracks the top-24 at his position are slim. We had five receiver duos crack the top-24 last season out of a possible 32. Two of those were in prolific passing offenses -- Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- and the other three benefited from being top-3 fantasy options on their own teams in Detroit, Minnesota, and Miami.

Phil Alexander: Great point about the difficulty of wide receiver duos cracking the top-24, Alessandro. For Watkins to get there (or higher), a lot rides on Mahomes' readiness, but I'm convinced Kansas City will be involved in lots of shootouts due to their poor defense. As Daniel alluded to, the pie should be larger this year for all their pass catchers.

I see Watkins slightly above Hill in the pecking order for targets. He'll inherit the 10% market share Albert Wilson leaves behind and put a dent in both Hill and Kelce's supply. It wouldn't shock me to see all three receive between 18-22% of the team's targets. Given Watkins' past catch rates and per reception efficiency, there's enough opportunity there for 1,000 yards and 8-10 touchdowns -- similar to A.J. Green's counting stats from a season ago, albeit with fewer receptions. I will concede this is probably the tippy-top of his range of possible outcomes.

BJ Vanderwoude: The Chiefs run a rather simple offense that looks complicated because of all the pre-snap motion that takes place, but regardless of what they do before the snap, the primary receiver never changes. If Kansas City was willing to pay what they did for Watkins, I think Andy Reid will look to create plays for him at about the same rate as Kelce and Hill.

Hill is a touchdown waiting to happen on any play, but if his volume goes down even a little, those big plays do too. If Hill and Watkins end up seeing roughly the same amount of targets, my money is on Watkins being the higher ranked fantasy receiver at year's end. Phil's point about the Kansas City defense makes a lot of sense, and it got me thinking Mahomes may end up having a year similar to Blake Bortles breakout season several years back.

With Mahomes’ willingness to throw the ball downfield, Watkins could end up with some monster games that push him toward the top-15 wide receivers. I agree with Alessandro’s take -- Mahomes is no Alex Smith. But doesn't that impact Hill more than Watkins? I'm convinced Kelce will produce regardless of who is playing quarterback because the Chiefs isolate him as the primary receiver on so many plays, and his route-running chops are as good as any tight end in the league. Hill improved greatly as a wide receiver last season, but his big plays came as a function of perfect timing from Smith. The more I think about it, the more I think Hill could end up being the player that disappoints for Kansas City next season.