By the end of Monday’s practice, the second of Buffalo Bills training camp, those who had watched Sammy Watkins blow past veteran cornerbacks all day long were joking about getting his bust and blazer ready for Canton.
Which is fine, because a prominent Bills employee also was making such quips.
"I told Andre Reed, ‘You’re going in (the Hall of Fame), so just pass the torch to Sammy before you do,’" Bills general manager Doug Whaley told FOX Sports with a hearty laugh before toning down the praise a bit. "No, it’s promising. He’s a hard worker, it means a lot to him and that’s why you go up to get a guy like that."
The Bills went up four slots to fourth overall in May’s NFL Draft to get Watkins, whom they had rated as the highest player on their board. So far, the returns show that giving up a first-round pick in next year’s draft to get Watkins might have been a big-time bargain.
While he’s yet to take his first professional snap, Watkins has flashed in practice, said all the right things publicly, revealed remarkable character in front of the camera and behind the scenes and showed outstanding work ethic. He might be the complete package and, as he revealed in college, plays much bigger than his listed 6-foot-1, 211 pounds.
During Monday’s practice, Watkins showed that ability to grow bigger than his frame when he went up to grab a pass between three defenders. They all pinballed off him and fell to the ground. Watkins did as well, but only because he’d been poked in the eye. He staggered off to the cheers and then returned to practice, intent on further honing his route-running on this muggy, mid-June day.
"I’ve got the playbook down already," he boasted, though his performance in practice certainly backed up that statement. "It’s just being consistent, knowing the little details to things and just really working against the defense, seeing things faster and doing the right things when you’re tired. When you get tired, that’s when you stop thinking, but once I get in shape, really know defenses and really start watching film, it’ll be better for me."
That’s a frightening thought for opposing cornerbacks because so much of Watkins’ game is about the intangibles: his body positioning, his ability to run after the catch and his power moves to break tackles. Right now he’s playing on instinct and he’s already incorporating some of those veteran-like moves. After getting past corner Leodis McKelvin up the sideline on Monday, Watkins made sure to "stack" on top of McKelvin to make sure he would have the best body position to make the catch.
It was as good a route as any longtime NFL receiver could run, and it was perhaps the result of that extra work he put in during the spring.
"It’s not even about talent at this level; it’s about knowing what you’re doing and when to do it," Watkins said.
Mind you, he’s talking about a level at which he’s yet to play a real game. But he’s so on the money with this line of thinking, so we’ll let him continue.
"That’s the thing I’ve got to learn: when to use this and when to use that. It’s not good to use it all the time," he said of varying his looks for defenders. "Sometimes it’s, ‘Get up the field and get your yards.’ Sometimes you feel like you can break a tackle, stiff arm or change sides of the field. That’s when you can do that stuff."
If Watkins sounds wise beyond his years, it’s because he is. In fact, that’s the very cliché his stepfather used to describe him when the family first met the Bills’ brass following the selection of Watkins.
During that encounter, Watkins’ stepfather told Whaley a story about how Watkins declined a loan from his agent, Tory Dandy, after signing with him. Dandy offered to take Watkins to get a car — any car he wanted. Watkins, per the stepfather’s story, declined.
"When I get drafted and get my money," Watkins said, according to the stepfather, "I’ll get my car."
A personnel guy for more than a decade with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bills, Whaley couldn’t recall hearing a young player make such a statement.
It’s stories like those, and performances like the one Watkins had on Monday, that have this entire franchise giddy. In the midst of a 14-year postseason drought, five years removed from their last season in which they had more than six victories and a month after losing playmaking linebacker Kiko Alonso to a torn ACL, the Bills have plenty of hope.
And Watkins is a major reason why.
"Everybody was like, ‘Well, he’s not a big, 6-5 receiver.’ You just saw him go up and catch one like he’s 6-5," Whaley said. "We firmly believe he plays bigger than his size. We’re comfortable with that and we think he’ll steadily improve and by Day 1 will be ‘The Guy.’"
Whaley was given a chance to clarify or amend that statement. He merely repeated it, this time with even more emphasis.