For Ravens WR Sammy Watkins, a new opportunity and a familiar fit

BALTIMORE — When his time was up in Kansas City, Sammy Watkins went looking for good vibes in Baltimore.

The Ravens, forever on the lookout for capable wide receivers, couldn’t promise the free agent a big workload or a long contract. But they did have Keith Williams, Watkins’ former private coach. And they did have Greg Roman, the offensive coordinator who’d helped shepherd his NFL ascent in Buffalo. And John Harbaugh and Lamar Jackson and a top-10 defense, all foundational pieces of a potential Super Bowl team.

What the Ravens needed was a receiver like Watkins. What Watkins wanted was a team like the Ravens. If he had to start over, why not try to secure his future for a franchise that felt familiar?

“Once I went there, I knew right away, like, ‘Man, I’m going to Baltimore,’ ” he said in a virtual introductory news conference Monday. “And then it’s just like one of those feelings where you know it’s home, and you make the best decision. And hopefully, you’re looking for the future [and that] I have a great year here, and hopefully, I can maybe do another contract there and end my career there.

“That’s where my mindset was, with just how amazing the meeting was with everyone there. … Hopefully, I can get this thing going on the right foot and play my best football for the Baltimore Ravens.”

Watkins, 27, who last week signed a one-year deal worth up to $6 million, is joining a Ravens receiving room in need of help. No team finished with fewer receiving yards at the position last season, and the Ravens last finished in the upper half of the league in 2016.

Opportunity was one factor in 2020 — Ravens wide receivers were targeted just 13.8 times per game — but so was efficiency. In Kansas City, where Watkins spent three solid seasons, the former first-round pick was one of four regular wide receivers who had a passer rating over 100 when targeted last season. The Ravens had just two, according to Pro-Football-Reference: Miles Boykin, who finished with 266 receiving yards total, and Willie Snead IV, who signed a one-year deal with the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason.

Outside Kansas City, maybe no staff understands Watkins’ fit better than the Ravens’. Watkins joked that he’d told Williams, whom the Ravens hired in February as their pass game specialist, to “talk to somebody in the office” about a potential deal. A day or two later, the Ravens made their interest known, and Watkins visited not long after.

It didn’t bother him that the Ravens wouldn’t throw it around like the Chiefs had. “I’m not going to worry about where that ball goes,” Watkins said. In 2015, his second NFL season, the Bills were the league’s only team to run the ball more than they passed it. With Roman calling plays and a dual-threat quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, running the offense, Watkins still finished with a career-high 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns in 13 games.

“I know he doesn’t get all of the accolades and Greg isn’t [considered] up there with all the other ‘high’ offensive coordinators, but when I was in Buffalo, I had my best times with him,” Watkins said. “So I can’t complain. I know that he’s going to do a [good] job of getting the ball not only in my hands, [but in the hands of] ‘Hollywood’ [Marquise Brown], whatever receivers that we draft, or whatever receiver that is there. And Lamar is going to have fun throwing the ball around, passing and just making plays. I think that’s the most critical thing.”

The Ravens figure to be better off with Watkins on the field than off it, but that has been a problem of late for the former Clemson star. Watkins finished fifth on the Chiefs last season in receiving (37 catches for 421 yards), in no small part because he played just 10 games. He said he considers himself an elite receiver. He said he plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. And yet, with 23 missed games over the past five seasons, “it’s always been about my availability,” Watkins acknowledged, “and that’s been a knock on my whole career.”

In Baltimore, he hopes he can help and be helped. When Watkins met with Ravens officials, he told them “that they have to protect me” — not only build him up for the rigors of a 17-game season, and potentially more, but also be willing to offer rest days, or at least more relaxed days.

It is the kind of privilege already afforded to veterans like defensive end Calais Campbell, and in a young receiving room, Watkins’ perspective will be rare. This will be his eighth NFL season. He’s already won an NFL title. When Watkins talked to Jackson, he recalled telling him, “This is your show. I just want to be a part of it.”

On Monday, Watkins seemed to already understand the discourse around his quarterback and his coordinator, the notion that their run-first offense is not equipped to win what matters in the modern NFL. But Watkins has seen it work before. He knows what Roman wants, what Williams wants, what Jackson wants. They all want the same thing.

“It takes guys getting open to be great and look great and be the Patrick Mahomeses of the world and be Tom Brady and be all these other top quarterbacks,” he said. “You’ve got to have that No. 1 receiver, that No. 2 and that No. 3, nowadays, to go out there and be successful and literally throw the ball with your eyes closed and be unconscious. …

“We can be a balanced offense and go out there and get open when we need to get open. I think Lamar can throw for those 4,000 yards or those 4,500 yards, 5,000. Whatever these guys are putting [up], I think he can be that quarterback and be elite in this game. It’s no knock on him; when you watch film, honestly, everybody wasn’t getting open, and I think that’s a critical part with this offense. We can blame the offensive coordinators, but as players, we’ve got to do our job, and that’s the thing.”