Wide receiver Sammy Watkins had a fairly short stay in Los Angeles, but it his time on the Rams’ offense was nevertheless impactful.
Watkins made 39 receptions for 593 yards — not the most impressive stats on paper. But he also led the team with eight touchdowns, seven of which came from inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. That made him a key cog in the Rams’ offense — one that the club will have to replace after Watkins signed with the Chiefs as an unrestricted free agent last week.
“Sammy was a big part of our offense last year — I mean we went from 32nd to first [in scoring],” general manager Les Snead said. “Did pursue him — it didn’t work out.”
“There’s a reason why he had a market — he put good things on tape,” head coach Sean McVay said. “I don’t think that’s exclusive to, maybe, the production from a numbers standpoint. He did a lot more for our offense that’s going to be a big void.”
During the season, McVay often noted how Watkins’ ability to stretch the field helped open opportunities for other members of the Rams’ offense — like AP Offensive Player of the Year running back Todd Gurley, wide receiver Robert Woods, and rookie wideout Cooper Kupp. That’s part of why in the lead up to free agency, Los Angeles was reportedly debating whether to utilize its franchise tag on Watkins or safety Lamarcus Joyner.
Clearly, Joyner was the ultimate choice. But that wasn’t an easy decision because Watkins was a player L.A. wanted to retain. And the club figured there would be a number of suitors for Watkins if he were to hit the open market.
“You always know that when you use the franchise tag on Lamarcus, there is the chance of losing Sammy. I think what you realize is that we were right on Sammy when you see the market that he did have,” McVay said. “It wasn’t exclusive to just the Chiefs. There were a lot of other teams involved that [offered] a lot of high numbers.
“And I think when you just look at the body of work, you take into account, here’s a 24 year old who was just able to stay healthy for the entire year — you see why the value was what it was,” McVay continued. “And to his credit, he earned that contract, and I think he’ll do a great job in that system playing under coach [Andy] Reid.”
But now that Watkins has departed, the Rams must figure out how they will replace the wideout’s production in the offense. According to McVay, that’s likely going to be spread out among a number of players instead of just one. The head coach indicated the club’s running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers will all likely have to step up in different ways.
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“We talked about mixing up our personnel groupings a little bit more going into next season when you just evaluate us offensively,” McVay said. He’s previously mentioned the Rams may have used too much 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers — down the stretch in 2017. “And I think that’s going to be a product of some of these younger receivers maturing, some of these young tight ends continuing to develop and enable us to mix it up. And there’s still some avenues where we can add some players — whether that be through the draft or through free agency. And it might be tight end, might be receiver. But you can never have enough playmakers.”
Los Angeles does have a number of internal options for production at wide receiver, including 2016 draft picks Mike Thomas and Pharoh Cooper. That’s even with Cooper emerging as an All-Pro returner in 2017.
“Pharoh Cooper is a guy that continues to demonstrate what he did in the return game, but I think he’s also capable of contributing on offense as well,” McVay said.
But one name in particular that’s come up as an internal option is wide receiver Josh Reynolds. Selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Reynolds was a vertical threat at Texas A&M where he recorded 164 catches for 2,877 yards and 30 touchdowns in three seasons.
Reynolds mainly played special teams as a rookie, but did start a game against the Saints in lieu of the injured Woods. He finished the season with 11 receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown. McVay said it’s tough to determine prior to the start of the offseason program whether or not Reynolds can truly fill that vertical role, adding that the young wideout did show flashes in his first year.
“I think we have a lot of confidence in Josh,” McVay said. “I thought he did a nice job, especially when Robert Woods was out for a few weeks, he had some big-time plays that he made in the New Orleans game where you know it certainly isn’t too big for him. In terms of being able to take on that role where you’re truly one of those starting guys, you’re able to win those ‘isos,’ make plays down the field — I think that’s the anticipation, that’s the hope. But until you get out there and do it, you never truly know. But we’re excited about Josh’s development, and hopefully we’ll see him continue to progress.”