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Sammy Watkins brings much needed physicality to Ravens passing game

The Ravens have lacked bully pass catchers

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

At just over 20-years-old, Sammy Watkins ran a 4.43s 40-yard dash in Indianapolis during the 2014 NFL Combine. That included a 1.55s 10-yard split. When thinking of Watkins at Clemson University, or his early days with the Bills, you think speed. The Super Bowl LIV champion who made one of the plays of the game against the 49ers 2019 All-Pro cornerback, Richard Sherman, still has some speed to his game. I’m not here to tell you “he’s not the same burner he once was, but he still can show off the jets from time to time.”

The truth is Watkins still possesses burst. Some has likely faded, but he can still move well. More importantly the most underrated aspect of Watkins game, both as a runner after the catch and route runner, is his physicality.

At just over six-feet tall and typically weighing around 210-pounds, the former Chief has always had a powerful base. His aggressiveness in his stem is something that the Ravens pass catchers have lacked since. . . Well. . . Steve Smith Sr.

While Watkins isn’t telling defensive backs to, “ice up son,” he’s more of a bully who has unique twitchy nuance in his movements than most seem to realize. Not to say Sammy can’t still catch a seam and slam the accelerator, but to understand what he brings to the Ravens offense, we must first look at what he’s been. I went back and watched every target thrown to Watkins (and a fair share of non-targets) over the past two seasons to get a sense of who Watkins has been recently.

The first context that felt important when watching the former fourth-overall pick was how unique of a situation he was in while playing for Kansas City. Watkins wasn’t the fastest, nor the second fastest Chiefs receiver. Mecole Hardman and Tyreek Hill both have world class speed. In 2019 Watkins was targeted deep 15 times, reeling in eight receptions for 291 yards and two touchdowns. The Chiefs changed his role dramatically in 2020. In fact, Watkins was only targeted once over 20 air yards last season, which might not have even been intended for Sammy. His average distance of target in 2020 was 8.1 air yards, which was eighth on the Chiefs. That number was down from 10.5 in 2019, almost 23%. Watkins wasn’t the asked to be the physical, jump ball, ‘have to have it’ receiver either. That was Kelce. Watkins saw only four contested targets in 2020. So what was Watkins for Kansas City?

He was the middle man. Faster than Kelce, bigger than Hill and Hardman, while more explosive than Robinson. When defenses blitzed Kansas City, they tightly monitored Kelce and Hill in lieu of Watkins. If aligned in the slot, Watkins would often be marked by a linebacker, safety playing off, or sometimes forgotten. He was never being bracketed, double covered or overcompensated for. Don’t get it twisted, teams accounted for Watkins. New England assigned Stephon Gilmore to him in 2020. Watkins beat single coverage with some consistency, although drops and miscommunications weren’t infrequent.

Against zone coverage, he methodically found soft spots and sat down, moving the chains. 61% of his targets in 2020 came in the middle intermediate and middle shallow areas of the field. The middle man.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Watkins targets by route run 2020:

• Slant: 8 targets, 7 catchable. 3 receptions, 32 yards, 2 drops.

• Curl: 12 targets, 9 catchable, 9 receptions, 71 yards.

• Out: 5 targets, 5 catachable, 4 receptions, 40 yards.

• Dig: 6 targets, 5 catchable, 5 receptions, 75 yards.

• Corner: 3 targets, 1 catchable, 1 reception, 17 yards.

• Broken play (scramble drill): 9 targets, 9 catchable, 7 receptions, 87 yards, 1 TD.

• Drag: 4 targets, 4 catchable, 3 receptions, 56 yards.

• Whip: 1 target, 1 reception, 9yds.

• Deep cross: 2 targets, 2 catchable, 1 reception, 1 drop, 16 yards.

• Jerk: 1 target, 1 catchable, 1 reception, 6 yards.

• Flat: 1 target, 1 catchable, 1 reception, 10 yards.

• Swing: 1 target (uncatchable).

• Screen: 1 target, 1 reception, 2 yards, 1 TD.

• Comeback: 1 target, 1 catchable, 1 drop.

As his routes tell you, Watkins was asked to work the middle of the field for the most part, then work with Patrick Mahomes when he broke the pocket on broken plays, which yielded positive results. On broken plays, Watkins was 8th in the NFL in targets (9) and 5th in receptions (7). To add some color, Travis Kelce, Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews were the receivers who had more targets than Watkins (who missed six games last season). Considering Mahomes, Wilson, Allen and Jackson were the passers generating those targets, the list makes sense. One of my favorite examples of Watkins working the scramble drill was in Super Bowl LIV, when he worked Richard Sherman’s blind spot then back to Mahomes.

Now that we’ve established what Watkins has been recently, we can try to project how he will fill into the Ravens offense. Baltimore had too many slot receivers in 2020 considering they lacked adequate boundary play. With Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews, Willie Snead and Devin Duvernay all working significantly in the slot, only Miles Boykin and Marquise Brown saw over 200 snaps on the boundary. The Ravens were so desperate to find additional boundary help, they kicked the tires on Dez Bryant, who hadn’t taken an NFL snap in three years. Watkins played 53% of snaps on the boundary over the last two seasons, which should be the minimum he plays in Baltimore considering the logjam in the slot, plus Baltimore seemingly having faith in James Proche to take snaps there as well.

Baltimore is quite familiar with Watkins physicality, which makes Watkins a candidate for boundary iso reps.

Baltimore has failed to get any quality connection established since Lamar Jackson has been the starter. Not having a trustworthy boundary threat in one on one situations is debilitating. PFF’s Seth Galina eloquently detailed the Ravens iso problem.

Watkins has won in these exact situations at times, including on the game-winning drive in Super Bowl LIV.

The Chiefs were comfortable lining Watkins up isolated and asking him to win one on one at times. He could be part of the answer. Considering Watkins is on a one year deal, he isn’t a long term answer, but he’s better than what they’ve had. His ability to win on the outside exceeds what Willie Snead presented and Watkins is more experienced than Miles Boykin, who has had growing pains. If the Ravens want to overcompensate to ensure that they have receivers who can beat single coverage, spending a draft picks on Rashod Bateman, Terrace Marshall Jr., Dyami Brown or one of the higher projected receivers would fulfill that role to the maximum. That would be a way of overcompensating (in a positive way) the same way Baltimore addressed their front seven problems by adding Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, Justin Madubuike, Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison following their defensive issues that ended their 2019-20 season.

Watkins figures to have a somewhat similar role to what he had in Kansas City. With Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown being primary targets the same way Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are for the Chiefs, Watkins should draw favorable matchups and be able to move the chains. His ability to put his head down and accelerate after the catch will be a welcome sight, as the Ravens didn’t generate consistent yards after the catch throughout 2020. While Watkins has diminished in that sense to a degree, he will still provide juice.

Speculating injuries is above my expertise, but when a player hasn’t played a full season since they were barely old enough to get into a bar, it would be unwise to expect a clean bill of health for 16+ games in 2021. That’s why adding another receiver who can win in single coverage on the boundary in the draft is a wise strategy to ensure the receiver room has depth, talent and stability that Baltimore has lacked since letting Anquan Boldin go following the 2014 season.

Overall, Watkins brings physicality, big game experience and a unique skill set to an an otherwise green receiver room. In fact, Watkins 321 career receptions are more than double the rest of the current Ravens receiver’s combined (147). He’s familiar with Greg Roman (Watkins played in Roman’s offense in Buffalo) and Pass Game Specialist Keith Williams (Williams has been one of Watkins’ personal trainers). He might be the answer to unlocking the middle of the field by winning in iso situations against single coverage. Still, the Ravens would be wise to double down and ensure that they have all of the tools necessary to put up points in the playoffs and give Lamar Jackson all the tools necessary to succeed.