Packers' Sammy Watkins being patient with return from IR after pushing through 'discomfort' in his hamstring

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY – Even in the midst of his renaissance, as he was running open through the Chicago Bears secondary last month, Sammy Watkins felt his hamstring start to give.

There was “discomfort” when he made his breaks on routes. It didn’t stop him from going off, catching three passes for 93 yards, including a 55-yarder that remains the Green Bay Packers longest pass play this season. When he arrived at practice the following Wednesday, Watkins was determined to go just “85%” all afternoon.

Until the very last rep. “It’s one of those things,” Watkins said, “when you’re feeling hot, you want to just go.”

Sammy Watkins, who hasn't played since he was injured in a Week 2 game against the Chicago Bears, returned to practice on Wednesday.

Watkins went full throttle one time, a comeback route. He sprinted hard off the line and felt fine, but when he cut his route to turn back to the line of scrimmage, he stopped wrong. His heel dug into the grass at Clarke Hinkle Field, generating too much pressure on the back of his leg.

He fell on the spot instead of finishing the play, knowing something was wrong.

“I felt,” Watkins said, “it was going to tear off the bone.”

For a player who has had to learn through trial and error how to properly maintain his body, Watkins’ latest injury provided another lesson. The veteran knows better. He has had seasons derail because of returning from injury too early. In 2018, he played two weeks after dropping out of a November game against Cleveland with a right foot injury, only to leave after just five snaps against the Los Angeles Rams.

He missed the season’s final five games with the same injury.

Watkins has missed multiple games with injuries each of the three seasons since, derailing his career to the point the former fourth overall pick of the 2014 draft feared it may be over before the Packers called this offseason. This time, he pushed through an injury when his body suggested he shouldn’t. Watkins is hopeful he’s about to pick up where he left off. The Packers cleared him to practice Wednesday, his first time on the field since being put on injured reserve Week 3.

“We’ll see where he’s at,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “I don’t think anybody’s ready to say he’ll be playing this week.”

His body wasn’t the only thing that responded better to this injury. In the past, Watkins said, missing games put him in a “dark place” mentally. He would be irritable in meetings. Irritable at home. When the Packers put him on injured reserve, Watkins said his coaches emphasized to him it was OK. Take your time, they said. Knowing he had a spot waiting for him when he returned, Watkins could afford to be more patient than he was in the past.

Watkins wisely deferred the timeline of his return to the Packers medical staff, but he said Wednesday his hamstring healed remarkably fast. He’s been running full speed for a week, building up to his first practice.

“I know I can pretty much move,” Watkins said. “I’m not really worried about running full speed. I think it’s just the mentality and mindset, getting back in the groove, catch and run and making a move. I think that’s critical, and then going and getting hit, getting that block, how long can I do those things? I’ve got to get in shape. That’s where I’m pushing myself to where I’ve got to make sure I can play.

“I don’t want to have a doubt to where, oh, this and that. I’ve got to make sure nothing will happen. I don’t want to go out there and have it happen again.”

If he does play this week, Watkins will be playing with a quarterback who is less than fully healthy. Aaron Rodgers did not practice Wednesday, instead spending two hours rehabbing his injured throwing thumb. The injury is not expected to keep Rodgers out of Sunday’s game against the Washington Commanders.

Watkins hopes to rekindle his chemistry with Rodgers whenever he returns, whether it’s this week or next at the Buffalo Bills. After a strong camp, he said, it will be easier to find his rhythm with the quarterback. He also knows there is work to do so he can catch up in the offense.

LaFleur said he believes Watkins’ return will provide a boost.

“When he does come back,” LaFleur said, “he brings a lot to the table in terms of the experience of being out there. He knows what to do. He plays the game really fast. There’s not a lot of hesitation in his game. He’s extremely powerful, and he helps us not only in the pass game – which is obvious to everybody – but he’s on the best blockers I’ve been around as well. “If you couple him and guys like Allen (Lazard), that’s a pretty formidable duo on the perimeter that you don’t always get from that position.”

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