In a couple days, the NFL will welcome 256 new faces to the league. It’s looking increasingly likely that one of them will be Justin Watson.
Penn’s very own pro-to-be is looking to become the first Penn football player to be selected in the NFL Draft since offensive tackle Jeff Hatch was drafted by the Giants in 2002. Getting drafted out of the Ivy League is tough, especially when there are so many other talented young wide receivers, and as of April 24, Watson is ranked the No. 24 prospect at his position by NFL.com’s draft tracker, No. 28 by Walter Football, and No. 35 by CBS Sports.
Despite the seemingly low rankings, rumors from around the league have suggested that Watson has good odds of being drafted. The most significant came from NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt who said he was “hearing good things” about Watson and guessed he could go as high as the fourth round. Watson’s impressive pro day has generated interest: the receiver has reportedly met with several teams in the last few weeks, indicating that he is a sought-after commodity.
Without professing to be a draft analyst, and keeping Watson’s strengths and weaknesses in mind, here are the reasons why Penn’s best player in the past decade will and won’t get drafted by each of the NFL’s 32 teams. And, keeping in accordance with The Daily Pennsylvanian Sports precedent, if one of the bottom 10 teams is the one that takes him, I will happily eat my words.
32. Denver Broncos
The Broncos have an aging front at wide receiver, but they drafted two last year and they have no picks in the sixth or seventh rounds. Especially with the added tumult at the quarterback position, I don’t see him landing here.
31. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals tied for the most draft picks last year (11), and none came from the Football Championship Subdivision or lower. Their receiving depth is fine as is, even if 2017 first-rounder John Ross hasn’t yet panned out. Without a track record of drafting players that didn’t come from elite football schools or a need for a Watson-type player, the Bengals will likely look elsewhere.
30. Carolina Panthers
With the third-worst rushing offense in the NFL last year, Carolina may have bigger fish to fry on offense — even if its receiving corps is mediocre.
29. Miami Dolphins
Watson could have been a replacement for former Dolphin Jarvis Landry, who was traded to the Browns this offseason. However, Miami decided to bring in aging possession receiver Danny Amendola, and their depth chart remains crowded at that position with DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills.
28. Chicago Bears
Chicago spent three of their five picks last year on non-NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision players, but look how that went — the team finished 3-13. They need help on offense and will probably look to supplement the recently injured Allen Robinson and the inconsistent Taylor Gabriel with a bigger-name guy.
27. Seattle Seahawks
While Seattle did draft a Division II receiver last year and possess six picks in the “late rounds” (Rounds 5-7), their receiving corps needs more established help. The only surefire skill player on the team is Doug Baldwin, so their strategy is probably centered on flashier early-round talent at the position.
26. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers are on the edge of a playoff berth, but a player like Watson may not be what they need to get closer. At this point, their receiving depth is fine and they need to develop 2017 first-rounder Mike Williams, who disappointed in his debut year.
25. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have a solid duo with Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins and could therefore check out Watson, but he doesn’t fill a need. They already have other young receivers to develop, and between tight end Travis Kelce and rookie breakout Kareem Hunt, new quarterback Pat Mahomes will have no shortage of check-down options.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jameis Winston is a big thrower in more ways than one. While the Bucs owned the fourth-most passing yards last year, their gunslinger throws short the least often of any NFL quarterback, per FiveThirtyEight. Watson is likely not a scheme fit, and with the league’s worst defense, the Bucs probably need to look elsewhere — unless they think Watson could help Winston in the possession game.
23. Jacksonville Jaguars
Despite Blake Bortles’ cannon of an arm, the run-first offense and his reliance on short passes suggests a need for wide receivers with better hands; however, even with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns’ departure, Jacksonville still has young depth at receiver between Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole.
22. Detroit Lions
If the Lions had a sturdier defense and more late-round picks, they’d be higher on this list, but they drafted an FCS player last year, along with a few from the MAC, which is not exactly the premier league of the FBS. But that track record does not necessarily create a need for a receiver like Watson.
21. San Francisco 49ers
Joining wunderkind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on the 49ers would be an awesome opportunity for Watson, especially since their receiver corps is unremarkable. However, for a team that has bigger question marks on defense, the Niners may look to experiment elsewhere to get them back in the playoffs.
20. Houston Texans
As the team that got sacked the second-most, the Texans need more quick options to ensure that young quarterback Deshaun Watson can get the ball out quickly and stay healthy. Watson does not look short often — he is the second-least conservative passer, according to FiveThirtyEight — and coaches may want to focus on more established options to help him to do so.
19. Tennessee Titans
Tennessee has a bunch of receivers who could potentially break out this season. The Titans invested in two early-round pass-catchers last year, so while their receiving corps is not rock solid and could certainly use help, they may prioritize other areas.
18. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have five late round picks and a need at receiver — they recently cut Dez Bryant, who dropped too many passes last year. Watson could have the catching talent to solve their issues, but this isn’t the right year, as they also drafted two receivers last year.
17. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams fall in the same category of “any other year but this one”, having also drafted a bunch of pass-catchers last year and traded for Brandin Cooks this offseason. They have few remaining holes in their team and thus have the room to experiment, but I just don’t think receiver is the position they’ll play around with.
16. Washington Redskins
Washington has five late-round picks and a shaky but established receiving corps, but new quarterback Alex Smith may want some reliable hands to throw to. Josh Doctson caught less than half of his targets last year, so some competition may be useful. There are way bigger needs on defense, but Watson would be a fit.
15. New York Giants
A familiar face would be waiting for Watson in New York, as former teammate Ryan O’Malley is on the team’s roster. After a year plagued by wide receiver injuries (and an offseason of wide receiver tumult), the Giants could be looking for even more insurance at the position, even if they have a depth chart crowded by young players.
14. New Orleans Saints
It’s a shame that New Orleans already has some young, developing receivers like Josh Huff and Cameron Meredith on the team, because Justin Watson would be a perfect fit. The Saints have few weak spots, and Drew Brees is the most conservative passer in the league. They also have five late-round picks, so they could still decide to spend one on Watson.
13. Baltimore Ravens
Watson visited with the Ravens, which is a good sign. They have a completely new look at wide receiver heading into the 2018 season, as all three of their likely starters have yet to play a snap for the team. Adding more unfamiliar faces may not be what veteran and potentially elite quarterback Joe Flacco needs.
12. Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis’ passing game needs help. They were the most-sacked team and struggled with drops, and Donte Moncrief is now gone. But they also have the worst defense in the AFC, and without a lot of talent on either side of the ball, Watson may be kicked down the priority list in favor of more established help.
11. Arizona Cardinals
The Cards are the current employers of Alek Torgersen, Watson’s main quarterback at Penn. The Cardinals’ receiving corps is very suspect and may merit more established help, but they aren’t afraid of the FCS, as they picked a wide receiver from the sub-division last year.
10. Cleveland Browns
Coming off what was perhaps their worst season in NFL history, the Browns obviously need help in a lot of places. They only have three late-round picks with none in round seven, but there’s reason to believe the Browns could use one on Watson. New general manager John Dorsey spent four years with the Chiefs and drafted a star in Division II-product Tyreek Hill, despite Hill not being invited to the NFL Combine. They also drafted Princeton tight end Seth DeValve in 2016, and DeValve is still on the roster.
9. New York Jets
The Jets haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver in two seasons, and while I don’t think Watson would be that guy immediately, he’d be a great check-down option to take the pressure off guys who can stretch the field. Plus, Watson apparently had a scheduled visit with the team, and the Jets brought in defensive end Brandon Copeland this offseason, so there is a Penn connection already in place.
8. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo only has two picks in the late rounds. This is the only reason I doubt Watson will be drafted , but it’s a reason nonetheless. Free agency and other offseason happenings have hurt the Bill’s wide receiver depth, most notably including Sammy Watkins leaving for Kansas City. Also, the Bills did draft an FCS player in 2015 (Dezmin Lewis, Central Arkansas).
7. Atlanta Falcons
If he lasts until the last pick, Watson just might go to Atlanta as Mr. Irrelevant. The Falcons brought in Torgersen as a free agent last offseason, and while they didn’t keep him, it is evidence that the club has looked at Penn players in the past. They did draft an FCS tight end last year, and they ranked low in red zone efficiency, which are both points in favor of the sturdy Ivy receiver.
6. Minnesota Vikings
The pass-catching arsenal of Stephon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph is already rock-solid, but then again, so is most of the Vikings’ roster. Outside of their offensive line, there are no holes on this team, but the Vikings have shown that they can experiment: they drafted German wide receiver Moritz Boehringer in 2016, without even a snap of college experience.
5. Oakland Raiders
Jon Gruden’s new team has a lot of needs, both in the passing game and beyond. However, the Raiders receiving situation isn’t nearly as dire as other teams’ are. Amari Cooper had his worst season last year in a corps that dropped way too many passes, but he still has the potential to be a solid No. 1 option, and veteran Jordy Nelson should take some pressure off. Expect the Raiders to focus on defense in the early rounds and use one of their seven late round picks on some offensive help like Watson.
4. New England Patriots
Even with Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks gone, the Pats have a crowded wide receiver depth chart, and Watson would not provide them with the big-play spark they need. However, Bill Belichick is the smartest coach in the league. He knows talent and can look beyond the school from which a prospect comes. He’s made Monmouth’s Chris Hogan into a viable wide receiver, and Watson’s intensity and work ethic could fit him in perfectly with Belichick’s Patriot Way.
3. Green Bay Packers
The Packers have the most picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, including seven in the late rounds. They may use one to bolster their shaky receiver depth with Watson, and he has visited with the team. However, if there’s one thing Aaron Rodgers’ Packers have figured out, it’s passing — they may be better served by improving their defense.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Wouldn’t it be incredible if Watson stayed in town? The Super Bowl Champions do have good receivers at the top of the depth chart, but not a lot of established depth behind that. They have the fewest draft picks this year, but five of their six are on day three (rounds 4-7). CBS Sports mocked Watson to the Birds in the fifth round, and I agree that the pick would make sense for Philly.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
I have thought a lot about this, and I can find no significant reason the Steelers should not draft Justin Watson. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster are both in the top 20 when it comes to yards-per-catch, so the Steelers have no shortage of playmakers. However, outside of Brown, no receiver has caught 60 or more passes in a season since Emmanuel Sanders in 2013. They need a depth possession receiver to take pressure off the aging Ben Roethlisberger. He’s projected to go there by Walter Football, and he’s visited with the team — not to mention that his family comes from the Pittsburgh area. The Steelers have four late round picks, and it’s conceivable that they’ll use one to turn Watson’s Red and Blue into Black and Gold.
Carter Coudriet is the former President of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.