Justin Watson is only in his second NFL season, but that still gives him some perspective that he can now share with a new crop of Tampa Bay Buccaneer rookies. And Watson picked up one piece of advice in particular during his rookie season that he is passing on to his slightly greener teammates:
"Don't count your reps; make your reps count."
Watson doesn't have to count his practice-field reps to know that they are on the rise in his second NFL training camp. As he thought would be the case, there are more opportunities to go around after the departures of Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson via free agency and a trade, respectively. Humphries and Jackson accounted for 1,234 offensive snaps, 179 targets and 117 catches during the 2018 regular season, and were certainly soaking up practice time, as well. Watson had 73 snaps, three targets and one catch playing behind those two plus Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
"So last year we had four unbelievable receivers in front of me," said Watson. "It was a great year to learn from them and try to make a mark. Special teams [were big] for me last year. There are a lot of balls and yardage that we lost from last year and that's certainly an opportunity for all of us. We know we're going to get it to Mike. Chris Godwin is obviously going to be a great player; I think he was ready to explode last year. But then for the rest of us, there's definitely a lot of competition in that room.
The key for Watson, as he says, is to make those reps count. While it's logical that his role would have a chance to expand in 2019, the Buccaneers also have free agent addition Breshad Perriman, sixth-round draft pick Scotty Miller and third-year man Bobo Wilson to consider, as well as some potentially intriguing undrafted rookies. Watson has to prove that increased work for him is going to lead to good production, and for him that starts with playing faster.
"For me, the emphasis was just my playing speed increasing this year," he said. "Still being technical in my routes but just playing at a higher speed, and I think that's something that's been showing up on film so far. Again, it's a lot of the same routes from last year, which makes it an easy carryover, but for me it's just been [about] playing fast, and that's what this coaching staff has been preaching when they came in."
Even while playing sparingly on offense last year – most of his shots came when Evans needed a breather for a couple snaps – Watson still gave the Bucs good value by working extensively on special teams. He was, in fact, the team leader in kick-coverage tackles, with six. 'The more you can do,' he says, and this year that is extending to his role in the offense, as well. Watson estimates that he's been splitting his practice reps down the middle between the slot position and outside receiver. That will definitely increase the size of his opportunity, because while Evans and Godwin are the clear starters on the outside the slot reps are seemingly up for grabs.
"It's something I've always tried to do, learn all the positions," said Watson. "I'm just kind of helping out wherever I'm needed."
A Pittsburgh native, Watson grew up admiring University of Pittsburgh star Larry Fitzgerald, who has gone on to fashion a Hall of Fame-worthy career in Arizona. As such, he has been thrilled to see his coaches queue up tape of Fitzgerald to demonstrate how a player can thrive in that inside-outside role in a Bruce Arians offense. It's hard to imagine a better player for Watson to try to emulate, and one thing in particular he knows he has to get right is the blocking if he's going to play in the slot.
"That was probably the first thing B.A. talked about when he talked about the slot position," said Watson. "Watching tape from Arizona, you know Larry Fitzgerald was that guy. He was the leader of their receiver room and probably their best blocker. So, it’s something that is definitely really important to this coaching staff."
After Saturday's practice, the second of training camp, Arians praised Watson for his flexibility and physical style of play. Watson notably caught a deep ball during one team period but it was another play that didn't go exactly right during a red zone drill that really caught Arians' attention. Because Watson didn't get enough depth on his route into the end zone, when he came back to the ball he actually crossed over the goal line and caught it at the one-yard line. Since that was the last play of the game scenario, that would have cost the team a chance to win. Arians told Watson, the Penn grad, that he was too smart to make that mistake, and Watson intends to learn from it.
"That's his coaching style, and that's the kind of coaching style that I like," said the young receiver. "He's the first one to tell you when you did something wrong, the first one to tell you when you did something right. Certainly I was in the wrong there. You've got to own the mistake and not let it happen again."
What's important is that Watson is getting a lot more chances to make plays, both good and bed. If he can make most of them count, he might get that shot in the regular season, too.