TAMPA — Justin Watson has been called one of the Bucs’ smartest receivers, but he can do this math without making use of his Ivy League education.
When DeSean Jackson was traded to the Eagles and Adam Humphries signed as a free agent with the Titans, the Bucs had 179 targets, 117 receptions and nine touchdowns walk out of their building.
“We had four unbelievable receivers in front of me and it was a great year to learn from them and try to make a mark for me in special teams,’’ Watson said. “But there’s a lot of balls and yardage that we lost from last year and that’s certainly an opportunity for all of us.''
Of course, Watson didn’t just automatically elevate to the Bucs’ No. 3 wideout behind Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Tampa Bay signed free agent Breshaud Perriman and used a sixth-round pick on rookie Scotty Miller, a sixth-round pick from Bowling Green.
Both have had some good moments during training camp. Both own exceptional speed. But Watson possesses the size (6-foot-3, 216-pounds) and physicality to play the slot position in head coach Bruce Arians’ offense.
Unlike the scheme the smallish Humphries thrived in the past four seasons, Arians requires a bigger receiver inside because he is often asked to hit linebackers in the run game. It’s an element of Watson’s game that he embraces, honed last season as one of the team’s premier kick coverage men.
“Watching tape from Arizona, you know Larry Fitzgerald was that guy. He was the leader of their receiver room and probably their best blocker,'' Watson said. "So, it’s something that is definitely really important to this coaching staff.”
Watson grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of South Fayette Township, so he used to watch Fitzgerald when he played for the Pitt Panthers.
Now Watson plays the same position in the same offense as his idol.
“He was my favorite receiver growing up because of that,’’ Watson said. “And he’s done it his whole career. He’s obviously made a name for himself in the slot but also showed the ability in two receiver sets to be outside and win on go balls. So I think it’s pretty cool, a guy that I looked up to as a kid, I’m now watching him in the film room, running all the same routes that he runs.''
The leap from college to the National Football League is a big one, bigger still for players such as Watson, who at Penn dominated the Ivy League while Evans and Godwin went respective to football factories at Texas A&M and Penn State.
A year ago, Watson played in 12 games and had more special team tackles (7) than he did receptions (1). Bucs receivers coach Kevin Garver watched film of Watson from 2018 and said he saw a receiver who wasn’t reacting quickly enough.
“The rookie year is always a transition for guys, coming from college into the league,’’ Garver said. “It’s challenging. And then, you know, being a smaller school where he played can even be a bigger challenge. The thing that I’ve stressed with him is just playing fast.’’
Sometimes, Watson has tried to play a little too fast, and that has led to some mistakes early in training camp. During an end-of-game drill, with the Bucs needing a touchdown on the final play, Watson didn’t get deep enough on his route and went out of bounds with the football at the 1-yard line as time expired.
“I have to know if I’m catching that ball, that’s the last play of the game so I’ve got to catch it in the end zone,’’ Watson said. “Certainly, I was in the wrong there. Got to own the mistake and won’t let it happen again.’’
Six practices into training camp, Watson may be running better routes but another problem has surfaced. He’s dropped too many passes, most in heavy traffic. But following a tough day, Watson has always bounced back, which shows the kind of resiliency you need to navigate a full 17-game season.
“(Those were) the grimy catches he didn’t make yesterday, and that’s what we expect out of him,’’ Arians said of Watson after watching him have a good day catching the football. “He is going to have to make grimy catches inside those numbers.’’
But then during Thursday night’s practice, Watson and most of his teammates — sans Evans — took turns letting the football slip through their hands.
Watson can’t let the same thing happen with this opportunity.
“I’ve been telling a lot of these rookies — you know, I’m only in my second year — ‘Don’t count your reps, make your reps count,’” Watson said. “It’s something I heard last year, and it stuck with me this year. I’m getting more reps this year, but it’s not about how many you get, it’s about what you do with those reps. So, I think (it’s important) for keeping that same focus and keeping that same hunger that [I had] coming in as a rookie and making sure that year two I keep that same attitude.”
Contact Rick Stroud at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @NFLStroud