Like many seniors, Justin Watson is working on securing his first job. Unlike many seniors, his job search has been televised.
Since Penn football’s fourth-place finish season ended in November, Watson has been training for what will certainly be a career in the National Football League. Whether that career is a month, year, or decade will be greatly affected by the early impressions he has been giving NFL scouts, and Watson has spent months making sure those impressions are good.
"I usually get in the gym around 7 am, go for a couple hours, have a break for lunch. I'm usually there until 4:00," said Watson, who is Penn's all-time leader in receiving yards, touchdowns, and receptions. "On top of that I'm still graduating [...] I've taken as many classes as I can online at night, and I'm taking a few classes remotely."
While wrapping up his Wharton undergraduate career is still on his mind, most of Watson's day centers on football. Watson said he works seven hours a day preparing for each of his major opportunities to impress scouts. He was praised for his performances at the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl all-star games, and he will again get the opportunity to show his skills at his Pro Day, which Watson says will be hosted in Franklin Field on March 19. He also says he had the opportunity to talk to somebody from all 32 teams at the all-star games.
Missing from his schedule is the NFL Combine, arguably the most important pre-draft event for a prospect. While over 300 NFL hopefuls will travel to Indianapolis next week to run drills and interview with scouts and coaches, Watson was not invited.
While coming from a non-FBS school doesn't damn a player's draft chances, being labelled a "small school player" is almost always a disadvantage. It is not uncommon for talented players, especially from small schools, to be passed over for the Combine. NFL stars like Adam Thielen, Danny Woodhead, Tyreek Hill, and Malcom Butler came from smaller football programs and were snubbed an invite. Only Hill was drafted.
“The chip's always there," Watson said of his experience preparing for the draft. "When you’re walking out with the 'P' on your helmet and people ask 'Is that Penn or Penn State?' or 'What’s Penn?' it all just adds to it a little more."
"I’ve learned to just meet it with a smile and use it for myself. You can't go out there and be a diva about it. You come back, take it into the gym, and work through it."
Draft boards have not been friendly to Watson, either. NFL.com ranks him a 4.94 out of 10 – 35th-best among receivers – and claims that he “lacks suddenness in movements” and that his college “level of competition at cornerback didn't offer challenging looks.” CBS Sports ranks him 36 among wide receivers, and Walter Football places him at No. 24.
Does the lack of love from these popular online forums bother Watson? According to Watson, not a bit.
“One thing I've learned through this process is to not put a lot of emphasis on websites and things that are online," he said, later saying, "What I hear is the ability to create separation and catch balls are the two most important things, and those are two things I do well."
Watson intends to prove his critics wrong for years, whether he’s drafted or not. The opportunity to play professional football has been a dream of his since his childhood days in Southwest Pennsylvania, and with that dream coming so close to reality, J-Wat says he is ready to work.
Asked whether a fantasy football player in a “Dynasty League” – one in which you can keep the same players on your team for years – should stash him this year, he chuckled and responded, “Yeah, I definitely do.”