If you look at the history of Sammy Watkins’ career, it hasn’t matched the glowing praise he received coming out of Clemson, when he was worthy of a trade-up for the Buffalo Bills. Despite his big performance in Super Bowl LIV he has mostly been a solid secondary receiver since his breakout 2015 season. Some of that is because of injuries — he hasn’t played a full 16-game slate since his rookie season — and some of that is because of self-admitted problems with alcohol and an attitude that would ruffle many traditional head coaching feathers.
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The Ravens are paying Watkins like a No. 2 receiver, and he provides — on paper — an element of physicality that they just weren’t going to get from Marquise Brown or Willie Snead. He re-unites with Greg Roman, his coordinator in Buffalo when that offense was actually working in 2015. In theory, he enters into a situation where he’ll get the ball as much as it was implied he desired in Tyler Dunne’s magnificent piece on him. (“He won’t take a pay cut, and he needs his 100 targets, 1,000-plus yards, 12 touchdowns this season.”)
It is, at 28, frankly Watkins’ last chance to turn around a career that has stagnated. He finished last year with just 37 receptions in 10 games, and he hasn’t had a positive DVOA since 2018. Watkins role in the Chiefs offense last year was extremely limited. Of his 56 targets (counting penalties) nearly half of them were curl routes, out routes, or improvisational plays where he had to work with Patrick Mahomes on a scramble. He was really good on those plays, with a 58.3% rate of first downs or touchdowns. He had problems catching slant passes early in the year and they phased that out of his game plan. He also was targeted on passes deeper than 15 yards just eight times all season — three of them improvised. Watkins finished with an average of 3.6 yards of separation on his targets per NFL Next Gen Stats — tied for 11th best in the NFL.
Despite that I think the issue with Watkins has never been talent and he fills a need so long as he is on the same page as the organization. They are going to need him to catch slants and be physical at the catch point, and he’s shown in the past that he can do that when healthy. This is essentially the fulcrum point of Watkins’ career. He can turn things around here, or he could be hurt, or he could be overtaken by rookies. There’s no outcome to this that would wildly surprise me.
Here’s one of those improvisational balls against the Saints in Week 15:
The thing is, Watkins gets plenty of separation over the middle of this route combo — the ball wasn’t thrown because of pressure. 26 looks like he’s in a good place to chase this ball purely on dots but he is locked on to Tyreek Hill in the slot:
Because Mahomes gets pressured off his spot, Watkins has to adjust up the field. Here’s how the play looks in actual picture form.
What we haven’t seen in a while is what Watkins looks like as someone who is truly force-fed. To that end, his -0.4 yards after catch per reception compared to expected is the big number to watch. He was sixth in the metric in 2018, at +5.8. The explosiveness of Watkins was one of his calling cards coming out in the draft. If he’s to be a big success for the Ravens, he needs to tie in to that again.
This reception against the Ravens in Week 3 was only able to generate two yards after catch. Watkins shimmied but appeared to lose his footing as Patrick Queen closed in on him, and he was tackled.
The theoretical Watkins that makes this signing win big for the Ravens becomes a horizontal threat with the ball in his hands, is the clear contested-catch winner in the middle of the field, and draws 100 targets. I don’t know that this player exists at this point, but this is as good a gamble as the Ravens were going to find without dabbling in the expensive receiver market.
Rivers McCown is a writer and editor who has written for ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and Deadspin, among other places. He’s edited for Football Outsiders, Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue.