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Chiefs training camp notebook: Justin Watson emerges as true player to watch

... and not just on special teams.

NFL: JUN 02 Kansas City Chiefs OTA Offseason Workouts Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In late June, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Justin Watson earned a mention on NFL Network’s “Good Morning Football.”

At the time, it felt a little strange. Sure, we’d noticed Watson during Chiefs organized team activities (OTAs) — and so had Patrick Mahomes — but why would a fifth-year reserve/futures wide receiver with 258 yards be garnering national attention?

It comes down to the little things. In the NFL — especially when you're on one of its roster bubbles — that starts with special teams.

“Watson is a guy who might able to take [Marcus] Kemp’s spot in a lot of things,” said special teams coordinator Dave Toub on Tuesday. “He’s doing well on offense, which is important. You can tell he’s a leader. He’s not a vocal leader, but a leader by example. He knows how important special teams is for him as a player. He’s not going to be a No. 1 or No. 2 guy, but he knows how important it is to be a guy. He can do a lot of things. He can catch punts, but he’s not a guy that we want to rely on to take it the distance. He’s more of a blocker-type guy for us.”

Watson spent the first four years of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, having been drafted by the club in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Even though Watson did not put up dazzling offensive numbers, his willingness to play special teams — 280 snaps (58%) in 2019 and 173 (54%) in 2020 kept him in the league.

Being predominantly a career special-teamer, Watson arrived in Kansas City with a built-in respect for Toub’s unit.

“You never wanted to play Kansas City when you’re playing special teams,” said Watson. “This is always a premier unit for sure. To play for Coach Toub... you can feel that it’s important [to him]. It doesn’t even need to be said. You can just tell by how much time we put into it and the effort we put into it. So I love that. It’s always been something that’s been important to me — and you can feel it with a lot of the other guys — so it’s cool after practice, we already see a lot of guys working with each other, competing, knowing that those last couple of spots on the roster are going to be decided by special teams.”

The road to Watson turning heads in St. Joseph began in 2019. In the last four games of the season (with Jameis Winston then at quarterback), Watson compiled 14 receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Watson began 2020 with a couple of receptions — but in an offense already rich in pass-catchers, Antonio Brown’s midseason arrival ate too many targets.

Summer knee surgery in 2021 cost Watson four months. It led to him playing in just one regular-season game — and only on special teams. He became a free agent this offseason, and that’s when general manager Brett Veach stepped in.

“Veach spoke to our agent and just gave him a lot of confidence that, ‘Hey, if you come here, we’re going to give you a chance,’” said Watson. “And that’s all I wanted: was to just have a chance here.”

Watson’s chance in Kansas City began with a surprise text to his cell in the months leading up to offseason programming. Watson remembered seeing it as a random number with a Texas-based area code.

It was Patrick Mahomes, inviting Watson to work out with him in Texas.

“[It] meant a big deal,” said Watson. “It definitely just showed me that he wanted to get to know who I was and wanted to see what I had to do. Those first couple weeks were fun when we were just going through meetings virtually. And we were hanging out and working out. He’s got a great setup down there in Texas. We went back after OTAs — and hopefully, that could be a thing going forward.”

Before OTAs, Watson spent a total of two weeks with Mahomes in his native state. After one of those initial workouts, Mahomes called Veach to ask how fast he ran; Watson was outrunning the quarterback’s throws.

The two began building a chemistry together — one that continued to grow for another week down in Texas after OTAs, and over the past week or two in St. Joseph. Head coach Andy Reid can already see Watson’s offensive upside.

“He’s done a nice job. Big target. Big kid,” said Reid of the 6-foot-3 Watson. “Tall, fast, smart. Penn grad, right? So he’s got capacity there. He’s taken everything in and working hard. So, again, it’s just working in the offense — more and more and more. The reps that he gets are so important. He’s working in with the ones and the quarterback. He trusts him — which is a plus.”

As Reid watches Mahomes and Watson mature together, Watson says he feels he can already tell where Mahomes wants him to be in the open field.

“It’s cool when you start seeing plays the same way as the quarterback — things that might not be drawn on the playbook, but you both just have this feeling that, ‘Hey man, there’s an opening outside if I break my route a certain way,’ and Pat hits you right out of your break,” said Watson. “It’s cool because Pat has that ability to see the field and think past the playbook and see coverages. So he speaks every day in our team meetings, and it makes it really clear what he wants from us at receiver.”

As is well known, Watson isn’t the only new face at wide receiver on the Chiefs.

Following the departures of Tyreek Hill — and less notably, Demarcus Robinson and Byron Pringle — JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie second-rounder Skyy Moore joined the team.

The proverbial “locks” to make the roster include these three — along with returner Mecole Hardman. That leaves an estimated two spots up for grabs — but the coaching staff set the tone early, embracing the new-look offense and opening up the playbook to find out what each and every receiver can do.

“That’s one of the things the coaching staff said when we came in,” said Watson. “We had all-new receivers, and they were just going to let us show our abilities. There was no pre-conceived notions — and so far, I’ve been kind of the guy that’s doing a little bit of everything. In the offseason program, I was working on the outside, catching a lot of deep balls — and then, here, so far in training camp, still a little bit on the outside but trying to see if I can work on the inside and the slot. I just want to be the guy that, if anyone needs a break, if anyone goes down, [a] shoelace comes untied, that they can point to me and say, ‘84, go in there and pick right up where they left off.’”

That willingness-to-do-anything attitude has impressed Valdes-Scantling, who is expected to be one of Mahomes’ top receivers in 2022. Valdes-Scantling came into the league in the same year (and round) as Watson, and the two spent time together in Tampa during the offseason.

“He’s helped me become a better deep-ball receiver, I think,” said Watson. “I caught a lot of those passes in the offseason. We have similar body types — how he attacks routes, how he attacks leverage. I think one thing you’re going to see from him this year is he’s a lot more than just a deep-ball receiver. He’s been catching balls over the middle — getting off press really well — so I think he’s going to have a huge season.”

The two have opposite-but-parallel stories. Valdes-Scantling is here to prove he’s more than a deep threat. Watson wants to prove that part of the game exists in his wheelhouse.

“[During] my time in Tampa, I spent a lot of time in the slot,” explained Watson. “I would have liked to run some more deep balls. Coming here, in this offense, all we do is run deep balls, so I’ve been loving the chance to get out and run — stretch my legs and just run some routes that I maybe haven’t ran since college.”

Reid has always been known for that — the idea of unlocking qualities in offensive players that have been written off. But the head coach does not want the receiver to stop building now.

“It’s just a matter of more,” said Reid. “Let’s keep going. Back to back, these practices. And that really goes for all the guys. The ups and downs aren’t so good. You want to keep building on them. [Watson’s] been really working hard at that, and he’s done a nice job so far.”

Observations

You can find full observations posted from Wednesday’s practice here.

Post-practice chat

Press conferences (Andy Reid, Willie Gay Jr., Justin Watson and Turk Wharton)

Injury report

  • Did not practice (due to injury): CB Rashad Fenton (shoulder) OL Lucas Niang (knee) OL Prince Tega Wanogho (leg), TE Jody Fortson (quad)
  • Did not practice (excused): DE Carlos Dunlap

Tweet of the day

Here is Wednesday’s tweet of the day:

To one of the greatest broadcasters of all time.... rest in peace.

Quote of the day

Linebacker Willie Gay Jr. on his aspirations for the 2022 season: “I got goals to lead linebackers in the NFL in interceptions this year.”

What’s next?

The Chiefs return to the practice field on Thursday for their seventh workout open to the public. The practice begins at 9:15 a.m. Arrowhead Time. Here’s he complete schedule. The team’s wide receivers and tight ends will be available to sign autographs after practice as defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo addresses the media at the podium.