Watkins capitalizing on his new opportunity with Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sammy Watkins has wasted no time showing he remains a deep threat in his ninth NFL season.

He also has shown that catching passes isn’t the only way he can contribute.

Watkins is Green Bay’s leading receiver as the Packers (1-1) prepare to visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. The 29-year-old has revealed glimpses of the form he showed earlier in his career to help Green Bay adapt to the absence of two-time All-Pro wideout Davante Adams, who’s now with the Las Vegas Raiders.

“He loves ball,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He cares about it. You realize how special this opportunity is for him, and we want him to have success and to be able for this to be a trampoline for the second half of his career.”

Watkins caught three passes for 93 yards in a 27-10 triumph over the Chicago Bears and helped seal the victory with a 55-yard reception in the fourth quarter.

“That I think was one of my top plays from the last two or three years to go deep on that pass, so it felt really good,” Watkins said after the game.

Indeed, it was his longest gain since a 68-yard catch for the Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville on Sept 8, 2019. Watkins had as many as 93 yards receiving in a game just one other time since 2020, when he caught eight passes for 96 yards in the Baltimore Ravens’ 33-27 loss at Las Vegas on Sept. 14, 2021.

That underscores how much an assortment of injuries had impacted Watkins, the former Clemson star who went fourth overall in the 2014 draft.

Watkins had a combined 15 touchdown catches for Buffalo his first two seasons in the league, getting 982 yards receiving as a rookie and 1,047 in 2015.

He had eight touchdown catches in 2017 with the Los Angeles Rams when current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was their offensive coordinator.

But he had 27 receptions for 394 yards and one score with Baltimore last year to set career lows in all three categories. Watkins acknowledged during Green Bay’s mandatory minicamp that he wondered whether his career was over until the Packers called.

Now he’s making big plays again while catching passes from the reigning MVP. Even before his 55-yard reception, Watkins had a 24-yard catch that set up the Packers’ first touchdown.

“I still think he’s got a lot of juice in him,” LaFleur said. “I still think he goes out there and he is an imposing player in the run game as well. He really makes some critical blocks for us, and certainly his ability to generate big plays was evident the other night.”

Watkins’ downfield blocking helped the Packers rush for 203 yards. Watkins says he appreciates playing on a team that prioritizes blocking from its receivers.

“In this offense, you have to go down there and crack the safety,” Watkins said. “You have to get your blocks, and honestly, I think that’s fun. It keeps me going, keeps me in the game. And then the next play, they might do a play action and you’re wide open.”

Watkins’ willingness to block exemplifies why his new teammates enjoy him so much.

Rodgers discussed a text conversation he had with Watkins in the days leading up to the Bears game that helped him realize that the Packers “really got a special person who understands his role and is going to help us at some point.”

Sure enough, Watkins already has helped quite a bit.

“He’s just come in and been a fantastic teammate and great guy and real deep thinker and interesting guy (with) interests outside of football and very well-spoken and curious,” Rodgers said. “Just a fantastic guy. I love our conversations together.”

Watkins has made an impact on his younger teammates as well as his older ones.

The Packers have needed their older wideouts to set an example for their three rookie receivers after drafting Christian Watson in the second round, Romeo Doubs in the fourth and Samori Toure in the seventh.

“He’s a guy who will tell each and every one of us what we’re capable of and he’ll pick us up when we’re down or even when we’re up,” Watson said. “We continue to feed off his good energy and his positive energy.”

The Packers also are feeding off the big-play ability he continues to bring each Sunday.

NOTES: LaFleur said he has “no idea” whether OT David Bakhtiari will play Sunday. Bakhtiari, who didn’t practice Wednesday, has appeared in only one game since tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament on Dec. 31, 2020. … WR Randall Cobb didn’t practice Wednesday because of an illness. … Watkins (hamstring), Watson (hamstring), WR Allen Lazard (ankle), OT Elgton Jenkins (knee) and TE Marcedes Lewis (groin) were limited practice participants.