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Justin Watson’s big game points to depth of Chiefs’ wide receiver room

The veteran’s performance is the latest example of how this year’s receiving corps will look different.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs Training Camp Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With all the excitement in seeing the wide receivers that are wearing the Kansas City Chiefs’ uniform for the first time, it was a surprising name that stole the show in Saturday’s 19-14 loss to the Chicago Bears in NFL Preseason Week 1.

Fifth-year wide receiver Justin Watson led the team with five receptions on six targets, totaling 45 yards and scoring on a 22-yard touchdown strike right before halftime. All of his work came with backup quarterbacks Chad Henne and Shane Buechele — but that doesn’t mean he’s just a reserve.

He was projected as the fifth wide receiver going into the game, and his performance only solidified that. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is happy with that: he hyped him up every chance he was asked about him this offseason so that he might’ve felt some validation with Watson’s performance in Chicago.

“You’ve seen it all training camp, and I saw it all OTAs,” Mahomes reminded reporters in his post-game press conference. “He can fly, but he’s a bigger guy that can make those tough catches.”

The third-down scoring play certainly put the skills Mahomes mentions on display. Buechele’s throw allowed Watson to highpoint it away from defenders, which did not go unnoticed by the receiver.

“Big-time props to Shane,” Watson began in his own post-game presser. “We had two five-yard routes on the outside — but Shane saw it was a two-high, split safeties and saw that void in the middle there. He yelled out to me for me to run that post route, kind of audibled it.”

The touchdown wasn’t the only contested catch that Watson hauled in on Saturday. His second catch of the day was a leaping, high-pointing catch over a cornerback on a shorter route.

“It’s good to see him not only show his speed but be able to make those tough catches across the middle of the field and get in the end zone,” Mahomes remarked of Watson.

The contested grabs were not exclusive to Watson on Saturday. Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling made a strong catch with a defender draped on him during the first possession, but rookie Skyy Moore also had a few tough receptions. Watson sees that as a theme for this year’s offense.

“I think it’ll look a little bit different this year,” Watson admitted. “We definitely have some big-body routes for Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Juju Smith-Schuster... There’s a lot of talent out there, a lot of playmakers — I think it’s going to be exciting as an offense.”

Valdes-Scantling was nearly the one scoring a touchdown on a deep pass. On the Chiefs’ first possession, a play-action pass resulted in the veteran wide receiver running vertically with inside leverage on the cornerback and a throwing window. Mahomes went to him, but the disrupted pass protection forced a bad throw.

“I was trying to make that throw, and obviously my arm got hit, and I didn’t make the throw,” Mahomes acknowledged. “But it was good to see him get open on man-to-man coverage down there in the red zone.”

Valdes-Scantling did get a reception, though, on a third-down play a few snaps later. With Mahomes stepping up to his right, Valdes-Scantling sealed off a defender and held open a throwing window back to the inside — securing the accurate pass with strong hands.

It was an excellent example of how comfortable they already feel with each other.

“With Marquez especially, being with Aaron [Rodgers], he’s done a lot of that in his career so far,” Mahomes spoke of that particular game situation. “You’ve seen Juju in training camp doing the same stuff, and obviously guys like Mecole [Hardman] and Travis [Kelce] are always going to be able to do that.”

The list of names that can be involved in this year’s offense gets longer and longer each time it is talked about — but it’s not really an exaggeration. This offense is shaping into a group with strong depth in its’ receiving corps, which Mahomes sees the benefit of.

“It’s going to come from everywhere,” Mahomes emphasized. “You saw six different receivers, but Juju didn’t even get a catch, you didn’t see any of the other tight ends get catches, or any of the other running backs. I think it’s going to come from everywhere this year, it’s going to be hard for teams to game plan against.”

The opening week of preseason doesn’t give us many strong lessons — but it was a reminder that the excitement of the Chiefs’ wide receiver position extends to Watson, who understands the niche role he will be playing this season.

“That’s what this year will be for me: supporting those guys — MVS, Juju, Mecole — anytime my number is called on,” Watson assured. “You can put me in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter, we could line up in St. Joe, in Chicago, anywhere, anytime, I’m ready to make a play for these guys at quarterback.”

There seem to be five locks for the 53-man roster among the Chiefs’ wide receivers — and Watson has earned the belief from the team and his quarterback to be one of those.

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