After a record-setting four years with Penn football, wide receiver Justin Watson is trying to take his game to the pros. And Monday was a big step towards that.
Watson shined in his pro day, which was attended by scouts from at least 20 NFL teams. Scouts clocked Watson’s 40-yard dash between 4.35 and the mid-4.4s, with the consensus around 4.41 and 4.42. He also completed 20 reps in the 225-pound bench press, which would have been good for fourth among receivers at the NFL Combine, and posted a 40-inch vertical jump.
Joe Linta, Watson’s agent, was pleased with Watson’s performance.
“Justin had one of the more amazing days in recent memory. Very few WR’s have ever had a 40-inch vertical, do 20 reps at 225 and run in the 4.3’s,” Linta said via text message. “More importantly, he is an exemplary person who you would want to marry your daughter.”
Watson worked with XPE Training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at first to prepare for the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, before spending five weeks dedicated to the 40-yard dash and other pro day training. He returned to campus a week-and-a-half ago to train at Penn’s “bubble” facility at Penn Park, where the pro day took place. He said his 40-yard dash time was in line with his training times and was proud to have caught every pass thrown to him when running routes with a quarterback.
Coach Ray Priore was similarly impressed, and hopes NFL teams will see what he sees in his former star receiver.
“He’s the complete package. He’s proven himself on the field, off the field, his character, his football knowledge, he’s been asked to play and perform in those all-star games and he did a fine job,” Priore said. “In my time here, he’s in that small percentage of guys I feel has a really great opportunity to take it to the next step.”
Watson’s 4.42 40-yard dash time would rank very highly among the receivers that were invited to the Combine. Only two receivers at the Combine ran faster than 4.41, with seven receivers between 4.41 and 4.43.
According to researchers like RotoViz.com's Anthony Amico and PlayerProfiler.com's Matt Kelley, 40-yard dash times at pro days tend to approximately 0.03 to 0.05 seconds faster than those seen at the NFL Combine due to different timing measurements.
Either way, Watson’s time is still impressive. Kelley said that Watson’s "Speed Score," a metric which adjusts for both height and weight, will end up around the 90th percentile for wide receivers.
Amico and Kelley were both excited by Watson’s day overall. Though both admitted that the wideout's agility metrics were slightly below-average, Kelley specified that Watson may have above-average agility if one adjusts for size and compares him to the bigger receivers in his cohort. And he maintains that today was a big win for Watson.
“It’s incredibly important that Justin Watson demonstrated this upper-percentile athleticism because now you can look at his college production differently and with a much higher level of certainty say his game is going to translate,” Kelley said.
One of the questions that has surrounded Watson as draft season approaches is whether he will be able to get free from NFL cornerbacks as opposed to Ivy League cornerbacks. Watson providing concrete evidence of his athleticism helps, and he had the opportunity to face elite FBS cornerbacks at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl.
“It was cool being at the East-West Shrine Game, and honestly I thought the difference that everyone talks about between the Ivy League and [Division] I-A was overestimated," Watson said. “And to be at that [Senior Bowl] that I watched every year growing up as a kid and playing on that field was awesome, and catching balls from Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield.”
Since Watson figures to be a mid-to-late draft pick, or possibly an undrafted free agent, he understands the importance of playing special teams to provide value to a team. He did not play special teams at Penn, as coaches did not want to risk injuring the star receiver.
“First meeting for the East-West Shrine Game I went right up to the special teams coordinator ... and said ‘hey, I want to play on all four special teams,’ and he did right away,” Watson said. “When other guys were dropping out, I picked up every spot I could.”
Watson professed his willingness to secure a roster spot through special teams contributions while making clear his ultimate goal is to be a pass-catcher in the NFL. He says he aims to crack the No. 3 receiver spot for whichever team he ends up with by the end of his rookie year.
One reason Kelley finds Watson an intriguing NFL prospect — he says he personally thinks Watson could be as high as the third-most impressive wide receiver prospect — is his “Dominator Rating”, a metric which tells the extent to which a player accounted for his college offense's passing yards and touchdowns.
PlayerProfiler.com listed Watson with a 60.3% Dominator Rating, which is in the 98th percentile of wide receivers in Kelley's database, which dates back more than a decade.
“To account for 60% of the passing offense, which is what he was, the easiest way to do that is to dominate opponents with athleticism — to be able to jump higher, run faster, and make explosive plays both before the catch and after the catch — so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s also an exceptional athlete,” Kelley said.
Kelley disagrees with some of the NFL comparisons he has seen made to Watson, including Chris Hogan of the New England Patriots and Adam Thielen of the Minnesota Vikings. He says Watson dwarfs them in college production, size, and athleticism.
Considering that Watson’s vertical and broad jumps place him in the 95th percentile in Kelley’s “Burst Score”, Kelley finds three-time Pro Bowl selection Vincent Jackson or newly-signed Jacksonville Jaguar Donte Moncrief a more appropriate comparison.
“A guy that stands at least 6-foot-2, a guy that’s 220 pounds, and runs a sub-4.5 40 with explosiveness that is pretty rare,” Kelley said. “[Jackson] went to Northern Colorado, a small school, posted a 70% Dominator Rating and ended up being super explosive when he was tested. Without running an algorithm yet on his comparisons, just the eye test, he looks more like a Vincent Jackson than an Adam Thielen.”
Amico says that Watson has the upside of a true number one receiver, but considering his Combine snub and a likely low draft selection, he thinks it is more likely that Watson turns into a strong number two receiver.
“My NFL comp for him right now would be Jordan Matthews. That may seem like a slight, but Matthews was an outstanding college prospect, who stepped right onto the scene and produced at the next level,” Amico said. “He has been dinged up and not in a great passing environment the last couple of seasons, but overall reminds me a lot of Watson. Both were dominant college players, and have similar athletic profiles.”