OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens' hopes of unleashing a more balanced offense don't merely hinge on the development of star quarterback Lamar Jackson. The effectiveness of new wide receiver Sammy Watkins will have plenty to do with how much this passing game evolves, as well. That's a topic that tends to get lost in all the talk about Jackson's current issues with COVID-19: This is the year when the people around him ultimately determine whether he becomes a Super Bowl champion.
As much as the Ravens have tried to help Jackson -- who is supposed to return to practice by Friday or Saturday after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list -- the reality is, he's never had a bigger group of weapons around him than the collection general manager Eric DeCosta has currently assembled. The team has used first-round picks on wide receivers in two of the last three drafts (Marquise Brown was taken 25th overall in 2019 and Rashod Bateman was selected 27th overall this year). They've amassed targets who possess breathtaking speed, reliable hands and the ability to separate through crisp route-running.
The most accomplished among them is Watkins, an eighth-year pro who signed a one-year, $6 million deal in Baltimore this offseason after spending the last three seasons in Kansas City. He's the guy who won a Super Bowl two years ago and knows quite a bit about what it takes to claim a title.
The catch with Watkins, who was drafted fourth overall in 2014 (by the Bills), always has been whether he can stay healthy, as he's only played one season -- his rookie year -- when he didn't miss a game. If Watkins can be available, then his most important job will be helping a bunch of young receivers grow up in a hurry.
"I was the oldest guy in the receivers' room in Kansas City, and I'm bringing that same thing here," Watkins said. "We're going to be unselfish. We're going to play for each other. We're going to try not to have egos involved. We feel like this group is young, but we want the best for each other. If we can keep that mentality all throughout the season, this receiver group can be one of the best in the league."
There isn't a person who follows the NFL who doesn't understand what Watkins and his teammates are trying to accomplish. The Ravens have boasted the league's most dominant rushing attack over the past two years. They've also been one of the worst passing teams in the league during that span, largely because they've been so prolific with their ground game. The more the Ravens have struggled in the postseason -- they lost in the Divisional Round in both the 2019 and 2020 playoffs -- the more critics have pointed to a one-dimensional offense as the major problem in their failures.
Watkins brings instant credibility to the Ravens because he heard those complaints and still wanted to be in Baltimore. He found familiar coaches he'd worked with on other teams, including offensive coordinator Greg Roman (they were in Buffalo together in 2015 and '16), pass-game specialist Keith Williams (who's served as a personal coach for Watkins) and wide receivers coach Tee Martin (who helped Watkins prepare for the draft). He admired Jackson's playmaking ability, as well as the possibilities in this kind of offense. As Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said, "We're going to have opportunities for guys to catch and run. There should be more space with the running game and Lamar setting things up with the way they move. It should be a very exciting offense."
"Two years ago, we were No. 1 in the league in pass efficiency," Roman said in reference to the quarterback rating ESPN gave Jackson in his MVP 2019 season. "And that dropped last year (to seventh). We want to get that back. We don't care about passing yards. We care about passing efficiency. People talk about receivers not being involved. Well, they caught 34 touchdowns over the last two years. ... We'll be strategic about how we use guys, but when teams try to overload us on the run, we want to hurt them."
Watkins should be a serious weapon when it comes to meeting that goal. When he's been healthy, he's been effective. Watkins missed two games in 2019, then exploded in the postseason. He had seven receptions for 114 yards in the AFC title game and five catches for 98 yards in the Chiefs' Super Bowl LIV win over the San Francisco 49ers. There's a reason why Kansas City head coach Andy Reid once said his high-powered offense functioned better when Watkins was on the field.
Watkins -- who sat out eight games last season, including playoffs, and barely played in a Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay -- swears that his body is right at this point. He feels like he's 19 years old instead of 28 and writes off those past injuries to the belief that "everything happens for a reason." Watkins also is candid about his intention to deliver more of that postseason success than his regular-season disappearances. The desire to dominate hasn't abandoned a receiver who spent most of the last three years feasting heavily on underneath routes instead of making splashier plays.
"I honestly feel like I'm going to have one of my best years," Watkins said. "I'm lifting the weights. I have great coaches coaching me. And my mentality is totally different. I'm trying to get the ball on every play. In Kansas City, I looked at it like, 'I'll play my role. Let me open Tyreek Hill up. Let me open Travis Kelce up.' Now it's like I'm not worried about getting somebody else open. I'm thinking, 'I'm going to beat this dude and get the ball.' "
Watkins hopes every other receiver on the Ravens brings a similar tenacity to the position. He's spent ample time reinforcing that message, especially on a roster with so many young players. This team won't lack for variety or depth with regard to the men catching Jackson's passes. What's vital is that they're all on the same page about what the Ravens offense is trying to become, that there are more than enough balls to go around when you're winning.
Harbaugh also made it clear that his team is still about substance over style. "I want touchdowns being scored and the ball being protected," the coach said. "If you watch football, you understand what we're doing is different than from what anybody else is trying to do. It's not going to look the same. So we're not concerned with pundits or experts saying it has to look like this or that. We've got a vision for our offense. It's just a matter of building what we want and lining up players who can execute it."
The Ravens will learn soon if Watkins is worth the investment. He's not coming in with the kind of big-money deal Kansas City provided in 2018 (three years, $48 million), and this is the fourth team of his career (in addition to the Bills and Chiefs, Watkins spent 2017 with the Los Angeles Rams). However, the Chiefs benefited from the idea that difference-makers don't always have to be the players with the best numbers. Sometimes, they're just the dudes who simply understand what it takes to get the job done.