GREEN BAY — Just a few days earlier, Sammy Watkins had been sitting on his couch, contemplating his football future — and, he says, “getting fat.” He had been imagining his post-NFL life, and he was more than a little worried it was already underway and he just didn’t know it yet.
Then, following a call from his agent informing him the Green Bay Packers were interested in him, and after packing a bag and hopping on the next flight to Austin Straubel International Airport, Watkins was getting another chance.
Hours later, after signing a one-year, prove-it contract, his iPhone was doo-doo-doodling to life with a FaceTime call. And when Watkins answered, he was stunned to see the long-haired, bearded guy at the other end of the video feed.
“I’m thinking, like, ‘I’m going to be out of a job,’” Watkins recounted following the Packers’ second mandatory minicamp practice Wednesday afternoon. “To get that call (from Rodgers) was like, ‘Man, I got another opportunity, another chance to come in and play hard and stay healthy and hopefully play for another three or four years or five or six years, whatever that is.’
People are also reading…
“After injury after injury, you kind of get worried. ‘What is my destiny? What team is going to pick me up?’ To get this opportunity is a blessing for me.
“To get that call, it definitely changed my whole outlook on coming into this season and how I want to play. And I just can’t wait to get started.”
Watkins may very well turn out to be a low-risk, high-reward godsend for the Packers’ receiver-starved offense. Or Green Bay could be merely the final stop during an NFL career marked by unrealized expectations and inconsistent production.
But give Watkins this much: He could have easily blamed his previous disappointments on bad luck with injuries, or having to change teams and schemes and offensive coordinators so many times, or not getting enough opportunities in recent years.
Instead, he owned his failures on Wednesday, acknowledging he didn’t do enough to prevent the injuries that have so often derailed him, and saying he is more responsible for his career not living up to his expectations than any unfortunate circumstances or events.
And that’s why he’s viewing this as a new beginning to a career that he hopes will be vastly different in its second act than it has been during his first eight NFL seasons.
“I told the coaches, ‘My back is against the wall. My career hasn’t been what I projected it to be, and 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 of his conversations with coach Matt LaFleur and wide receivers coach Jason Vrable — both of whom have coached him at previous stops.
“That’s been the knock on my career — to stay on the field. I think this is the best place to stay healthy, stay on the field and catch a lot of balls.”
Watkins, who turns 29 next Tuesday, entered the league as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft but hasn’t played a full season since his rookie year with the Buffalo Bills. He has compiled just 116 receptions for 1,488 yards and six touchdowns over the past three seasons — totals that are all fewer than the 123 receptions for 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns that departed star wide receiver Davante Adams put up during the 2021 season alone.
During a 10-minute conversation with reporters, Watkins repeatedly emphasized the importance of staying healthy. He admitted he wasn’t proactive enough about taking care of his body in the past, and he says he’s taking that part of being a professional more seriously.
“I can’t stop injuries. What I can try to do is prevent them,” Watkins said. “I think my career has been good — got a Super Bowl (with the Kansas City Chiefs) — but I’m here trying to revive my career and play at the highest level and be the best that I can.
“When I’m on the field, I can catch balls, I can score, and I’m a dominant player. But the key is staying on the field.”
The last time Watkins and LaFleur were together was in 2017, after the Bills traded Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams. With LaFleur serving as coach Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator, Watkins caught 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns.
“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. “I don’t think his game has fallen off at all since we were together in 2017.”
Asked if Watkins, who finished with career lows in receptions (27) and receiving yards (394) while playing in 13 games last season for the Baltimore Ravens, must prove his game hasn’t fallen off, LaFleur nodded.
“I would say so — and that’s been part of our conversation,” LaFleur replied. “I know he’s highly motivated, and watching the way he works and the way he handles his business, he’s a true pro. So, I think we’re going to get a great version of Sammy Watkins.”
Rodgers is making the same bet. The two were on the field for the first time together during the team’s two minicamp practices — Rodgers hadn’t attended any organized team activity practices and Watkins had only been a part-time participant at OTAs — and the four-time NFL MVP believes Watkins’ realization that he might be at the end of the road will prove to be game-changing for him.
That was among the points Rodgers made to Watkins during their FaceTime call after he signed his one-year, $1.85 million contract — a deal that included just $350,000 guaranteed.
“I knew he was somebody we had targeted and we were interested in, and I was 100 percent on board with that,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s important (to) get guys who have a lot to play for, and I think Sammy has the opportunity to travel down a new path in his career — and we can help him here as he continues to improve and gets opportunities.
“The most important thing for receivers and pass catchers and ball carriers is opportunities, and there’s definitely going to be opportunities for him to make plays for us in this offense. I love the disposition, I really enjoy the person, and I think he has everything right in front of him to have as productive a year as he wants to.”
During the same Q&A session with reporters, Rodgers also said he’s excited about Allen Lazard, who has not yet signed his restricted free-agent tender but is the team’s most productive returning receiver, “getting an opportunity to be a No. 1 receiver” and that he’s “not worried about him at all stepping into that role” despite Lazard’s offseason absence.
Nevertheless, with Lazard’s limited production (he set career highs with 40 receptions for 513 yards and eight TDs last year) and the unknowns of having four rookie wide receivers on the roster (Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Samori Toure and Danny Davis), Watkins has a clear path toward big numbers if he stays on the field with Rodgers.
“This is probably one of the best situations I’ve ever been in in my career — to play with one of the best quarterbacks in the league, one of the best coaches, one of the best organizations,” Watkins said. “To get this opportunity is really a blessing because I did nothing last year. I was hurt. And to get a call from Matt and this organization revived me. And hopefully I can have a healthy season and play hard and win a ton of games.”
NFL Draft: Get to know the newest members of the Green Bay Packers
QUAY WALKER, LB, GEORGIA
DEVONTE WYATT, DT, GEORGIA
CHRISTIAN WATSON, WR, NORTH DAKOTA STATE
SEAN RHYAN, OL, UCLA
ROMEO DOUBS, WR, NEVADA
ZACH TOM, OL, WAKE FOREST
KINGSLEY ENAGBARE, LB, SOUTH CAROLINA
TARIQ CARPENTER, LB, GEORGIA TECH
JONATHAN FORD, DT, MIAMI
RASHEED WALKER, OL, PENN STATE
SAMORI TOURE, WR, NEBRASKA