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Sammy Watkins doesn’t change the Ravens offense, but he does fill an important role | ANALYSIS

The Ravens needed an outside wide receiver so desperately last season that they signed one who hadn’t played in almost three years. Dez Bryant, as it turned out, was not the answer, at least not any more than Miles Boykin was. And so general manager Eric DeCosta entered yet another offseason with yet another glaring hole out wide.

Before the Ravens agreed in principle Saturday to a one-year deal with Sammy Watkins, they’d found the outside-receiver market unappealing in some cases and unfriendly in others. Kenny Golladay signed a four-year deal with the New York Giants worth $18 million annually. Corey Davis got $12.5 million per year from the New York Jets. T.Y. Hilton returned to Indianapolis on a one-year deal worth up to $10 million after turning down a multiyear offer from the Ravens.

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Even the Ravens’ interest in JuJu Smith-Schuster, who lined up almost exclusively in the slot last season, was not enough. With Willie Snead IV, another slot receiver, departing in free agency and the team’s younger options there unproven, the Ravens reportedly outbid the Steelers with their one-year offer. Smith-Schuster still chose to return to Pittsburgh, which happened to lead the NFL in pass attempts in 2020.

So the Ravens landed on Watkins, who, at 27, could be a bargain buy at a position of need. Despite a career-low 421 receiving yards last year with the Kansas City Chiefs, the former first-round pick was expected to receive almost double what the Ravens offered ($5 million, plus $1 million in incentives). Salary cap website Spotrac projected Watkins to sign a two-year, $21.3 million deal; Pro Football Focus predicted he’d get $30 million over three years on his next contract.

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The Ravens don’t need Watkins to recapture his 2015 form for their middling investment to pay off. That season, his only full year with then-Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Watkins caught 40 passes for 799 yards and seven touchdowns when he lined up out wide, according to Sports Info Solutions. He finished the season with a career-high 1,047 yards (17.5 per catch) and nine touchdowns overall in 13 games.

With the Ravens’ juggernaut run game and the development of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, their ambitions can be more modest. Roman and quarterback Lamar Jackson will just need Watkins to be a reliable outside-the-numbers target.

His overall role will be more expansive; Watkins’ alignment varied in Kansas City, and he’ll likewise start his routes from the slot, out wide and in motion in Baltimore. As coach John Harbaugh explained before the 2020 NFL draft, Ravens receivers are position-fluid. Brown, for instance, had almost as many receiving yards starting in the slot (371) as he did starting outside (398) last season, according to SIS.

“We like to move guys around,” Harbaugh said. “So really, I don’t think we really have a ‘slot’ player or an ‘outside’ player. You’ll see those guys play in all the different spots in different times. And then we try to put them in position to do the things that they do well.”

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What the Ravens need is a receiver who can take the pressure off Brown when lined up opposite the speedster. Boykin has earned his playing time with his physical blocking style and respectable downfield speed, but his receiving production has been lacking. As a rookie, he had nine catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns when lined up out wide, according to SIS. Last year, he had just eight catches for 134 yards and a score.

Worse yet, that was the second most on the team. Rookie running back J.K. Dobbins was third with 32 yards. Bryant and rookie Devin Duvernay, more of a slot receiver, tied for third with 31 yards.

Watkins’ statistical impact is impossible to project. He played in a pass-happy attack in Kansas City the previous three years, and before that was part of a 2017 Los Angeles Rams offense that finished 10th in the NFL in passing yardage. Now he’s joining an offense accustomed to knee-wobbling 13-play drives, overseen by a coordinator and quarterback who’ve helped engineer what Harbaugh calls “the best run offense in the history of football in the last two years.”

Watkins’ numbers this season will probably not win any fantasy football leagues. But he at least has a track record as a competent outside receiver. With his size-and-speed combination and route-running savvy — not to mention a nice run of helpful offensive infrastructures — Watkins has at least 220 receiving yards as an outside receiver in four of his past five seasons, according to SIS. Last season, he had 18 catches on 25 targets (23 catchable) for 228 yards.

Watkins lasted on the open market as long as he did for good reason, however. Injuries have been a problem; he’s played at least 13 games just three times since his rookie year in 2014. Explosiveness is another question mark; Watkins had just four receptions of at least 20 yards last season, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes targeted him on passes of at least 20 air yards just twice, neither of which he completed.

If Watkins can’t find a groove in Baltimore — if Jackson still shows a reluctance throwing to the sideline when defenses pack the middle — the Ravens’ commitment won’t be onerous. This is a one-year deal, after all.

And there’s still hope for a reset elsewhere. Brown was among the NFL’s most efficient receivers in last season’s playoffs. Boykin, while inconsistent, flashes his potential every preseason. The wide receiver room will have a new set of eyes with position coach Tee Martin and pass game specialist Keith Williams, Watkins’ former personal coach. And team officials know how many talented wide receivers are in next month’s draft. Even if they look elsewhere in the first round, elite receivers can be found on Day 2.

However the Ravens’ offseason ends, their front office is running low on time and resources. The team should be well-rounded enough next season that it doesn’t need Watkins to be great. But if he’s good enough to help elevate Jackson to his all-star form, he’ll have been the right player at the right price.

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