The former first-round pick has produced one 1,000-yard receiving season, coming in Year 2 with the Buffalo Bills. He’s played for the Los Angeles Rams, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens since before he signed a prove-it deal with the Packers in April.
“My career hasn’t been what I projected it to be,” Watkins said Wednesday, during the Packers’ mandatory minicamp.
Self-awareness goes a long way with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who likes a reclamation story as much as anyone.
“You get guys who have a lot to play for,” Rodgers said, “and I think Sammy has the opportunity to continue and travel down a new path in his career that we can help him with here.”
Sammy Watkins with a frank assessment of his career and how he hopes to change it in Green Bay. pic.twitter.com/dncmVGayQL— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) June 8, 2022
Watkins was the only veteran addition at receiver after the Packers traded All-Pro Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders in March. The other proven veterans in the group were Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard. General manager Brian Gutekunst supplemented that with three draft picks: Christian Watson (second round), Romeo Doubs (fourth) and Samori Toure (seventh).
On his first day working with Rodgers at the start of minicamp, Watkins flashed a glimpse of what made him the fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft. He snagged a sharply thrown pass with a pair of defensive backs all over him. It’s the type of contested catch over the middle that earns Rodgers’ respect.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to come here, play hard, catch a ton of balls, compete at the highest level and win games and fight to stay healthy,” Watkins said. “That’s been the knock on my career – to stay on the field.”
It’s been one injury-filled season after another for Watkins, who’s dealt with a variety of mostly minor – but nagging – setbacks. He missed eight games with a broken foot in 2016, which turned out to be his last year in Buffalo. He’s never played in more than 14 games in any of his seasons with the Bills, Rams (2017), Chiefs (2018-20) or Ravens (2021), due to myriad injuries, including to an ankle, foot, hamstring, calf and thigh.
He said after last season, when he didn’t catch a pass after Week 12, he legitimately thought he might be done in the NFL.
“Last year I got hurt again, [and] I’m thinking, I’m sitting on the couch like, ‘I’m going to be out of a job,’” Watkins said. “After injury after injury, you kinda get worried. What is my destiny? What team is going to pick me up?”
The Packers guaranteed him $350,000 – the entirety of his signing bonus – as part of a one-year, $1.85 million contract. It would cost the Packers the signing bonus money if they cut him coming out of training camp.
But listening to coach Matt LaFleur this week, that doesn’t sound like something they’re worried about.
“I don't think his game has fallen off at all since we were together in 2017,” said LaFleur, who was the Rams offensive coordinator when Watkins was in Los Angeles. “A little bit has been maybe a 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 said he’s been more mindful of injury prevention techniques – stretching and cold tubs among them – and needs to play at between 210 and 215 pounds. He said this offseason he allowed himself to get what he called “fat” at 220 pounds while wallowing in the possibility his career was over, but he said he's back at a leaner 215.
Cobb didn’t know Watkins before he signed with the Packers, but he’s happy to have another veteran in the receiver room. And Cobb knows there will be plenty of chances for all of them, chances that previously went to Adams.
“It’s an offense similar to what he ran when he was in L.A., so I think he knows there’s a special opportunity here,” Cobb said.
“Obviously [Adams] is an incredible player, and he deserves everything that’s come his way, but there’s going to be targets that are out there. If you watch the film, you go around and ask the league, there’s plenty of other guys that were open when [Adams] was getting the ball.”