If you’re as Seinfeld-obsessed as I am, you probably remember when George Costanza awarded a scholarship to a student because of his interest in architecture. When describing his academic qualifications, George remarked that Steven Koren was “right in the meaty part of the curve—not showing off, not falling behind.”
That’s exactly where the Bills find themselves right now. Despite two consecutive non-losing seasons—that includes a 9-7 finish in 2014 followed by an 8-8 campaign last season—the Bills aren’t any closer to becoming a postseason threat.
Part of that has to do with the division they play in. We’re 15 years into the Brady/Belichick Era and the Patriots haven’t shown any signs of slowing down. But injuries might be an even more important piece to the puzzle. Just look at the offense Buffalo fielded last year. There was LeSean McCoy, who sat out four games with a knee injury. Tyrod Taylor missed time with knee and shoulder issues while Percy Harvin barely saw the field thanks to a balky hip. Karlos Williams was also among the walking wounded, suffering a concussion as well as a multi-week shoulder injury.
But none of them were as frustrating as Sammy Watkins. Every week it was something new. A sprained ankle, calf and rib injuries … the list goes on and on.
It’s hard to call a player injury-prone, especially early on in their career. How do you quantify something like that? And how do we differentiate between fragile and unlucky?
Watkins has found that gray area. Monday it was announced Watkins underwent surgery to repair a broken foot. The operation reportedly took place three weeks ago. Fox Sports’ Mike Garafolo reported Watkins will miss 6-8 weeks, which suggests he could be back at full strength by the time training camp opens. However, ESPN’s Adam Schefter isn’t as optimistic. He’s been told Watkins will sit out most if not all of the preseason with the hope of returning by Week 1.
And so it begins, another sleepless year for Watkins fantasy owners.
What are we supposed to think of Watkins at this point? Will his recent wave of injuries subside or is he headed down the same path as Harvin, who retired this offseason after playing only 73 games? It’s impossible to make that determination.
Most players who carry the “injury-prone” label aren’t worth the risk in fantasy. As a rule of thumb, if you’re considering two similar players and one has a history of injuries, you go with the other guy.
But nothing is ever simple with Watkins. He’s an immense talent and seemed to really click with Taylor in 2015, especially late in the year when he exploded for 679 yards and six touchdowns over his last six games. He saved the best for last, destroying Darrelle Revis en route to a career-high 11 catches in Week 17. Three months ago when we conducted a dynasty mock draft, Watkins was selected ninth overall, ahead of Alshon Jeffery, Demaryius Thomas, Amari Cooper and even Dez Bryant.
Watkins is right in the sweet spot where talent meets opportunity. He’s a home run threat with blazing speed and just enough size to hold his own against more physical defensive backs. But more importantly, he’s the obvious No. 1 target in Buffalo’s passing game. That positions him for a high-volume role, even if the Bills are still a ground-and-pound team with McCoy and Williams doing most of the heavy lifting. After not seeing more than eight targets in any of his first seven games last year, Watkins was targeted 10 or more times in four of his last six contests.
But again, it’s all a big if. Even if Watkins is ready for Week 1, which appears to be the plan, there’s no guarantee he’ll be 100 percent. Dez Bryant, Julian Edelman, DeVante Parker and Brandon LaFell have all played through similar injuries with limited effectiveness. Watkins is a good enough player that missing most or all of camp probably won’t put him at a huge disadvantage, but those extra reps certainly would have helped. It looked like Watkins was ready to take the next step toward fantasy greatness. Now he’s just another roll of the dice.
Watkins isn’t the only Bill dealing with a significant injury. First-round pick Shaq Lawson will undergo right shoulder surgery on Tuesday. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the operation will require a 5-6 month recovery period. The injury occurred at minicamp when Lawson tried to perform a swim move on a tackling dummy.
The surgery was foreshadowed months earlier when Lawson’s shoulder was flagged during medical exams at the NFL Combine. Interested teams showed varying degrees of concern, though Lawson’s banged-up shoulder never caused widespread panic. Lawson disputed a report that he needed surgery, claiming that he played through the shoulder issue throughout his entire career at Clemson. Indeed, Lawson only missed two of a possible 41 games in his three years of college ball.
Drafting Lawson with the 19th overall pick made too much sense. The Bills had no pass-rushing presence at all last season, finishing with the league’s second-lowest sack total. Meanwhile Lawson reached double-digit sacks in his farewell campaign at Clemson while earning first-team All-America honors. Bingo. It probably helped that Lawson has known head coach Rex Ryan for years. That’s because Lawson played with Ryan’s son, Seth, at Clemson where they even shared the same major.
Lawson was slated to open his Bills career at left outside linebacker opposite veteran Jerry Hughes. That position was previously held by former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams, who joined the division rival Dolphins after the Bills cut him this offseason. Those are big shoes to fill. But now they’ll be filled by someone else, at least early on in the season. Perhaps another Lawson, this one by the name of Manny, will play a bigger role in the first-round pick’s absence.
From a Buffalo perspective, the injuries to Watkins and Lawson are disappointing on a number of different levels. With Tom Brady possibly suspended for the first four games (he’s appealing again, so who knows what will happen), the Patriots are as vulnerable as ever, allowing Buffalo the rare chance to be competitive in the AFC East. Ryan probably needs to make the playoffs to keep his job and Tyrod Taylor is entering a contract year, which should raise the stakes considerably. If the Bills are ever going to join New England on the other side, this is the year to do it. Otherwise, it will be another year in that meaty part of the curve.
Quick Hits: Danny Amendola is recovering from two offseason surgeries: one on his left knee and another to have a bone spur removed from his ankle. He should be ready by the start of training camp … The Panthers parted ways with slot corner Brandon Boykin on Monday. Carolina signed him to a one-year deal in late March … The Panthers aren’t looking to upgrade at cornerback despite losing Josh Norman to the Redskins last month. "I guess if we did do something it would be later on,” said head coach Ron Rivera. “But right now we’re set” … The Titans waived former sixth-round pick Zach Mettenberger on Monday. He started six games as a rookie and another four last season with Marcus Mariota sidelined by a knee injury … The Honey Badger is about to get paid. Tyrann Mathieu is reportedly in deep negotiations with the Cardinals and is close to signing an extension that would make him the league’s highest-paid safety. The safety designation is actually misleading because he played slot corner last year … Mark Sanchez underwent surgery after tearing a thumb ligament in the weight room last week. Sanchez will probably be sidelined through OTAs even though the injury occurred to his non-throwing thumb … ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold expects this year to be a “watch-and-learn season” for rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch. With only Mark Sanchez ahead of him on the depth chart, there’s still a good chance Lynch will start games in 2016 … Former Broncos and Dolphins running back Knowshon Moreno is reportedly “80 percent done with football.” An ACL tear kept him out of the league last season … The Ravens could be penalized for practicing in full pads during rookie minicamp. That’s a violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement … Raiders coach Jack Del Rio came away impressed with Connor Cook’s performance at rookie minicamp. "Obviously he is intelligent. He asks good questions. He’s got arm talent," said Del Rio. "I think he’s off to a great start." Cook is hoping to beat out Matt McGloin for the No. 2 job behind starter Derek Carr … There seems to be a discrepancy about Leonard Floyd’s weight. Bears DC Vic Fangio said he wasn’t concerned about it and expected Floyd to play around 230-235 pounds this season. Floyd, however, said the team has asked him to gain weight by eating every couple hours. He weighed 244 pounds at the Combine three months ago … ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer believes Byron Jones will focus on safety in 2016. Jones split his time between safety and cornerback as a rookie last season … Jarryd Hayne, who surprisingly made the 49ers’ 53-man roster out of training camp last year, has decided to call it quits after one NFL season. Instead, he’ll represent Fiji’s national rugby team in the Summer Olympics … Victor Cruz has been a limited participant at voluntary workouts this spring. Calf and knee injuries have kept him off the field since October 2014 … J.J. Watt’s charity softball game brought over 30,000 people to Minute Maid Park on Saturday. Vince Wilfork celebrated the occasion by wearing his famous denim overalls … Doug Baldwin is coming off a breakout fantasy season but he’s already warning fantasy owners not to bank on him in 2016. “I'm not going to get the raw numbers," said Baldwin. "What I am going to get are chances on third down, so I'm going to make the best of those when I get them." The Seahawks are expected to go with a more run-based attack this year after relying heavily on the passing game in 2015 … Speaking of the Seahawks, Russell Wilson gave a pretty great commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, over the weekend. He even poked fun at his iconic interception in Super Bowl XLIX … Concession prices at sporting events have gotten ridiculous (I distinctly remember paying $10 for a Bud Light at Yankee Stadium last year) but the Falcons are going to change that when they open their new stadium in 2017. Hot dogs, soda (with unlimited refills), popcorn and pretzels will all be $2 while domestic beer will only cost $5 … Before his mom passed away from breast cancer in 2002, Larry Fitzgerald promised her he’d get his college degree. He kept that promise last week, graduating from the University of Phoenix with a degree in communications.