Watkins, Ravens need each other even if both have reason for doubt

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Three years ago might as well be an eternity in football.

While the Ravens were only weeks away from drafting former Heisman Trophy winner and future MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson in March of 2018, wide receiver Sammy Watkins was one of the most coveted free agents on the market, signing a three-year, $48 million contract with Kansas City that included $30 million guaranteed. Since then, Baltimore has made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons with the electrifying Jackson at the helm while Watkins made contributions to the Chiefs’ Super Bowl LIV championship run and played in a second straight Super Bowl last season. 

But both the Ravens and Watkins find themselves at a bit of a crossroads in 2021. They need each other even if both sides have fair reasons to doubt whether the on-field relationship will work out.

Jackson is undoubtedly one of the sport’s brightest stars and the run-heavy Ravens have won an impressive 25 games over the last two seasons, but back-to-back exits in the divisional round have left a glaring spotlight on a passing game not yet at a championship level. Meanwhile, Watkins, 27, missed a combined 16 games over the last three years and recorded no more than 52 catches, 673 yards, and three touchdowns in any of his regular seasons playing with all-world quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City’s explosive passing attack.

The start of free agency wasn’t ideal for either party. Free-agent wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and T.Y. Hilton turned down hard pushes from Baltimore, only amplifying claims of Greg Roman’s offense being an unappealing destination for wide receivers. After seeing plenty of other receivers find work in the early waves of free agency, Watkins had to feel a bit like a consolation prize upon officially signing his $5 million deal with the Ravens last week. The low passing volume alone makes it a suboptimal spot for a wide receiver on a one-year contract.

But the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft sounded enthused during his video call with media on Monday. Watkins cited his previous connection with Roman in Buffalo — where he produced the only 1,000-yard season of his seven-year career — and his relationship with new pass game specialist and former personal coach Keith Williams as reasons for Baltimore being a good fit in addition to the appeal of playing with another MVP quarterback in Jackson. The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins even admitted to putting a bug in Williams’ ear about playing for the Ravens after the latter was hired by head coach John Harbaugh. 

“As I walked into that building, just being around everyone, I just knew this is a great vibe, [and] this is what I need,” said Watkins about his free-agent visit to Owings Mills last month. “This feels like a college atmosphere, and I just can’t wait to get started with those guys to fix my body, do whatever I have to do to stay available on the field, and have fun and go out there and play games.”

As you’d expect from a new arrival, Watkins downplayed any concerns about not getting enough targets in an offense that ran the ball a league-high 55 percent of the time in 2020. Reflecting on his time playing for Buffalo when Roman was the Bills’ offensive coordinator from 2015-16, the receiver praised his ability to get him the ball in creative ways when he caught 60 passes for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns in his second NFL season.

Watkins said winning remains paramount — no matter how it might look on the stat sheet.

“If we can line up and [let] Lamar run the ball and let all these other great running backs in the backfield tote us to playoffs or hopefully the Super Bowl, I’m down for it,” Watkins said. “But I’m pretty sure they’re definitely trying to fix the passing game. It would definitely be fun to go in there incorporating passing and letting Lamar show the ability that he does actually have in the passing game.

“That’s kind of what I want to come into, and hopefully, we get that job done.”

No one is expecting Watkins to be the lone answer for a passing game that ranked 18th in yards per attempt and last in yards per game last season. The Chiefs were willing to invest a lucrative contract in a 24-year-old still perceived to be an ascending player three years ago, but you can only sell upside for so long with someone who’s played more than 10 games in a regular season just twice in the last five years. Even when healthy, Watkins’ numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page in Kansas City aside from the 2019 postseason when he caught 14 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown in three games.

If he wasn’t all that productive in an offense throwing the ball roughly 40 times per game, why would anybody expect that to change in Baltimore?

Of course, the talented Watkins making a major impact is a nonstarter if he can’t stay on the field, something of which the Ravens must be mindful. In addition to having faith in head strength and conditioning coach Steve Saunders’ training program that’s been praised by many players over the years, Harbaugh hasn’t hesitated in providing rest from practice to veterans to keep them fresh and to diminish injury risk, an idea to which Watkins alluded on Monday.

“I’m a guy that goes 100 percent, a guy that really doesn’t know better,” said Watkins, who hasn’t played every game in a season since his rookie year. “I told them that they have to protect me, know when to [not] let me kill my legs, and make sure I’m getting good work, but also knowing when to pull back. I think that’s very critical with having a coach that understands that.

“I think that’s why I was successful at the Rams and played [15 games in 2017] because I had a good coach who kind of knew when to pull back, when to have those not necessarily rest days, but not doing 100 plays at practice. I was able to go into the game and be successful and feel really good about myself.”

The Ravens didn’t commit a one-year, $5 million contract to Watkins expecting him to be the savior as there are obvious reasons why he was available at a modest price. General manager Eric DeCosta should be fully prepared to take another wide receiver early in the draft, a proposition reinforced by the reluctance we saw from free-agent receivers to sign with the Ravens last month.

Their circumstances explain why Watkins and the Ravens need each other even if the partnership isn’t guaranteed to be fruitful. Few suitors care about your once-great potential when you’re in your eighth season and prone to injury, meaning Watkins can’t afford to have another underwhelming year. And the concerning perception of this offense being unfriendly to wide receivers will linger until it’s proven false or the Ravens win the Super Bowl doing things their unique way.

Watkins needs to get his career back on track, and the Ravens need to get over the hump. We’ll see if they can help each other accomplish those goals.

“As long as I stay healthy on that field for 18, 19, 20, however many games to get to the playoffs and through the season, I’m going to be dominant,” Watkins said. “I’m going to make plays, and I’m going to score touchdowns. As long as I’m out there healthy, I’m going to do my job and whatever it takes to will a win and block and do everything I need to do for the team.”