Workhorse Watkins a concern for Vikings

No skill player is on the field as much as Sammy Watkins, which is surprising because of his rookie status. Vikings defenders talk glowingly about Watkins.

The Buffalo Bills, for the most part, are one of the most anonymous franchises in NFL. In the most far-reaching sport in the world, the Bills are a team that, by and large, most football fans never see.

Buffalo hasn’t won double-digit games since the last century. Since 2001, the Bills have lost 10 or more games eight times. They haven’t had a winning season since 2004. They’ve lost 10 or more games in each of the last five.

The Bills are looking to change that malaise and nobody is more front and center to that than rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

In May, the Bills sounded a blast across the bow of the 2014 draft, trading the ninth pick in that draft and a first- and fourth-round pick in next year’s draft – a steep price considering the ninth pick in the 2014 draft was seen as a premium pick and, given the Bills history, their first-round pick next year could be pretty high.

The Bills already had speed players, but Watkins was a talent they felt they couldn’t do without. Asked what is the most imposing part of the Bills offense, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who will be assigned to chasing down the Buffalo player with the ball on Sunday, said it’s quite simple and obvious.

“Their speed,” Munnerlyn said. “They’ve definitely got speed. They’ve got C.J. Spiller, Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods. They’ve got a lot of guys on their team that can play. They can play some good football. We’ve just to contain those guys and make plays.”

But the focus is on Watkins – and rightfully so. He has helped make the Bills offense multi-dimensional, despite having less-than-ideal quarterback play. The Bills took a risk, but in the sixth game of his career, Watkins got an invitation to go to Revis Island when Buffalo played the Patriots – their primary rival, if you consider a 2-21 record in the last 23 games a rivalry.

As Munnerlyn watched the game tape, he was impressed with what he saw from a kid in just his sixth NFL game going up against the pre-eminent cornerback in the NFL.

“He’s fast,” Munnerlyn said. “I was watching him last week when Darrelle Revis was playing him. He made a couple of great catches on Revis and we know the type of player Darrelle Revis is. He’s very explosive. He’s got good feet and he’s got great hands. You have just to stay on top of him and compete with him.”

To understand the impact Watkins is having on the Bills offense is to understand how important he is to the game plan. The only players that have taken more snaps on offense than Watkins are four offensive linemen.

The Buffalo offense has run 404 plays this season. Watkins has been on the field for 390 of them – 97 percent. Of the 14 plays he wasn’t involved in, nine of them were at the end of a 23-10 win over Miami when he wasn’t needed. In the other five games – two wins and three losses – he has not been on the field for a combined total of five plays. And three of those were in Week 1.

As Vikings defenders watch game film on the Bills, the only constant is that Watkins is always on the field. Asked if that surprised him, Munnerlyn responded that he’s earned his playing time.

“I’m not surprised,” Munnerlyn said. “He’s a first-round pick. He deserves to stay out there. I’m not surprised at all, because you can tell he’s going to be a great receiver in this league. He’s got all the tools – he’s big, he’s fast, he’s physical and he works hard.”

Rookie wide receivers taken in the first round energize an offense. Cordarrelle Patterson did that for the Vikings last year. But he did it incrementally. His playing time increased slowly, but steadily. That’s not the case with Watkins. He’s on the field at all times and, as safety Harrison Smith explained, he’s not viewed as a rookie.

“He’s a very talented kid,” Smith said. “We’re not treating him any different than we would a veteran wide receiver because he plays like one.”

Before anyone gets the misconception that he’s diva receiver that has become all rage in the NFL, Munnerlyn has seen on tape that he’s just as dangerous when he is being targeted as when he knows he’s not – a rare skill for a receiver with such a short professional résumé.

“I’m impressed with his run blocks,” Munnerlyn said. “He comes off the ball every single play likes he’s getting the ball and it can be a run. Sometimes receiver get lackadaisical, just come off like, ‘I’m not getting the ball.’ Not him. He comes off the ball every single play and he competes.”

As the Vikings defense prepares to take on the Buffalo offense, nearly every second of iPad footage includes Watkins. That rarely happens when you look at a rookie – much less a rookie scarcely more than a month into his professional career. Make no mistake. When the Vikings defensive backs have been meeting this week, Watkins is Priority No. 1.

“It seems like he’s pretty comfortable doing what he’s asked to do,” Smith said. “He’s making plays.”

It typically takes a third season for even the best of college players to become “The Man” in the NFL. As far as Buffalo is concerned, there’s no questioning that Watkins is “The Man” and the component piece at wide receiver that is expected to help pull Buffalo out of the mire of being more of a factor in April and May than in November and December.

Suffice it to say, if Watkins burns the Vikings defense on Sunday, it won’t be because they weren’t prepared for him.

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