NFL rookie Justin Watson has made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster in his rookie season.
Watson was selected by the Bucs in the fifth round of the NFL draft last spring, becoming the first Penn football player to be drafted into the NFL since 2002. Since then, the wide receiver overcame an early injury to impress Bucs coach Dirk Koetter enough to earn a roster spot.
In the four preseason games, Watson caught a total of nine passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns across all four preseason games. He also had a fumble in his first game.
The Bucs wide receiver competition was incredibly tight this year, causing Bucs coaches to keep an extra receiver. The six rostered receivers are starters Mike Evans, Adam Humphries, Chris Godwin, the veteran DeSean Jackson, and reserves Watson and Freddie Martino.
Watson’s professional career did not have the start he would have hoped for. Soon after the Bucs selected him in the draft, the receiver 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.
His response to that setback was to work even harder once he returned, getting in extra reps after practice with Bucs starting quarterback Jameis Winston to try to make up for lost time. Watson credits Penn with helping to instill the work ethic that would eventually land him on an NFL active roster.
“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].”
Beyond his offensive output, Watson has earned rave reviews from the Bucs coaching staff and media organizations alike for his work ethic and ability on special teams. Watson started on at least three of the four special teams units in his first two preseason games, and will likely get most of his snaps in his rookie season on those teams. Watson's performance in that area was something coaches said made him stand out, and was likely an important factor in the decision to keep him on the final roster.
Looking ahead, Watson and the Buccaneers will play the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers in weeks two and three of the NFL season. Watson grew up a Steeler fan in suburban Pittsburgh, Pa., providing him with the rare opportunity to play against his childhood team very early in his career.
"I’ll have a lot of people coming down [to Tampa] for those two games," Watson said. "My family back in Pittsburgh and my Penn family up in Philly that I’ve been with for four years — I know they’re going to want to come down for the Eagles game, so those are two games I’m definitely looking forward to."
Of the current Bucs receiver corps, only Watson and two others are under contract in 2019. Both Humphries and Martino will be unrestricted free agents after the season, while the veteran Jackson has a team option, and is also a candidate for retirement. This puts Watson in good position to impress in his rookie year and move up the depth chart into a much larger role by next season.
Watson is joined by New York Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland and Carolina Panthers center Greg Van Roten as Penn football's three NFL alumni.
This is a developing story. Check back later for updates. Last edited 5:05 p.m.