GREEN BAY, Wis. – Christian Watson’s production at North Dakota State, with 20.4 yards per reception and two touchdowns on kickoff returns, was impressive.
Watson’s 4.36-second time in the 40-yard dash while standing 6-foot-4 1/8 at the Scouting Combine was impressive, too.
Something else impressed Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur about the team’s second-round pick.
“He’s big, he’s fast, he’s physical,” LaFleur said after the draft. “One thing I really liked was, when you watched him block, I think that says a lot about a player. His willingness, especially at that position, because we all know those guys, they want to go out there, they want to get the big plays. But what are they willing to do for their teammates? I watched one of his run-blocking reels, which isn’t the most exciting reel when you’re talking about wide receivers, but just to see the effort that he gave down in and down out in that aspect of the game.”
North Dakota State has rolled to nine FCS national championships in 11 seasons on the strength of its powerful running game. The Bison ran the football on 72.5 percent of its offensive snaps in 2021. With 17.1 passing attempts per game, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for Watson to shine as a receiver. Where he had to make his mark, especially early in his career, was as a blocker.
“A big part of what we do in our offense here at NDSU is we’re going to run the football,” said Randy Hedberg, the Bison’s associate head coach/passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach. “The thing that was impressive about Christian is he wasn’t necessarily thinking he had to catch 60, 70 balls a season.
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“He wanted to win. I think that’s the thing that stood out so much with Christian. When you watch his tape, you’ll see a guy that’s going to block extremely hard on every play. That’s the way our receivers have to do it because what we do offensively is going to be from the run game. I think Christian bought into that.”
The Packers won’t be better without Davante Adams. Not even close. He’s one of the great receivers of the era. But Adams is going to make $28 million per season from the Raiders to catch passes, not block cornerbacks to help running back Josh Jacobs. And Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t ship both of his second-round picks to rival Minnesota to select an athletic offensive tackle in a No. 9 jersey. However, with Allen Lazard and Watson on the perimeter, Green Bay’s running game could be better than ever.
“I’m just trying to make as big of an impact as I can,” Watson said during the rookie minicamp. “If that impact is in the run game, then I’m just as excited to do that. I think it’s an area that I can definitely grow, but I think the willingness is there to go out there and put my body on the line for my teammates and make those blocks. I’m definitely excited.”
Receivers who can block are receivers who deliver big plays. Lazard is proof. The 225-pounder is about two-tenths of a second slower in the 40 than Watson. His speed is sneaky, not spectacular. Yet, on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield last season, he caught 5-of-10 for 157 yards and two touchdowns. In 2020, he caught 6-of-11 for 270 yards, including the clinching touchdown in a playoff victory over the Rams.
Cornerbacks tend to brace for impact against big, physical receivers who have a thirst for blocking. Cornerbacks who are bracing for impact have a hard time covering a go route.
That was true in North Dakota State’s offense, and it’s true in the Packers’ offense.
“Obviously, blocking in the run game helps you catch deep balls,” Hedberg sad. “That was one thing he was very good at was getting down the field and catching some balls. He knew that those blocks would eventually wear down people and he’d be able to get open behind the safeties. Our big-ball throws from our offense are going to be done from play-action. We very seldom will throw big-ball throws from dropback; it’s going to be action throws. He knew that it was a matter of time and eventually he was going to get open.”
Too-Early Packers 53-Man Roster Projection
In (2): Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Love.
Out (2): Kurt Benkert, Danny Etling.
Watch out for: Etling, if only because he’s the fresh face and took better care of the football in college than Benkert.
Early viewpoint: There’s no reason to keep three quarterbacks on the roster and it’s hard to see any team wanting to trade for Love.
Pictured: Aaron Rodgers (USA Today Sports Images)
In (3): Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon, Patrick Taylor.
Out (3): Kylin Hill (PUP), B.J. Baylor, Tyler Goodson.
Watch out for: Baylor led the Pac-12 in rushing in 2021. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced 57 missed tackles on 227 carries compared to 38 missed tackles on 256 carries by Goodson. Then again, Goodson caught 31 passes with one drop compared to eight catches and two drops by Baylor.
Early viewpoint: Hill suffered a torn ACL at Arizona on Oct. 28. If he’s not ready, who will be the No. 3 back? Taylor perhaps changed the path of his career during the Week 18 game at Detroit, when he rushed 11 times for 53 yards and one touchdown.
Pictured: Patrick Taylor (USA Today Sports Images)
In (7): Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers, Sammy Watkins, Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, Samori Toure.
Out (5): Juwann Winfree, Malik Taylor, Chris Blair, Rico Gafford, Danny Davis.
Watch out for: An ankle injury ruined Blair’s chances of competing for a roster spot last summer, but the Packers thought enough of him to keep him on the practice squad for most of the season.
Early viewpoint: Watkins, the fourth pick of the 2014 draft and the lone veteran addition to a group sent reeling by the trade of Adams, isn’t a lock to make the roster. The development of the rookies will have a role in determining if Watkins is simply Devin Funchess 2.0.
Pictured: Chris Blair (USA Today Sports Images)
In (4): Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Tyler Davis, Josiah Deguara.
Out (3): Dominique Dafney, Alize Mack, Eli Wolf.
Watch out for: Davis played 111 snaps last season. While he caught only four passes, Gutekunst said, “I think we might have something there.” Mack, a seventh-round pick by the Saints in 2019, hasn’t played in an NFL game but looked good at the rookie camp.
Early viewpoint: Tonyan suffered a torn ACL at Arizona on Oct. 28. If he’s not ready for Week 1, he should be close so the guess is he’ll make the opening 53. It’s a quality group of role players that really needs Tonyan to return to his 2020 form.
Pictured: Tyler Davis (USA Today Sports Images)
In (8): LT David Bakhtiari, LG Jon Runyan, C Josh Myers, RG Royce Newman, RT Yosh Nijman, T/G Sean Rhyan, OL Zach Tom, T Rasheed Walker.
Out (8): G/T Elgton Jenkins (PUP), C Jake Hanson, C Michal Menet, C Cole Schneider, G George Moore, T Jahmir Johnson, T Caleb Jones, G/T Cole Van Lanen.
Watch out for: Schneider was a four-year starter at Central Florida who did not allow a sack as a senior. Could he be Lucas Patrick 2.0 as an undrafted free agent who found a home as a versatile interior lineman?
Early viewpoint: The Packers took nine blockers into the regular season last year but the position versatility of Rhyan (at guard and tackle) and Tom (at all five positions) could allow the Packers to save a roster spot for elsewhere. Jenkins suffered a torn ACL on Nov. 21. It’s unlikely he’ll be ready for Week 1 but maybe he’ll be far enough along in his recovery to make the 53.
Pictured: Elgton Jenkins (USA Today Sports Images)
In (5): Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Devonte Wyatt, Jarran Reed, T.J. Slaton.
Out: (4) Jonathan Ford, Jack Heflin, Akial Byers, Hauati Pututau.
Watch out for: It was only a rookie minicamp. And it wasn’t live competition in the trenches. But the 26-year-old Pututau showed his strength by pushing around some of the young offensive linemen.
Early viewpoint: The additions of the veteran Reed and the rookie Wyatt have changed the face of the defensive line. This has the makings of being a really strong unit to join with excellent starters at the other positions.
Pictured: Kenny Clark (USA Today Sports Images)
In (6): Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, Jonathan Garvin, Kingsley Enagbare, Randy Ramsey, Tipa Galeai.
Out (3): La’Darius Hamilton, Kobe Jones, Chauncey Manac.
Watch out for: As a sixth-year super-senior, Manac recorded 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for losses for Louisiana in 2021.
Early viewpoint: Enagbare tested horribly at the Scouting Combine (and even worse at pro day) but he looked athletic enough at rookie camp. If you want a rookie-camp overreaction, Enagbare could be a big-time steal. Ramsey, who missed last season with an ankle injury, and Galeai need to be assets on special teams.
Pictured: Kingsley Enagbare (USA Today Sports Images)
In (5): De’Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker, Krys Barnes, Isaiah McDuffie, Ellis Brooks,
Out (3): Ty Summers, Caliph Brice, Ray Wilborn.
Watch out for: Brooks, a productive starter at Penn State, went undrafted but showed some real potential during rookie camp. His instincts seem on-point and he comes with a reputation for being a hitter.
Early viewpoint: At the top of the depth chart, Campbell and Walker could be superb together. At the bottom of the depth chart, holdovers McDuffie and Summers and youngsters Brooks and Wilborn will battle for the last spot or two.
Pictured: Quay Walker (USA Today Sports Images)
In (6): Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas, Eric Stokes, Shemar Jean-Charles, Keisean Nixon, TBA.
Out (3): Kabion Ento, Raleigh Texada, Kiondre Thomas.
Watch out for: Ento seemingly has been in Green Bay for a decade. An undrafted free agent in 2019, he spent 2019 on the practice squad, 2020 on injured reserve and 2021 on the practice squad. A former receiver, his athleticism has stood out on a number of occasions.
Early viewpoint: Maybe Jean-Charles or one of the other young cornerbacks will step to the forefront. But, as it stands now, the depth is perilous. Starting with the trade of Josh Jackson to the Giants for Isaac Yiadom during training camp last summer, Gutekunst tried and tried again to find competent depth. That might be the recipe again.
Pictured: Kabion Ento (USA Today Sports Images)
In (4): Adrian Amos, Darnell Savage, Tariq Carpenter, Shawn Davis.
Out (3): Vernon Scott, Innis Gaines, Tre Sterling.
Watch out for: Gaines was a great story last summer, having gone from DoorDash to making a dash for the roster. He lost out to Scott for a roster spot, but Scott spent his second NFL season with his butt glued to the bench.
Early viewpoint: The starting duo is tremendous. The depth? Questionable, at best. Carpenter, a seventh-round pick, has the tools. Davis was a fifth-round pick by Indianapolis in 2021 who played in one game for the Packers. Same as last year, if the Packers want to use Savage in the slot, they need to have a competent player to step in at safety.
Pictured: Innis Gaines (USA Today Sports Images)
In (3): K Mason Crosby, P Pat O’Donnell, LS Steven Wirtel.
Out (2): JJ Molson, Dominik Eberle.
Watch out for: Whoever the Packers sign to challenge Wirtel.
Early viewpoint: Eberle has experience with new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and boasts a strong leg, but Crosby is the heavy favorite to keep his job after a poor season.
Pictured: Mason Crosby (USA Today Sports Images)