Dekoda Watson is entering his fourth NFL season, and one of two things could finally happen for the former seventh-round draft pick out of Florida State: He could gain some recognition for the job he already does very well, or he could get a crack at an even bigger job.
Or, perhaps, both.
"Dekoda is, I think, an elite special teams player in this league," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano in June, "and now he's trying to become an elite linebacker."
Not every seventh-round draft pick makes the team (though the Buccaneers did good work in that round in 2009 and 2010 with Watson, E.J. Biggers, Sammie Stroughter, Cody Grimm and Erik Lorig), but Watson's spot has never seemed to be in jeopardy. That's largely because he is a superior athlete who keeps himself in ridiculously good condition, and that has helped him excel in the kicking game. He's 6-2 and 240 pounds and has the size-speed-strength combination coaches look for in a special-teamer. Last year, he tied Lorig for the Bucs' lead in kickoff-coverage tackles and was responsible for both of the team's fumble recoveries in that phase of the game.
Whether or not Watson garners more attention for his special teams work in 2013 is mostly out of his control. Many kick-coverage standouts around the league toil in relative obscurity, and it seems almost at random when one player or another emerges into the league-wide consciousness as a "special teams ace." However, Watson can have a lot to say about the other possible development in his employment this fall. He is very much in the battle for the open job at strongside linebacker, and his performance in training camp and the preseason could win him his first extended opportunity to start.
Quincy Black held that job from 2009 through the first half of 2012 before a significant nerve injury interrupted his NFL career. Adam Hayward, the Buccaneers' special teams captain, took over for Black for most of the balance of the season. Hayward obviously remains a strong candidate for the position in 2013, as does newcomer Jonathan Casillas, the former Saint who signed as an unrestricted free agent in March. Watson, however, has developed into a strong candidate since the end of last season.
"I think Dekoda's come a long way since last January," said Schiano. "You talk about a new scheme for the quarterbacks, this is a completely new scheme for Dekoda Watson. He's locked in and learning that position and I think he's doing a good job. He's got real strong competition with Jonathan Casillas here but … I think he's made big strides. This is all in front of him right now. This training camp is huge for him."
Schiano shared those thoughts on Watson after the first day of the team's offseason-capping mini-camp in June. They were relied to the linebacker after the second day of that mini-camp. His response was simply to say that he was looking forward to Day Three. As it turned out, Schiano would cancel the third practice and take the team to a movie instead, but Watson clearly looks forward to every opportunity to work on his game. He knows he has a chance to make a big move in training camp, but he's purposely maintaining a narrow focus.
"I agree with [Schiano], I definitely do, but at the same time I'm just going to take it day by day," said Watson. "I'm not going to try to get ahead of myself. We've still got a whole [training] camp to go through and a preseason to go through. I'm not going to let all that go to my head or anything like that."
Though competition should be respected at every position on the depth chart, the other two starting linebacker spots are not likely to change. Middle linebacker Mason Foster took a big step forward in his second season in 2012 and then-rookie Lavonte David was a Rookie of the Year candidate on the weak side. Other than the arrival of Casillas and the departure of Black, in fact, the Bucs' linebacking corps is largely unchanged from 2012. What is different, however, is the man at the front of the position's meeting room. Robb Smith is heading into his first year as the Bucs' linebackers coach, with Bob Fraser moving into the assistant defensive coordinator position.
Smith's efforts and his evaluations will help the Buccaneers determine who joins Foster and David in the starting lineup, but that decision is still weeks away.
"Right now the depth chart's very fluid," said Smith. "Guys like Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas have done a really nice job learning the system and finding their way through things. It's all about competition. They need to bring that into training camp and take it from there.
"I think they both bring things to the table. Everybody has strengths, everybody has weaknesses. I know they're both going to play a prominent role in the kicking game for us, which I think any linebacker has to do. From there, it's just finding the niche within our system, and I think both of those guys have the tools to do that."
Watson has seen some playing time on defense during his first three seasons. He started one game in 2010 and two more in 2011 during times that Black was battling injuries. He has at times been used as an edge rusher, playing up on the line of scrimmage in three-down-linemen packages. Over his first three seasons he has pitched in with 39 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, six quarterback pressures, five passes defensed, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown in 2011.
Also during that time, only Hayward has had more special teams tackles for the Buccaneers than Watson (36 to 32). No matter what happens in the competition for the starting strongside job, Watson seems almost certain to maintain a significant role in kick coverage. This year, however, his "elite" skills could help the Buccaneers in more ways than one.
"He brings great energy to our football team," said Schiano of Watson. "[He's] an unselfish guy on [special] teams who will do whatever you ask him to do, and he's a good guy to have on your football team."