The Ravens are expected to sign wide receiver Sammy Watkins to a one-year deal, adding a potential starter and experienced veteran to a much-scrutinized group.
The deal, which is reportedly worth $5 million, with another $1 million available in incentives, comes two days after the Ravens’ second public miss on a potential impact free-agent wide receiver. It also gives the offense a possession receiver with postseason success and quarterback Lamar Jackson another high-pedigree target.
Watkins, 27, visited Baltimore on Tuesday, four days after wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster reportedly spurned richer offers from the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs to re-sign with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Watkins then headed to Indianapolis on Wednesday — the day wide receiver T.Y. Hilton agreed to a one-year extension with the Colts despite what he called a “great push” by the Ravens.
With top receivers Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller V, Curtis Samuel, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Corey Davis all having signed elsewhere during the first week of free agency, Watkins was one of the few remaining big-name receivers still available. Asked in January about the allure of playing in a run-first offense, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had said that he wouldn’t “beg anybody to be here.”
“I’m not a college coach and I don’t have to recruit anybody,” he said. “You want to win? You want to win? You want to be a part of a great organization, and you want to be a part of a team, and you want to love coming to work every single day, and you’re a football player and you love football? You want to play in the AFC North — come here.
“If you don’t … If you’re all about stats, and numbers, and your stat line, and how many balls you catch, necessarily, and that’s all you care for — then there’s a lot of other teams you can go play for, and we’ll be looking forward to lining up against you.”
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Watkins will reunite in Baltimore with Greg Roman, his former Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator, and Keith Williams, his former personal wide receivers coach and the Ravens’ first-year pass game specialist. In 2015, Roman’s only full season in Buffalo, Watkins had 1,047 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, both still career bests.
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The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins has struggled to match that production in recent years with the Bills, Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs. In 2019, his best season since that breakout campaign, he had 52 catches for 673 yards and three touchdowns with Kansas City. In three playoff games, he had 14 catches on 18 targets for 288 yards and a touchdown, including a five-catch, 98-yard game in a Super Bowl LIV win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Last season, Watkins had 55 catches for a career-low 421 yards for the Chiefs. In a passing attack dominated by tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, Watkins averaged 11.4 yards per catch, another career low, and just 1.28 yards per route run, according to Player Profiler, among the lower marks for wide receivers. But his average separation from the nearest defender at the time of a catch or incompletion, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, was also among the league’s best.
Given Watkins’ injury woes, that could be an encouraging sign for his route-running ability. Watkins missed six games last season for the second time in three years, and he appeared in just one postseason game, making one catch for 13 yards in Kansas City’s Super Bowl loss. He hasn’t played a full 16-game season since his rookie year, and he’s averaged less than 12 games per season since.
The Ravens made space for Watkins by restructuring defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell’s contracts, but the team has a spotty record with free-agent wide receivers. A year after signing Mike Wallace to an instant-impact deal in 2016, the Ravens gave Jeremy Maclin a two-year, $11 million contract. The Ravens’ 2018 makeover, featuring Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead IV, was a mixed bag. Seth Roberts and Dez Bryant were mostly afterthoughts in the team’s Jackson-led, run-heavy attacks.
With Snead signing Friday with the Las Vegas Raiders, Watkins will be the most experienced wide receiver for a group that finished last in the NFL last season in receptions and yards. Former first-round pick Marquise “Hollywood” Brown showed star potential late last season, but the Ravens will need more from complementary pieces such as Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay and James Proche II.
General manager Eric DeCosta said earlier this month that the team had “an idea of what we’re looking for” to upgrade the position, but he declined to outline the front office’s specifics. With Watkins, the Ravens have a relatively cheap, potentially productive option — even if he might not have been their first or second choice in free agency.
“Our goal is to build a diverse team with a lot of different types of players that can help you in a lot of different situations, with depth at all positions,” DeCosta said, “that fit under the salary cap and give you a chance, long term, to succeed.”