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Justin Watson is Primed for a 2nd Year Breakout

In my recent article on Scott Miller I took a breather from telling you why the diminutive phenom is a must add, so that I could briefly profile his teammate, second-year WR Justin Watson. If Watson is interesting enough to warrant a mention in another player’s article, he’s probably worth his own article right? Here it is:

Outrageous Production

Justin Watson was the Buccaneers 2018 5th round pick, so TB has actually invested slightly more in Watson than they’ve invested in Miller, their 2019 6th round pick — albeit with input from a now fired coaching staff. More importantly, Watson made the 53-man roster as a rookie and is now listed ahead of Miller on the depth chart. Despite Miller’s highly underappreciated prospect profile, Watson may stay ahead of him on the depth chart, and ultimately be the one who dispatches Breshad Perriman for TB’s valuable WR3 role–because Watson is great prospect in his own right, as you can see from his outrageous college production.

YearGamesRecRecYdsRecYPRRecTDsRecYdsMSRecTDMS
Career40286377713.2330.400.43
2014104249711.820.180.14
20151074108214.690.450.36
20161089111512.580.520.44
20171081108313.4140.510.70

Combined with his final college age of 21.7, Waston’s final year MSY of 51% yields a Phenom Index of 3.2. That was the second highest in the 2018 class behind only D.J. Moore and higher than any 2019 WR.

And as you can see, from his 14 TDs in 10 games in 2017, which accounted for an astonishing 70% of his team’s passing TDs, Watson can rack up yards and get in the end zone.

Red Flags

It’s important to note a couple red flags here. First, Watson (like Miller) used up his entire college eligibility before declaring for the draft, which Blair Andrews has shown is a significant red flag when projecting NFL success.

And second, it’s critical to keep in mind that Watson played at the University of Pennsylvania against Ivy League competition. As I covered in my article on him, Miller also played in a weaker conference … except Miller played in the MAC, which, while not exactly the SEC, is a much higher level of competition.

Consider that when Miller was a senior, he played eight in-conference games and three out of conference games against opponents from the PAC-12, the ACC, and the Big 10. And Miller had standout performances against high level opponents. He went into Oregon and put up 13 reception, 166 yards and 2 TDs; he went down to Georgia Tech and had 10 catches for 117 yards; he went to Ohio (a team that would go on to win their Bowl Game 27-0) and put up 6 receptions for 145 yards and a TD.

On the other hand–Watson’s senior season consisted of seven games against Ivy League opponents, two more games against other FCS schools, and a game against a D2 school. His toughest match-up was … Yale maybe? Or Dartmoth? I’m not even sure.

Look, let me put it like this. If you want to look up Miller’s career stats you can use the RotoViz Box Score Scout or check him out on Sports Reference. To get Watson’s stats I had to ctrl+f my way through Penn’s Football History Fact Books. And any time someone is downloading Ivy League football PDFs and manually calculating market share data, that’s a huge flag … for the player they’re researching I mean, obviously.

Ignoring the Red Flags

Ok so declaring late and having played against Ivy League competition are both genuine red flags — but come on — look at that production!

Watson posted three straight years above 45% MSY and closed out his career with back to back seasons above 50% MSY. Yes, in a weak conference. But that level of production is unheard of. Against anyone. Here’s the list of WRs going back to 2005 that have posted back to back 50%+ MSY seasons at any level of competition.

PlayerYearDraft PickSchoolConferenceFinal AgeFinal 2Y RecYdsFinal 2Y RecTDFinal 2Y MSYFinal 2Y MS TD
Justin Watson2018144PennFCS21.72198220.510.58
Demaryius Thomas201022Georgia TechPower 5221781110.600.73
Ramses Barden200985Cal PolyFCS232724360.630.68
Nate Washington2005-TiffinD221.32714310.580.74
Vincent Jackson200561Northern ColoradoFCS222844320.670.78

Given the level of dominance this group showed in college, it shouldn’t be a surprise that two of them–Demaryius Thomas and Vincent Jackson–have each gone over 9,000 career yards and over 55 career TDs in the NFL. Nate Washington also had a nice career, with nearly 7,000 career yards and 44 career TDs. Not bad for an undrafted WR from a D2 school. Ramses Barden is the only one of four not to make an impact in the NFL, and even he managed to stick with the Giants for four seasons.

Ultimately, Watson carried his college offense for three consecutive years and personally accounted for more than half of his passing offense for each of his final two years. Regardless of the level of competition, that kind of production is incredibly rare. And it likely means that Watson will earn his way into NFL action sooner rather than later.

Athletic Profile and Offensive Role

When Watson does get in the game, what type of player can we expect to see? Well, in my article on Miller I speculated that Watson’s natural role might be as a big slot WR. And fittingly, Watson’s closest comp on Player Profiler is a Jordan Matthews. However, at 6 feet 2 inches, 215 pounds and with a forty time somewhere between a 4.44 and a 4.49,1 Watson would likely have no trouble fitting in as an outside WR as well. In fact given his mediocre three-cone time of 7.08, but his incredible vertical of 40 inches, he may find the most success in downfield contested catch situations, rather than on shorter, faster breaking routes.

And in fact, when Perriman sustained a shoulder injury and was unable to practice last week, Watson worked with the first team offense … on the outside, with Chris Godwin in the slot. It’s still early and roles have yet to fully solidify, but I would argue that this is great news for Watson, because Arians’ offense prioritizes the deep ball.

And even though it’s early, it’s important that we’re seeing Watson get work on the outside, because I have some reservations about his fit in Arians’ system based on his college Yards per Recption. Watson’s career YPR was only 13.2 and that he never had a season over 15 YPR. Meaning, based on his YPR, he profiles more as a possession or slot WR in the NFL than as a deep threat. However, if he’s already getting work on the outside in this offense, the team may feel differently, which would bode very well for his 2019 outlook and fit in Arians’ system.

Free Upside

While Breshad Perriman has earned some recent off-season praise, he’s already banged up. And even when healthy, he presents the weakest of obstacles for an emerging WR talent. And critically, Perriman is the only player in front of Watson for regular season targets right now.

Both Watson and Miller have the college production and athletic profiles suggestive of breakout ability — particularly against defenses too concerned with Mike Evans and Godwin to pay them any mind. But while Miller’s 174-pound frame will make it difficult to consistently rack up high reception totals, Watson has both the speed to earn downfield targets and the size to become and all around receiving weapon.

It would be foolish to ignore Watson’s potential in this offense, but that’s exactly what dynasty drafters appear to be doing, as (like Miller) he remains essentially free in the dynasty market. If you can’t clear the space to add both Watson and Miller, then owners focused on physical profile, college dominance regardless of level, and the current depth chart should make Watson their priority add.2

Image Credit: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Justin Watson.

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  1. I’ve seen both reported as his pro-day forty time.  (back)
  2. While owners skeptical of Watson’s lower level competition and downfield ability should prioritize Miller. But really, you should add them both.  (back)
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