The Green Bay Packers spent significant draft capital to secure North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson. General manager Brian Gutekunst liked Watson enough to part ways with picks 53 and 59 to move up from 34, trading with division rival Minnesota Vikings to take Watson after using the two first-round picks on defensive players.
Even though the Packers have a history of easing young players into primary roles to start their careers, the team needs some kind of immediate contribution from Watson. He is the main addition to the wide receiver room after Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown departed.
Before the draft, I wrote that the best path for the Packers to integrate a rookie wide receiver was to give him a defined role in Year 1 and let him develop into a more complete weapon. For the Packers to do that, it’s imperative to know what Watson does best. They also must acknowledge that he needs polish as a route runner and has had some problems with drops throughout his career.
1. Deep threat
It’s essentially impossible to replace what Adams did in the Packers’ offense in the last four to five seasons. And Green Bay shouldn’t try to. Instead, the Packers were concerned about MVS’ role as a receiver to explore the deeper zones and stretch defenses. That’s something Christian Watson can do right away. In his last two seasons playing for NDSU, Watson had over 20 yards per reception.
“Obviously, the speed and the size jump off the tape, that’s certainly going to give us something to take the top off the defense,” Gutekunst said in an interview with Sirius XM NFL Radio. “With MVS leaving in free agency, (Watson) will replace that, hopefully, initially.”
Watson ran a 4.36 40-yard dash during the combine, an astonishing number for a 6’4” receiver. The combination of size and speed made his Relative Athletic Score elite (9.96), even if his agility numbers are good but not great.
2. Horizontal game
Watson isn’t a complete receiver yet, and his route-running will need work. But that doesn’t mean he is only a deep threat as Valdes-Scantling was for the Packers. Watson is also a horizontal threat for defenses, as many of his highlight plays in college come from fly sweeps and end-arounds.
As we’ve seen with Deebo Samuel‘s usage by the San Francisco 49ers, the outside zone blocking system developed by Mike Shanahan‘s tree has elements where the receiver can stress the defense horizontally and be effective with the ball in his hands.
Watson has a different body type than Samuel, who’s more built like a running back. But Watson has shown the ability to gain yards after the catch or even in handoffs because of his athletic profile.
That could be a new dimension to the Packers’ offense because no other player has been able to produce consistently in this role under Matt LaFleur. Aaron Jones and Tyler Ervin had some flashes, and Tavon Austin and Amari Rodgers were projected to have this role. But nobody has delivered yet, although Amari still could.
3. Blocking skills
Let’s not act like blocking is an essential attribute necessary to be an elite receiver. Adams wasn’t a good blocker, but he didn’t need to be. But when we’re talking about role players who are not stars yet, it’s an important characteristic.
Christian Watson didn’t play in a high-volume passing offense. That’s why the best season of his college career ended up with modest 43 receptions, 800 yards, and seven touchdowns. But it also has a benefit. Watson is used to being a part of a run-oriented system, so blocking was a big part of his daily routine in college football. He understands leverage and is a willing blocker, near the line of scrimmage and even down the field.
That could help Watson to receive more snaps and allow the Packers to have one of the best (if not the best) blocking trio of wide receivers in the NFL. Sammy Watkins and Allen Lazard are in the top 5 in PFF blocking grade among WRs in the last three seasons.
It’s a part of Watson’s game that can be immediately important for the Packers. Green Bay is becoming more run-centric, and Watson’s blocking could allow them to explore the star running back duo of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon.
It’s unfair to expect Watson to have a magnificent season right away. He fell to the second round because he’s a raw prospect who played against a lower level of competition in college. But even though it’s important to temper expectations, it’s hard not to be impressed by Watson’s ceiling and physical abilities. If the Packers can integrate his best traits into the offense, he can be an integral part of the team in his rookie season.