Sammy Watkins has provided a new slant at wide receiver for the playoff-bound Rams
The main attraction was the deep-ball possibilities.
After the Rams traded for receiver Sammy Watkins during training camp, Rams coach Sean McVay raved about Watkins’ ability to “stretch the field vertically.”
Watkins occasionally has flashed that skill by blowing past defenders while running a near straight line, but he has been most effective working angles, particularly near the goal line.
Several of his team-best eight touchdown catches have come on slant routes.
“It’s the initial move,” Watkins said, “and the physicality that I play with.”
After being held out with other starters in last week’s regular-season finale, Watkins intends to pick up where he left off when the Rams host the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC wild-card game Saturday at the Coliseum.
Sitting out against the San Francisco 49ers could provide a boost, the fourth-year pro said.
“I’m going to have a lot of energy,” Watkins said, chuckling.
That is exactly what McVay anticipates from Watkins and others who were rested or allowed to heal last week in preparation for the Rams’ first playoff game since 2004.
The Rams are seeded No. 3 in the NFC behind the No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles and No. 2 Minnesota Vikings. If the Rams defeat the Falcons, they will advance to play the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Jan. 14.
Watkins’ durability was a question mark in August when the Rams sent cornerback E.J. Gaines and a second-round draft pick to the Bills in exchange for a 24-year-old receiver who was the No. 4 pick in the 2014 draft.
The 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins had undergone hip surgery, two foot surgeries and suffered other injuries during his career. In 2016, because of a foot injury, Watkins was limited to eight games.
But he has not sat out a game this season because of injury.
Watkins, with 39 receptions, trails running back Todd Gurley (64 catches), rookie receiver Cooper Kupp (62) and Robert Woods (52).
Watkins has found the end zone, however, more than any other Rams receiver.
“He’s a guy that a lot of times too will dictate coverage, where he ends up having some guys travel with him,” McVay said in regard to the attention Watkins demands from defenses. “Or he’ll maybe have some safety play over the top and that opens up some things around him.”
Watkins made his presence known in a road victory over the 49ers in a Week 3, when he caught six passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. One of his catches was a highlight-reel, over-the-shoulder catch.
“I feel like it was just my first breakout game — my ‘Welcome to the Rams,’ ” he said.
But as Woods, Kupp and Gurley produced, Watkins got few targets.
In a Week 4 victory at Dallas, Watkins caught only one pass. The next week, in a loss to the Seattle Seahawks, he was targeted only four times, and did not catch a pass for only the second time in his NFL career.
Former Rams receiver Torry Holt tweeted about Watkins’ lack of targets and catches. Watkins responded with a tweet that read, “Something gotta be going on”, adding an emoji of a zippered mouth.
McVay quickly sat down with Watkins to discuss the situation.
A few weeks later, Watkins said that he was no longer worrying about how many times he was getting the ball. He was concentrating, he said, on blocking and staying ready for his opportunities.
“The ball could come to you at a special time, and if you’re pouting or mad or upset, you’re definitely going to drop it,” he said recently. “So my job was just, ‘Hey man, continue to do better with blocking and what I need to do.’ ”
In a Week 9 rout of the New York Giants, Watkins caught a 66-yard pass in stride from Jared Goff, the first of six touchdown catches in eight games.
Several came after outmuscling and outmaneuvering overmatched defensive backs on short slant patterns.
“When we get on the goal line and I see a little guy on me, I don’t care what look it is,” Watkins said. “I want you to throw it to me.”
In his last game, Watkins beat Tennessee Titans cornerback Adoree’ Jackson on a slant for a three-yard touchdown.
“On the goal line, most of the time you’re getting press coverage,” Watkins said. “And one of my specialties is being physical.
“Coach trusts me, that I’m going to go in there full speed, and if it’s a play where I have to take the hit, I’m going to take the hit and catch the ball.”
Watkins also is effective on slant routes because of his unusually strong hands, receivers coach Eric Yarber said.
“We call them aggressive hands,” Yarber said, “or grown-man hands.”
Said Goff: “I know when he gets a step on somebody, if I put it anywhere close to him he’s going to make that catch.”
Watkins is earning $3.1 million this season in the final year of his rookie contract. The Rams are expected to consider putting either the transition tag or franchise tag on Watkins for 2018, and then make a long-term decision about him before the 2019 season. A franchise-tagged receiver would have made about $15.8 million this season.
Watkins said he would like to remain with the Rams. He enjoys playing for McVay and has developed a connection with Goff.
“I love it here,” he said. “I don’t want to change teams. That’s not what a guy of my stature wants to do, bounce around.
“I’ve got a family so I’m looking forward to staying. But you know it’s a business.
“If I go, I’ll be hurt. … I just want to stay here and ball, that’s what any player wants to do. You don’t want to hop from team to team, quarterback to quarterback.”
Kick returner Pharoh Cooper did not practice because of a shoulder injury suffered last week against the 49ers, McVay said. Barring a setback in recovery, Cooper is expected to play Saturday, McVay said. Linebacker Mark Barron (Achilles) and receiver Mike Thomas (ankle) did not practice. ... The Falcons placed guard Andy Levitre on injured reserve because of a triceps injury. Ben Garland, who has played in his place for most of the last four games, will start. Running back Devonta Freeman (knee), and receivers Julio Jones (ankle and ribs) and Andre Roberts (knee and ankle) did not practice for Atlanta. … Gurley and linebacker Alec Ogletree, who played in college at Georgia, attended the Rose Bowl and saw the Bulldogs defeat Oklahoma to advance to the College Football Playoff championship game against Alabama. Ogletree wore a “Just Won More” T-shirt in the locker room.
Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @latimesklein
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