Aaron Rodgers has a long history of valuing veteran offensive weapons. For instance, the quarterback said he rates “production over potential” earlier this year. Young receivers must gain his trust before getting a more prominent role in the Green Bay Packers offense.
The veterans were always expected to have the first chance to show their value, while rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs adjusted to the pro game. Now, with Allen Lazard handling an ankle injury, free-agent addition Sammy Watkins will have a big role to start the season.
And head coach Matt LaFleur, who worked with Watkins as the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator in 2017, is ready to take advantage of what the former first-round pick can still do.
“Obviously, we have history going back to L.A. together. So that definitely gives you a pretty good idea of what he’s capable of doing,” LaFleur said in June. “I still think — I don’t think his game has fallen off at all since we were together in 2017. A little of it has been maybe a little bit lack of opportunity. But I think he’s a guy that’s out there working hard. And he’s going to be a big part of our offense.”
Watkins had a quiet start at training camp, falling behind Lazard and Doubs. At a certain point, there was even a question if Watkins would make the roster. His contract is a one-year prove-it deal, so guaranteed money was not a significant factor in the decision.
But beginning with the joint practices with the New Orleans Saints, Watkins stepped up and began to show Rodgers how important he will be, especially while Lazard is out.
“I’ll tell you what, ever since the Saints practice, the first one, Sammy has been a different player,” Aaron Rodgers highlighted. “He’s been super reliable. Every practice, he’s made a bunch of plays.”
Watkins is incredibly talented. The Buffalo Bills took him fourth-overall in 2014, ahead of Davante Adams, Odell Beckham, and Mike Evans. He also is schematically essential for the Packers.
Lazard is a big slot, while Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers are also primarily slot receivers. Therefore, Sammy Watkins is the only veteran on the active roster who is a true boundary receiver. The coaching staff has indicated that Watkins will be the X receiver on the design of the plays, which shows how much they trust him to play at a high level and attract defenders. The big if, as it has been throughout his career, is his ability to stay healthy.
“I’m just trying to really be consistent,” Watkins said during training camp. “That’s been the knock on my career — consistency. And I just think I’ve got to continue to stack good days on top of good days. Because you look at the great wide receivers – Davante Adams, Ja’Marr Chase – they’re not just good one day. They’re consistent. They’re consistent every day, every week. And I think that’s where I’ve got to translate my game — coming to practice and being good at practice every day, not having an off day.”
Lazard might not lose much time. He wasn’t even ruled out for the Sunday game against the Minnesota Vikings to open the season. But considering the different types of players they are, Watkins has a chance to be important moving forward as the best veteran option to play outside. Meanwhile, the rookies, especially Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, have time to develop without being forced into more significant roles immediately.
The best season of Sammy Watkins’ career was 2015, his second year in the NFL when he had 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns for the Bills. Since then, Watkins has had some solid, if unspectacular, performances. Two years later, he had 593 yards and eight touchdowns with Matt LaFleur in Los Angeles — similar numbers to what Lazard had for the Packers last season. However, injuries have been a theme for his career. Watkins played 16 games in a season only once, in his rookie year in 2014. Last season, he played 13 games for the Baltimore Ravens, with 394 yards and only one touchdown.
It’s unrealistic to expect a fully 17-game season from Watkins, or production like he had early in his career. But the veteran can undoubtedly surpass the value of his low-risk contract and be an extremely useful part of Green Bay’s offensive plan.