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The Baltimore Ravens finally got their guy, signing wide receiver Sammy Watkins to a one-year deal Friday evening. While Watkins wasn’t the Ravens’ first choice and Baltimore likely wasn’t Watkins’ first choice, the pairing offers potential benefits for both sides.
The Ravens fill one of their biggest remaining needs with a capable player for a bargain-basement price. Watkins will have a chance to shine as a second-fiddle instead of as a third or fourth option in a more stacked passing attack, giving him the opportunity to re-enter free agency in a better spot.
Though Watkins was the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft and expected to be a star, he never quite reached that potential. Instead, Watkins has been more of a complementary wide receiver throughout most of his career, pairing well with speed options opposite him. Just like in Kansas City where Watkins balanced out the Chiefs’ passing attack playing opposite the speedy Tyreek Hill; Watkins will now play opposite the speedy Marquise Brown in Baltimore. Except, as the Ravens’ roster currently stands, Watkins is clearly the No. 2 option, which should give him the opportunity to earn even more targets than he did last year in Kansas City.
That “X” wide receiver spot has been a missing link in Baltimore for quite some time, bring truly filled last by Anquan Boldin. Last year, the Ravens used a combination of Dez Bryant and Miles Boykin in that role, ultimately getting a combined 44 targets to go their way. Unfortunately, neither player truly excelled, seeing quarterback Lamar Jackson have to often force the ball to Brown or tight end Mark Andrews instead. That’s where Watkins’ signing makes all the sense in the world.
Watkins has the size, polished route running, and just enough speed to be a pretty big upgrade over Boykin and Bryant. Watkins should force defenses to “pick their poison” on every play, having to carefully choose where they spend the bulk of their focus defending. As long as each part of the offense does its job, someone should be open on every play among the trio of Brown, Watkins, and Andrews. And if defenses back off the line of scrimmage to stop the pass, Baltimore’s league-leading rushing attack would be salivating at the chance to test it.
There’s good reason to believe Watkins will be his best self with the Ravens. Watkins had the best season of his career under current Baltimore offensive coordinator Greg Roman, catching 60 passes for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns with the Buffalo Bills in 2015. The Ravens also hired Keith Williams as their passing-game coordinator, who just so happens to have been Watkins’ personal wide receiver coach before. Ideally, Watkins is entering a situation where everyone is familiar with getting the best out of him, hopefully helping him get up to speed quickly.
Beyond the on-field production, Watkins should be a mentor to the Ravens’ young wide receiver corps as well. After selecting Devin Duvernay and James Proche in the 2020 NFL draft, and losing Willie Snead and Dez Bryant this offseason, Baltimore’s wide receiver corps is pretty young. Brown is entering his third season and will be 24 years old, making him the oldest and most experienced starting wide receiver on the roster before Watkins’ signing. While Watkins hasn’t lived up to his star potential, he should be able to pass along his experience, having played on multiple teams and in multiple roles. He’s been to multiple Super Bowls, a clear goal for the Ravens, and something not a single person on Baltimore’s roster can boast. If he can bring over anything he learned at Kansas City, that experience alone is worth his price tag.
At $5 million (with another $1 million in incentives), Watkins is a steal. The Chiefs paid him a fully-guaranteed $9 million in 2020 after initially signing him to a three-year deal in 2018 worth $16 million a year on average. Barring Watkins missing a ton of time due to injuries, Baltimore should see a positive gain out of him on that small of a contract. But there lies the biggest problem with Watkins.
Over his seven-year career, Watkins has played a full 16-game season just once. Over his three years with the Chiefs, Watkins missed a total of 14 games, including six in 2020. Considering Baltimore’s run-first offense asks wide receivers to be very physical — often blocking downfield — Watkins’ injury history is a concern.
Now, this doesn’t preclude the Ravens from still addressing the position early in the 2021 NFL draft, nor should it. Watkins is on a one-year deal, making him more of a stop-gap solution rather than a permanent fix. But by having Watkins, Baltimore doesn’t have to reach for a player and they’ll have a chance to slowly bring them into the fold rather than throwing them to the wolves immediately. When looking a little closer at the Ravens’ draft strategy over the years, that’s often the path they take, rarely starting even highly-regarded rookies in Week 1.
Baltimore signing Watkins is a perfect deal if you look at it for what it truly is. He’s not a No. 1 but he wasn’t signed to be a No. 1. However, given that he excels in the role the Ravens will have for him and he’s cheap, it’s a great signing that should push Baltimore’s offense to the next level.