GREEN BAY, Wis. – Sammy Watkins was the fourth pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. He played like it during his first two seasons with the Buffalo Bills with a combined 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Over the last four seasons, Watkins has a combined 2,007 yards and nine touchdowns.
It’s a reality that Watkins, the Green Bay Packers’ lone veteran addition at receiver, isn’t running from.
“I think I told the coaches, ‘My back is against the wall,” Watkins said after Wednesday’s minicamp practice. “My career hasn’t been what I projected it to be. It’s a great opportunity for me to come here, play hard, catch a ton of balls, compete at the highest level and win games and fight to stay healthy. That’s been the knock on my career – to stay on the field. I think this is the best place to stay healthy, stay on the field and catch a lot of ball.”
The greatest ability, coaches like to say, is availability. Injuries, however, have been an ongoing issue. He played in 16 games as a rookie but not since. He played in eight games in 2016 and was traded to the Rams in 2017. He signed with the Chiefs in 2018 and played in 34 of a possible 48 games. Last season with Baltimore, he played in 13 of 17 games.
This offseason, Watkins was unemployed through almost a month of free agency. Year after year of injuries had Watkins considering the possibility that his NFL career was over.
It wasn’t a happy time.
“I’m on the couch getting fat, 300, I mean 220 pounds, like, ‘Man, am I ever going to get that call?’” Watkins said.
Finally, Watkins got off the couch and started working out. Not long thereafter, the Packers called and invited him for a free-agent visit. Coach Matt LaFleur was the Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2017, when Watkins scored eight touchdowns in 15 games. Receivers coach/passing game coordinator Jason Vrable was an assistant in Buffalo at the start of Watkins’ career.
“My agent hit me up and then told me to come down here,” Watkins said. “I’m like, ‘Man, give me an extra day.’ And he’s like, ‘No, you need to get there now.’ So, I came up, met with Coach Matt, we kind of as you call it broke bread, hung out, talked. This opportunity is really big for me, my family, and I just really can’t wait to get started.”
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The opportunity is a two-way street. The Packers have a wildly different receiver corps after trading Davante Adams and losing Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown in free agency. In their place are Watkins and three rookies.
With Adams handling most of the load, those three caught a combined 313 passes and scored 39 touchdowns the last two seasons. LaFleur and Rodgers aren’t going to stop throwing it so there are ample opportunities.
“Obviously, we have history going back to L.A. together, so that definitely gives you a pretty good idea of what he’s capable of doing,” LaFleur said before practice. “I don’t think his game has fallen off at all since we were together in 2017. A little bit has been maybe a little bit a lack of opportunity, but I think he’s a guy that’s out there working hard and he’s going to be a big part of our offense.”
That last sentence is worth filing away. If Watkins can stay healthy, perhaps his story will end differently than it did for another touted veteran, Devin Funchess, last year. Perhaps Watkins can lead the Packers through a transition period. At the same time, perhaps Watkins, who will turn 29 next week, can, in his words, “revive my career.” At about 215 pounds, Watkins said he feels like he’s 18 again.
The fit could hardly be more perfect. The opportunity could hardly be greater.
“I just think the staff, the organization is run well and the guys I’m surrounded around – Aaron (Rodgers), Aaron Jones, Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, a lot of moving parts,” he said. “I’ve just got come in and take care of my body, play hard, take coaching and also be a leader in the room and just do whatever in my power to stay on the field. Because when I’m on the field, I can ball, I can catch balls, I can score and I’m a dominant player. But the key is staying on the field.”
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