When the Chiefs signed Sammy Watkins to a three-year, $48 million contract in 2018, it was expected he would have a larger role in the offense than he’s had, at least in the regular season. But Watkins’ true worth to the Chiefs has really manifested in the postseason, both last year and this one.
And apparently, that’s just how Kansas City planned it. They didn’t sign Watkins to help them get to the playoffs; they signed him to help IN the playoffs.
“We’ve been a playoff team for years,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said after Kansas City beat the Titans in the AFC Championship Game. “Since we got here, we’ve been in the playoffs every year. You make moves like [signing Watkins] to put you over the top. Certainly without Sammy’s performance today, who knows how this game would have turned out?”
Watkins led the Chiefs with seven catches for 114 yards and a touchdown in the 35-24 win over Tennessee. That win lifted them to the Super Bowl.
“When you make offseason moves and you are as aggressive as we are, you do it for games like this — not so much for the regular season,” Veach continued.
Watkins hasn’t been as effective in the regular season, combining for 92 catches, 1,192 yards, and six touchdowns in two seasons with Kansas City, though he did miss eight games due to injury. But the postseason is another story. In four playoff games, Watkins has gained 366 yards and a touchdown on 19 receptions. Extrapolated over the course of a regular season, that production would add up to 76 catches for 1,464 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Watkins showed his value best against the Titans. Let’s look at how the Chiefs used him in that AFC title game, and what it could mean against the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Watkins went off against the Titans in the AFC Championship Game
Being next to superstars Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce can be a bit of a blessing and a curse. Those two are Patrick Mahomes’ favorite targets, and both are the first receivers that defensive coordinators look at when preparing for the Chiefs.
And Watkins came up big on third down against the Titans.
With under two minutes to go in the first half, the Chiefs were trailing, 17-14. They faced a third-and-3 from the Tennessee 38-yard line and needed a conversion to keep the drive going. The Chiefs had both Kelce and Watkins run crossing routes from right to left and as you can see above, the players in zone followed Kelce.
That left one defensive back to come up and follow Watkins, who caught an excellent pass from Mahomes over the middle for 11 yards and a first down. The Chiefs scored two plays later to take a 21-17 lead in the game. It was their first lead, and one they wouldn’t relinquish.
Early in the third quarter with the same score, Mahomes went to Watkins again on third-and-3:
Watkins started this play at the bottom of the screen and ran a quick out route just past the first-down marker. He had plenty of space because both of Hill and Kelce were running deep routes — Hill on a post and Kelce cutting through the seam as he often does.
Notably, this was a single-high safety look, something the Titans did a lot when they needed an extra defensive back to provide backup. The Titans put four defensive backs deep to cover Kelce and Hill, while Watkins caught the pass to convert a first down.
Kansas City wound up punting on the drive, but the extra yardage helped in the battle for field position, and the Chiefs scored on their ensuing possession.
Mahomes has the utmost trust in Watkins when he’s in single coverage, especially when there’s only one deep safety.
Still leading, 21-17, the Chiefs faced a second-and-9 with 4:29 to go in the third quarter. It was, again, a play where the Titans had a single-high safety. Watkins was split out to Mahomes’ left, while the bulk of Tennessee’s defense was on the right, where Hill and Kelce were.
The result was Watkins easily beating No. 35, Tramaine Brock, on a simple curl route. That didn’t give them enough for the first down, but they did convert on third down with a short Mahomes run and would go on to score a touchdown to increase their lead.
In the fourth quarter, Watkins showed up on third down again — and in a huge way.
With the Chiefs up, 28-17, midway through the fourth quarter, Watkins provided his biggest play as a member of the Chiefs. On third-and-6 from the Chiefs’ own 40-yard line, Watkins’ man was trying to press him on one-on-one coverage, which ended poorly — for the defender.
Watkins took the contact in stride and with the safeties occupied by Kelce and Hill on the other side of the field, Watkins was wide open for a 60-yard touchdown. It was a play that looked very similar to the gigantic reception Watkins had in the playoffs against the Patriots a year ago.
That gave the Chiefs a 35-17 lead, and they would go on to win and advance to the Super Bowl.
In the Super Bowl, the 49ers will be trying to get their lethal pass rush to Mahomes first and foremost, and in that situation, Watkins can be a deadly dump-off option.
And if any team knows the damage a high-end tight end like Kelce can do, it’s the 49ers, who have All-Pro George Kittle at the position. They’ll devote considerable resources to containing Kelce, while covering Hill and Watkins will come down to cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley.
Sherman ranked as one of the best corners in the league this year, and Kansas City’s plan will likely be to get Watkins on the opposite side of the field, where he’ll see more of Moseley. That will be an interesting battle, especially with Moseley’s relative inexperience (he’s started just 10 games, including one in the postseason).
Watkins is set to have the highest salary cap hit of any wide receiver next season at $21 million. With the Chiefs likely to make Mahomes the league’s highest-paid player and defensive stud Chris Jones needing a new deal as an impending free agent, it seems possible Watkins will be looking for a new team this offseason.
But before that potentially happens, he can show the rest of the NFL his real value with a big game against the 49ers in the Super Bowl — just like he has so far in the playoffs.