MIAMI (AP) — Conventional wisdom suggests Sammy Watkins should have signed anywhere but Kansas City, where the Chiefs had a pair of go-to targets in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and a talented but unproven quarterback in Patrick Mahomes.
He could have been the No. 1 wide receiver somewhere. He could have gone to a team with a polished quarterback.
In truth, he picked the Chiefs precisely because he wanted neither of those things.
Watkins has always shouldered a huge offensive burden, whether he was starring at Clemson or during his NFL start in Buffalo or his lone season with the Los Angeles Rams. He was the priority in the passing game, and the player opposing defenses wanted to take away. And with that burden came sometimes unrealistic expectations among fans, often wearing on him mentally just as much as the injuries that have plagued his career had worn on him physically.
That's why Watkins spurned interest from wide receiver-needy Dallas Cowboys two years ago and signed a $48 million, three-year deal with the Chiefs. He wanted to be part of something special, not THE something special.
“We have so many superstars on this team,” he explained, “and so many guys that can catch the ball. Certain guys that people can't even name and don't even notice. So my focus is to bring the energy. Go out there every day in practice, and in games, and go out there and compete at the highest level. I let the coaches figure out everything else.”
It's been a refreshing change for the 26-year-old Watkins, whose season will culminate in the Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday just across the state from Fort Myers, where he grew up. It's been a season that perfectly sums up the highs and lows that have defined his career, and ultimately why he signed with Kansas City.
It all started Week 1 in Jacksonville, when Watkins took advantage of all the attention paid elsewhere and caught nine passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns in a showcase performance. He had six catches against Oakland the next week, and seven against Minnesota later in the season, grabbing key passes when everyone else was covered.
“I think you see that if teams are going to put attention on other guys like Tyreek or Kelce,” Mahomes said with a shrug, "we have a guy like Sammy Watkins that can beat your corner every single day.”
When injuries popped up again, forcing Watkins out of the lineup, he didn't have to defend himself like he has much of his career. When he didn't catch another TD pass the rest of the regular season, he didn't have to hear from so many critics.
Instead, he had the time he needed to rehab his injury and get back on the field. He was mentally strong for the playoffs, when the Chiefs needed him most. And he delivered when they called his number, catching seven passes for 114 yards with a memorable 60-yard touchdown grab in their AFC championship game against the Tennessee Titans.
“I think that's one of the best decisions I ever made in my life is coming to this team,” he said, “and literally we're dominating every game. We've been the best offense and having the best organization, the best coaches hands-down, the best teammates. A lot of unselfish guys, man. It's amazing.”
Watkins might have to show some unselfishness if he wants to remain with the Chiefs.
The Chiefs are poised to make Mahomes the NFL's highest-paid quarterback, and defensive tackle Chris Jones and several other players are due to get paid. And with Watkins counting $21 million against the salary cap next season, with a base salary of $13.75 million and none of it guarantee, there's a good chance Watkins will be asked to take a pay cut. And failing that, they could cut him outright and save $14 million in cap space while carrying only $7 million in dead money.
“I'm a big Sammy fan,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "I thought coming out there weren't a lot of receivers I saw play better than him at the college level. He sustained some injuries, in particular a couple to his feet, which are tough for a wide receiver. When we got him here, I felt like if we could just keep him healthy and rehab him and get him back both mentally and physically — that's a tough thing when you're a first-round pick and you get hurt. Unfortunately, you get labeled.
“But he's fought through that,” Reid continued, “and he's done a heck of a job for us. I know he didn't make the Pro Bowl, but he's a Pro Bowl-caliber player. He's a big part of what we can do.”