With exactly two weeks to go before the 2022 NFL Draft, the Green Bay Packers have taken their first notable step towards reloading their wide receiver room for the upcoming season. The team is widely expected to try to acquire a wide receiver (or two, or three) in the draft, but on Thursday they inked a veteran free agent to a relatively low-cost deal that could prove to have a significant reward.
The newest Packers receiver is Sammy Watkins, the eight-year veteran who played for the Baltimore Ravens in 2021. Watkins signed a one-year contract on Thursday, which according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter is worth up to $4 million. Expect at least some of that $4 million to be in the form of incentives, and the Packers may elect to use void years once again to keep his salary cap hit especially low for the coming season.
Although Watkins has spent eight years in the NFL, he will still be just 29 years old for the 2022 season. He was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2014 a few months before his 21st birthday, and he had an immediate impact for that franchise, catching 125 passes for 2,029 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons. After an injury-riddled third campaign in Buffalo, the Bills traded him to the Los Angeles Rams, where he worked with current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur (then the Rams’ offensive coordinator).
That year in LA, Watkins finished an impressive sixth in DVOA among all wide receivers who had at least 50 targets, even though he had a middling catch rate of 56%. That performance would earn Watkins a three-year, $48 million contract from the Kansas City Chiefs during the 2018 offseason, and he repeated his excellent DVOA in his first year there with a 5th-place finish. Last offseason, he signed with the Baltimore Ravens for one year and $5 million but played just under 50% of the Ravens’ offensive snaps, by far a career low for him.
By signing Watkins, the Packers are placing a low-money bet on him returning closer to the form that saw him average over 15 yards per reception in each of his first four seasons, including that one year in Los Angeles. Furthermore, Watkins is a thickly-built receiver (6-foot-1 and about 210 pounds) who has been an effective run-blocker on the perimeter, a known focus for LaFleur and his coaching staff. With the one-year term on the deal, the Packers surely intend for Watkins to bring a veteran presence to the locker room and to help the expected early draft pick(s) acclimate to the NFL before having to take on starring roles in the offense.
The Packers’ wide receiver room now adds Watkins to a group that consists of Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers, Malik Taylor, and Juwann Winfree. The latter two players were primarily special teams contributors last season, so only Watkins and the first three names on that list are likely to have roster spots assured for 2022. That should still allow the Packers to select a pair of wideouts in the 2022 NFL Draft, particularly if one or both of them can contribute on special teams.