The best receiver in school history is starting to make a name for himself in Tampa, Fla., but his roster spot is still far from secured.
After setting records in nearly every receiving statistical category at Penn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Justin Watson finds himself in the midst of a tightly-contested battle for a roster spot. In front of him are four veterans who are virtual locks to make the roster: Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries, and Chris Godwin.
“I think everyone kind of knows those first four guys. Then there’s a group of — you could make it probably as big as five if you wanted to — that’s in that second group,” Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter said in a press conference last week.
Watson’s competition includes as many as six others according to Bucs wide receivers coach Skyler Fulton. He echoed Koetter’s list of Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy, Sergio Bailey, and Bobo Wilson, and tacked on Jake Lampman and Ervin Philips to the list as well. Of the six, four have played in regular season NFL games, an experience the rookies in the group have not had. Koetter has declined to name a front-runner among the group in multiple press conferences, as did Fulton in the call with The Daily Pennsylvanian. The competition is just that tight.
Despite that, Fulton was quick to praise Watson’s game, and suggested that he has the potential for a long and successful NFL career.
Watson’s professional football career did not have the start he would have hoped for. After becoming the first Penn player since 2002 to be drafted into the NFL, the fifth-round pick was forced to the sidelines during offseason workouts in the spring with an injury. The injury meant missing out on important reps against NFL talent, something Ivy League and FCS prospects severely lack.
“You wish you had that time back but obviously you can’t. What I’ve tried to do when I was injured was just taking advantage of being able to get in the weight room a little more and get into my playbook a little bit more,” Watson said. “And then since then, just trying to make up for lost reps, grabbing a couple reps extra at practice and after with [Bucs starting quarterback] Jameis [Winston] and making up for some of those reps we missed in the spring.”
“I don’t think it’s a secret that he played in the Ivy League and he probably hasn’t seen a [defensive back] as good as he’s going to see week in and week out in the NFL. So there’s definitely things that [he] has to experience on the field to make adjustments to, but he’s quick to make adjustments,” Fulton said.
“There’s a lot of players that have the physical ability. What’s going to separate Justin Watson is going to be his work ethic and his football IQ.”
That has been a familiar trope in the media’s coverage of this receiver competition. The margins are small, but everybody has already taken notice of Watson’s willingness to put in extra work after practice and his identification and understanding of football concepts.
For his part, Watson credits Penn with helping develop both of those attributes.
“I think it’s something that’s just been instilled in me from my time at Penn,” he said. “It was always ‘if you can still run, stay after practice and get some extra routes [in]’. Extra reps always help. At Penn one of our sayings was always ‘One More’. One more rep, one more lifting session, one more route with the quarterback, so for me, I’ve just tried to embody that my first couple weeks down here [in Tampa].”
The other mark in Watson’s favor is his work on special teams. It is generally expected that backups contribute on special teams as they continue to grow and develop into larger roles in their main positions. For Watson, who played only limited special teams in his freshman year at Penn, this has meant a complete commitment to learning and executing on all four major special team units. That plan has worked; Watson has started in at least three of the four units in both preseason games so far.
His effort and ability in those areas have not gone unnoticed. Fulton, who was also Watson’s special teams coordinator at the East-West Shrine Game, credited him with an unofficial solo tackle in the latest Buccaneers preseason game. Watson, for his part, claimed only an assisted one.
That tackle might prove to be a more important stat than last week’s touchdown. If Watson can prove to be a factor on special teams, his path to a roster spot becomes a lot clearer.
With the competition as close and as deep as it is, Watson has his work cut out for him to make the roster, even if the Buccaneers elect to keep six receivers rather than the usual five.
“There’s a lot of teams that bring in players for camp who are camp bodies,” Fulton said. “They just bring guys in so they can save guys’ legs. We don't have any camp bodies in our receiver room. We’ve got 11 guys that can play in the NFL. So it's really going to come down to who can be the most consistent, who can stay healthy, and ultimately when guys get chances to make plays, who can make the plays.”
“Do these guys all have to play really good between now and the final 53-man cut and stay healthy? One-thousand percent.”
But even if the Buccaneers do elect to cut their fifth-round pick, Fulton suggested that Watson would not be out of work for long. In fact, some analysts and reporters have suggested that Watson might make the roster simply because a different NFL team would almost certainly claim him from waivers should the Bucs attempt to place him on their practice squad.
“I would be shocked [if he doesn’t make a final NFL roster],” Fulton said. “If at this point, after catching four balls and a touchdown, making a solo tackle on kickoff and doing what he’s done, what he did before the draft, combined with everybody knows his work ethic, and character … I would be shocked. But I’ve seen crazier things happen.”