The best of all-time is on to the big leagues.
Penn football star wide receiver Justin Watson has been drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the seventh pick in the fifth round (144th overall) of the NFL Draft.
Despite not being invited to the NFL Combine, Watson garnered a lot of attention before the draft with a stellar pro day and strong showing at the Senior Bowl. Experts praised both his work ethic and skills as a wideout, and some had projected him being picked as early as the fourth round.
"When they first called, it started to hit me, and I started tearing up and getting emotional," Watson told Penn Athletics. "And I think after getting off the phone with them, it still felt kind of surreal — still feels like a dream right now, but I'm just soaking in every moment."
Watson is the first Penn player to be drafted since offensive lineman Jeff Hatch was taken in the third round in 2002.
He joins four other former Quakers on active NFL rosters, all of whom have graduated in the past five years: quarterback Alek Torgersen of the Arizona Cardinals, linebacker Brandon Copeland of the New York Jets, center Greg Van Roten of the Carolina Panthers, and tight end Ryan O’Malley of the New York Giants.
"I try to tell so many guys, we got guys that can play. And moving forward, having gone around and played in the East-West Bowl and the Shrine Bowl, I know there are guys that are graduating next year [from Penn] that can play in the NFL," Watson said. "So I just wanna show that you can come Penn, get a great degree, and get drafted."
The Bridgeville, Pa. native leaves Penn as inarguably the most decorated wide receiver in program history. He graduates with a bevy of school records to his name: most career receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and all-purpose yards, as well as the single-season records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns.
His senior season was perhaps his most impressive. Watson finished the year with 14 receiving touchdowns, a new program record, and caught at least one touchdown pass in all 10 games, become the only Ivy League player ever to do so. He also became the only Ivy receiver to ever catch a pass in all 40 career games.
Watson joins a Buccaneers team, which, despite finishing 5-11 a season ago, has a franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston and an elite reciever in Mike Evans. Behind Evans is a veteran presence in DeSean Jackson and a young slot receiver in Adam Humphries, who will be a free agent at the end of this season. At 6-foot-3, Watson has become the second-tallest receiver for the Buccaneers, only two inches shorter than Evans.
"[When the phone] said Tampa, Florida on it, I just rushed with emotion ... the GM [Jason Licht] said, 'in two picks, we're gonna make you a Tampa Bay Buc, how does that sound?' and I was just so excited," Watson said. "It was the place I wanted to play in from the beginning; I love the receivers coach [Skylar Fulton], I love the offensive coordinator [Todd Monken], and it's gonna be a great place for me."
Watson will likely compete for a roster spot from the outset, and figures to be a special teams player and battle for a spot on offense as a receiver in four- and five-wide sets. Coincidentally, if Watson makes the roster, he will be teammates with fellow Ivy League products in starting tight end and 2014 Harvard graduate Cameron Brate and backup quarterback and 2005 Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Watson still has plenty of work left to make the opening day roster. But as a fifth-round pick, his NFL dream is in great shape.
"You might not know me yet, but I'm a worker," Watson said when asked for his message to Buccaneers fans. "I've worked every day to get here, and I promise I'll keep working once I get down to Tampa."