Late in the Ravens' mandatory minicamp practice today, tight end Benjamin Watson drew cheers from children watching as he snared a one-handed touchdown pass.
It came on a solo route without defenders while most of squad practiced special teams formations on a different field, but the kids Watson had met while volunteering at Aberdeen Proving Ground were excited.
Watson was, too.
After all, the workout marked his return from the torn right Achilles tendon he suffered last August, boosting a tight end group that's battled injuries throughout the offseason.
"It's been a long time, long time coming," Watson said. "This is the next step. You never know how much you miss it until you can't do it."
Watson didn't participate in any team drills, and he doesn't expect to until training camp starts in late July.
Still, he worked with the tight ends in early portions of the session and later jogged through routes and caught passes with the quarterbacks.
"It's very encouraging to see Ben out there," coach John Harbaugh said. "It's kind of the target I think that [head certified athletic trainer] Mark Smith had for Ben. Getting him out there for minicamp and getting him out here for individual drills."
The progress, Watson said, validated the rehabilitation the 36-year-old has endured to return from "the hardest surgery I've been through."
After having surgery Aug. 31, Watson estimated he didn't leave his house for about a month. In the few months afterward, his movement was limited to a boot and a scooter.
He thought of his kids often as he worked to recover his atrophied calf muscle because he didn't want them to see him quit a year removed from his career-best production.
Before signing a two-year contract with the Ravens as a free agent during the 2016 offseason, Watson caught 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns with the New Orleans Saints in 2015. He had missed only one game from 2012 to 2015.
Watson said he hopes to regain that form and durability throughout the preseason to contribute to the unit that lost Dennis Pitta, who led all NFL tight ends in catches last year, to a third dislocated hip.
Tight end Crockett Gillmore missed today with a tweaked hamstring he suffered last week, while Harbaugh has said Maxx Williams won't return from knee surgery before training camp. Tight end Darren Waller, meanwhile, practiced today after missing three weeks of organized team activities.
Watson called the bunch, which also includes Nick Boyle, "one of the most talented, top to bottom, tight end groups I've ever been around," and is eager to contribute as he continues to improve in rehab.
"There's still a ways to go before you can be in actual football readiness with the explosion and the power and being able to turn your body and dealing with somebody hitting you and maneuvering and being elusive," Watson said. "All those things are going to come, but it won't come over night, so that's the process."
Last week, Watson reportedly agreed to take a pay cut, reducing his base salary from $3 million to $1.25 million — of which $750,000 is guaranteed, according to Pro Football Talk. The new deal, which includes certain incentives that can push the contract to a maximum of $3 million, would appear to pave the way for Watson to remain on the team's roster this season.
While the Ravens have often held mandatory minicamp practices later in the day, Harbaugh changed that Tuesday.
The Ravens practiced for about 2 1/2 hours, starting at 9 a.m., to combat the hot weather — the forecast predicted temperatures would reach the 90s — and eliminate redundancy in meetings.
"It was a nod to the temperatures, and there was another factor," Harbaugh said. "I felt like we've had these guys here and so many guys have been here through so many of these OTA practices and these meetings, we didn't really need to install. So I felt like our guys would be ready to get up and running early."
The coach said the schedule reflected that of training camp, as the players finished practice earlier and could focus on "the mental stuff" for the remainder of the day.
"It gives us a chance," Harbaugh said, "to have a better practice in a camp-type setting."
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