GREEN BAY – A myriad of memories washed over Sammy Watkins this week, as the Packers receiver prepared for his first game in Buffalo since leaving the Bills more than five years ago.
Watkins arrived in Orchard Park, N.Y., to much acclaim, with the franchise trading up to draft the two-time All-American No. 4 overall in 2014.
An immediate focal point in the Bills' offense, the 6-foot-1, 211-pound receiver caught 125 passes for 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns his first two seasons before suffering an ankle injury in 2016.
While Watkins was traded to the Los Angeles Rams during training camp in 2017, he still looks back on his days in Buffalo fondly. Those emotions were top of mind this week, as Watkins returns to Highmark Stadium for Sunday night's showdown between the Packers and Bills.
"I had some of my best times there," Watkins said. "It's definitely going to be weird, but I just can't wait to get there and get those old feelings back when I was just a young Sammy."
Watkins, now in his ninth NFL season, laughs when recalling his early days in "Rough Buff." A lifelong Bills fan, Watkins couldn't have asked for a better place to start his pro career.
Packers receivers coach Jason Vrable, who broke into the NFL as a quality control coach in Buffalo, even busted out some of Watkins' early film in the meeting room on Thursday.
With five seconds remaining against Minnesota in Week 7 of the 2014 season, the clip showed a rookie Watkins beating Xavier Rhodes on a quick out for a game-winning 2-yard touchdown.
"He won on an end-zone route and the place went nuts," Vrable said. "It's a great time for him to go back to the place where it all started. He has a lot of good memories there."
While injuries played a role in his exit, Buffalo still holds a special place in Watkins' heart. He developed many lifelong friends in Western New York. Watkins' first child also was born there.
As the Packers prepare for their third road trip in four weeks, Watkins said he's already given his teammates a tutorial on what to expect from a rabid Bills fanbase relishing its team's 5-1 start.
Conversely, Green Bay heads back on the road as the heavy underdogs after dropping three in a row. Despite a 23-21 loss in Washington, Watkins believes the Packers' offense isn't that far away if it can lock in and reduce the number of mental errors.
"You gotta be on point as far as knowing every little detail on route-running, blocking, and if you're not on point, you're going to look bad in certain situations," Watkins said. "Our group has been doing pretty good. Have we been doing our best? No, but we've been playing with great effort. We have to get better with the small details."
Injuries also have been an issue as of late, especially amongst the receivers.
After catching three passes for 93 yards against Chicago in Week 2, Watkins just returned following a month-long absence due a hamstring injury. Rookie Christian Watson also has been a scratch the last two weeks due to a hamstring.
What's more, Randall Cobb (ankle) was placed on injured reserve last week and Allen Lazard left in the third quarter against Washington with a shoulder injury.
Lazard said he felt "a snap, crackle, pop" in shoulder after being tackled on a 6-yard catch. He tried to return to the game but eventually had to tap himself back out.
While iffy for Sunday's game against Buffalo, Lazard said he doesn't expect the shoulder to be a long-term issue. If he can't go, Lazard is confident in the ability of Watkins and the other young receivers to step up.
"I have the utmost confidence in those guys," Lazard said. "They're very talented individuals and more than capable of going out there and showcasing their talents at the best of their ability, so I'm expecting big, great things from those guys in the room."
For his part, Watkins pulled through his return game OK. After being activated off injured reserve last Saturday, Watkins caught two passes for 36 yards while playing 28 of 54 snaps (52%).
With Watson's status uncertain, the veteran Watkins could be in line for an even larger workload this Sunday against a top-ranked Buffalo defense that leads the NFL with 10 interceptions.
"They play hard. They play fast," Watkins said. "They're very simple but they're very disciplined. They rally to the ball. We just gotta go out there and play our game and be as simple as we can and have fun, and I think the fun is in the winning."
Watkins already has plans to get some chicken wings with friends after the Packers arrive Saturday. Once Sunday night rolls around, however, it's all about playing winning football.
"This is my first time being able to play against my team that drafted me and (I'm) excited," Watkins said. "Hopefully, we get over the hump and try to beat those guys. That's the best team so far in the NFL.
"It's going to be Sunday Night Football. The world's gonna be watching."