Michigan DT Gabe Watson can be difficult to move in the trenches, and his quick feet help him get past tackles and into the backfield
(The 2006 NFL Draft is scheduled to take place on the weekend of April 29-30, during which nearly 300 college standouts will enter into the professional ranks. During the months of March and April, Buccaneers.com will run a series of features on these NFL hopefuls, taking a closer look at some of the names you'll be hearing on draft weekend. There is no correlation between the players chosen for these features and the Buccaneers' draft plans, and any mentions of draft status or scouting reports are from outside sources. Our next feature: Michigan defensive tackle Gabe Watson.)
He can kick off down to the goal line, at least from the college tee placement of the 35-yard line. He can, on occasion, punt a football 60 yards. And he's expected to be selected within the first two rounds of the upcoming NFL Draft.
Is he the NFL's next great kicker?
Not unless the league is ready for its first 6-4, 330-pound specialist.
And not unless some team wanted to waste Gabe Watson's primary football skills.
Despite Watson's surprising kicking prowess, it is the skills normally associated with a player of his size that will prompt some team to call his name during the first day of the draft the weekend after next. As you would suspect from his proportions, Watson is a defensive tackle, and a fine one out of the University of Michigan. And, as you might suspect from his side talents, he is also an unusually athletic man for his size. That could make him a very valuable player on the NFL level…on defense, not special teams.
And that's what made the Wolverines recruit him out of Southfield High School in Novi, Michigan. He kicked for two years at Southfield but was also considered one of the top prep offensive linemen in the country and the top overall prospect in the entire state. He didn't entertain notions of continuing his kicking career in Ann Arbor for long.
"They talked to me and said I could either play offensive or defensive line, choose either one," he said with a smile. "I didn't think I was going to be doing too many kicks."
Watson went on to tally 92 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and four sacks over his four years with the Wolverines. He became a starter as a junior and, over the next two years, contributed 77 stops and four sacks. As is common with players at his position, those numbers don't tell the full story of his occasional dominance in the Big Ten. Huge and often immovable, he was an ideal run-stuffing plug in the middle of the Wolverine defense.
We say "occasional" dominance because Watson – an intelligent player who is surprisingly quick-footed for his size – was sometimes accused of lacking motivation. Obviously, that's a potential red flag for NFL scouts, but Watson insists he has grown out of any previous attitude issues and answered that particular criticism.
"Yeah, I had to answer some questions about it," he said of the underachieving label. "It was all a matter of growing up, getting used to things. It shows how much I grew. My freshman year I was intolerant about it, mad about it. But I grew up and kept fighting and just continued to get better."
Early in the 2005 season, Michigan Head Coach Lloyd Carr said Watson had "as much potential as any player we've had here." However, Carr also removed Watson from the starting lineup after three unimpressive games to start the season. The senior worked his way back into a starter's role, eventually opening eight games and finishing his college career strong.
"I talked to Coach Carr about that and he said he never thought I was an underachiever," said Watson. "We bumped heads here and there, but like I said I've matured a lot. He just wanted the best me. He just told me to work hard, and I understood that. At times it took me longer than others to figure it out, but I figured it out and I have no hard feelings toward him.
"I've learned a lot of things, some of them the hard way, and that's made me the person I am today."
Scouts don't question Watson's overall character; he is said to be a fine young man with no blemishes on his personal record. They also don't question his tools. Because of his size and strength – he threw up the 225-pound bench press 36 times at the NFL Scouting Combine – he is considered an ideal, point-of-attack tackle in the 3-4 scheme or a two-gap type of nose tackle in a 4-3.
Watson says he played both schemes at Michigan and feels comfortable in either, and that he wants to be the type of disruptive inside force that can be so critical to an NFL defense. That is, he wants to be one of those "big guys who have big-time motors. They push the pocket, they fly around and they make big plays."
That said, Watson would point to the mental side of the game as his best asset.
"I think my strength is learning how to [beat opponents]," he said. "I watch film, and it's easy for me to figure out other guys and their strengths and weaknesses. Just learning quickly as the game goes on."
How NFL teams sort out all of these strengths and perceived weaknesses in Watson's game will determine how early he hears his name called on April 29. Many current projections have him coming off the board early in the second round. In the end, it may be determined by how quickly the other prospects in a relatively deep pool of defensive tackles are selected. Among those DTs thought to be first-round possibilities are Oregon's Haloti Ngata, Florida State's Brodrick Bunkley, LSU's Claude Wroten and Texas' Rodrique Wright.
"Ngata from Oregon, Rodrique Wright, (Tennessee's) Jesse Mahelona…there's a lot of good competition," admitted Watson. "Growing up, you want to go first round and be the best, so I would love to be in the first round. But there's a lot of competition here, a lot of great players. We'll see."