OWINGS MILLS, Md. — On the first play of a 7-on-7 period at Ravens training camp July 30, Trace McSorley dropped back and lofted a pass to the right corner of the end zone, where wide receiver Sammy Watkins leaped up and grabbed the touchdown beyond the reach of safety Chuck Clark.
Later, Watkins caught a slant from McSorley in front of cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and he also caught a deep pass from Tyler Huntley while covered by safety Nigel Warrior.
Through the first three days of training camp, Watkins has shined as the most visible addition to a passing game that is banking on an infusion of talent to improve its effectiveness and efficiency. This comes after a June minicamp in which Watkins appeared to be rapidly developing chemistry with starting quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Although Jackson has been sidelined early in training camp after testing positive for COVID-19, Watkins’ play has remained consistently productive while taking reps with McSorley and Huntley.
“Sammy’s a gem,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said after the July 30 workout. “He’s a great player and a great person. … Sammy to me is one of the best receivers in the NFL, period.”
The relationship between Roman and Watkins dates back to 2015, when Roman took over as the Buffalo Bills’ offensive coordinator. Watkins, then in his second season after being the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Clemson, had the most productive season of his career in 2015, with 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns, the latter two both career highs.
Watkins’ career, though, has been slowed by injuries, and that’s one reason he was available to be signed by the Ravens to a one-year, $6 million deal (including incentives) this offseason.
Watkins, 28, played for the Kansas City Chiefs for the past three years, with 37 catches for 421 yards and two touchdowns last year. But he missed six games with hamstring and calf injuries last season and missed a combined 14 games in three seasons in Kansas City. He missed much of the 2016 season with the Buffalo Bills on injured reserve with a foot injury, then played one year with the Los Angeles Rams.
His rookie year was the only one in which he has played in every game.
Speaking after the Ravens training camp practice July 29, Watkins said he understands that questions about his health are sure to surface, but that injuries are “part of the game.”
He said he has been working closely with the Ravens training and conditioning staffs and added, “I just think I’m in a different space here, and just a great environment to help me stay healthy and stay mentally stable to go out there and perform every day.”
If he can stay on the field, Watkins figures to be a major boost for a Ravens passing attack that ranked last in the league in 2020 with 171.2 yards a game. Head coach John Harbaugh has downplayed that ranking, saying the Ravens throw less than any other team, so a low ranking based on yardage is likely. But he has acknowledged that the team needs to be more efficient and effective in its passing attack, and the Ravens sought to address that by signing Watkins and drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round and Tylan Wallace in the fourth.
Watkins, 28, brings both playoff pedigree, with back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, and seasoned experience to a receivers room that features two rookies, two second-year players and two third-year players at the top of the depth chart.
“I’ve been in the league eight years, and I had some guys take care of me,” he said. “So if I can help anyone out in our group, or anyone around the building … I’ve definitely got to take on that role.”
Roman says that in meetings and on the field, Watkins indeed has been a mentor to the young group of receivers.
“He’s doing a great job, really, in everything,” Roman said. “Just his presence, his communication with the other receivers, the advice he’s giving them. He’s a much more seasoned player than I knew in his second year. It’s really fun to see him. Every day with him is a great day.”
TRAINING CAMP NOTEBOOK:
WR MARQUISE BROWN REMAINS SIDELINED, CBS MARCUS PETERS, ANTHONY AVERETT RETURN: Wide receiver Marquise Brown missed the July 30 workout after leaving practice early the day before. Coach John Harbaugh didn’t meet with the media July 30 but suggested Brown was dealing with a minor muscle injury and the Ravens would be cautious with him. Cornerback Marcus Peters returned to the field after missing one practice with a toenail injury, and cornerback Anthony Averett was on the field for the first time in three camp practices. Harbaugh earlier had explained Averett’s absence by saying he had not passed the conditioning test.
DLS DEREK WOLFE, BRANDON WILLIAMS SIT OUT: Veteran defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Brandon Willams did not practice. There were no injury updates since Harbaugh did not meet with the media after the workout, so it’s unclear whether they were just getting a veteran day off. Offensive guard Ben Bredeson (undisclosed) also missed practice for the first time this summer.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson and running back Gus Edwards remain on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list. Others who missed practice for the third straight day include cornerback Iman Marshall (knee), linebacker Otaro Alaka (knee), tackle Ja’Wuan James (Achilles), tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle), tight end Nick Boyle (knee) and tight end Jake Breeland (knee).
ROMAN COMMUNICATING WITH JACKSON: Although Lamar Jackson is in self-isolation while on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said he has “a method of communication with Lamar.” He acknowledged that having the starting quarterback miss significant time in training camp is “not a positive, but we have to create a positive out of this thing.” He added that backups Trace McSorley and Tyler Huntley, working so often with the first unit, “are getting reps that guys pray for.”
PETERS MAKES A FAN: Late in practice, cornerback Marcus Peters gave his gold-soled cleats to a young fan who was lining the ropes near the practice field. Autograph stations are not permitted at training camp this year because of COVID protocols, but players are finding ways to interact with fans when they can. Earlier in the practice, safety Anthony Levine Sr. threw a ball to some fans.
STADIUM PRACTICE: The Ravens hold their free stadium practice at M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday night, July 31, at 6 p.m. All 37,000 passes allotted for the practice were claimed within a day, and players and coaches alike have said they look forward to being back in the stadium with fans once again.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for the fans that are really football nerds to get in there and look at our team up close and personal in a practice like that,” Harbaugh said.