As the NFL ramps up into training camp, the nagging questions about the Green Bay Packers’ receiving options still don’t have any answers. Losing Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling means this group looks drastically different than last year. Drafting three receivers means they are significantly lacking in experience. The potential solution to that problem is Sammy Watkins, whose off-season signing with Green Bay has been somewhat overlooked.
The former first-round pick brings a familiarity with the offense and eight years of veteran experience to this young receiving corps. Unfortunate injury luck has kept Watkins from living up to his status as the fourth-overall pick in 2014. Can he revive his career in Green Bay? What are realistic expectations for him this season?
Watkins began his career with the Buffalo Bills. It started with a bang. He notched 982 receiving yards and six TDs as a rookie, and he had 1,047 yards and nine TDs in his second season. But injuries and growing frustrations with his situation led to a change of scenery. Buffalo traded him to the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.
Watkins had a decent 2017 under Matt LaFleur, LA’s offensive coordinator at the time. Watkins racked up 593 yards and eight touchdowns. The following season, he signed a three-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs. However, he never emerged as a go-to option in the high-powered Andy Reid offense. Still, Watkins played a major role in Super Bowl LIV, tallying up 98 yards and making a big 38-yard catch on the game-winning drive. And this Packers team could use a player who knows how to beat the San Francisco 49ers in the postseason.
Injuries and inconsistency plagued Watkins’ stint in Kansas City, and it was more of the same in his lone year with the Baltimore Ravens in 2021. He’ll hope to revive his career in Green Bay the way De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas did last season.
Fortunately for Watkins, Green Bay’s receiver room is wide open. Adams is gone, opening up seven million targets per game, and those targets have to go somewhere. Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb should see a good number of them, and Lazard is the favorite to play the WR1 role, but there’s no clear No. 3 option yet.
Amari Rodgers returns, and Lazard should play a more prominent role in the offense this season. However, he hasn’t produced enough at this point to be a shoo-in for the role. LaFleur will want to get the rookies involved quickly to build that vital chemistry with Rodgers. That’s especially true for Christian Watson, for whom they traded up. With a strong preseason, Watson could work his way into the starting lineup, but Watkins’ experience could make him the favorite.
Watkins also had his best seasons in Buffalo and Los Angeles. Coincidentally, LaFleur was the OC in LA, and Jason Vrable, the Packers’ WR coach, was an assistant with the Bills. LaFleur and the coaching staff are hoping they can use these connections to get Watkins acclimated quickly and produce right away.
But even with these obvious connections and the wide-open competition, there isn’t even a guarantee Watkins will make the final roster. ESPN’s Rob Demovsky believes Watkins is a strong training camp cut candidate.
“The Packers didn’t invest much in Watkins — $350,000 signing bonus as part of a one-year deal,” Demovsky wrote. “They’ve cut free-agent signees with bigger bonuses (see Devin Funchess). While they don’t have much veteran experience at the position, they did load up at receiver in the draft. If all three draft picks (Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, and Samori Toure) look ready to contribute by Week 1, perhaps Watkins won’t stick.”
The mention of Funchess is an important bit, as his situation was similar to Watkins’. Funchess joined a relatively shallow receiving corps but never played a regular-season game for the team. Obviously, there were different circumstances at play, but it shows Green Bay isn’t afraid to cut the veteran in favor of the unproven young receivers.
Watkins, Watson, Doubs, and Toure will all need time to build chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. With Rodgers unlikely to play in the preseason, that only provides a short window of time. Watkins may have more NFL experience, but the targets will go to whoever Rodgers favors, and the rookies will make the roster regardless. Watkins will need a strong training camp to stay with the team.
Of course, the unfortunate elephant in the room for Watkins is if he can stay healthy. Watkins didn’t shy away from the topic during mandatory minicamp, explaining the changes he’s made to fight back. Watkins’ injury luck is unfortunate, and it’s extremely disheartening to be labeled as “injury-prone,” but the concern is there.
If Watkins stays ahead of the rookies and remains healthy, he has a real chance to revitalize his career. It’s not unrealistic he could be a 600- to 700-yard player if he catches Rodgers’ eye early. The Packers probably don’t have a 1,000-yard receiving option this season, and Rodgers will have to spread the ball around and rely on the run game more than he’s used to. But a healthy Watkins can put up WR2 or WR3 numbers.
Or the Packers could cut him before the regular season begins. It really depends on how quickly the rookies get involved. The unfortunate reality for Watkins is that many factors are out of his control. He’ll undoubtedly be a player to watch later this month.