Can Christian Watson help Packers now? It hasn't happened often in Aaron Rodgers era

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The first text Christian Watson received after being drafted by the Green Bay Packers last week with the 34th overall pick was from Aaron Rodgers.

It arrived, Watson’s father said, within moments of the North Dakota State receiver’s name being announced to the nation.

Before changing his name, Tazem Wajed went by Tim Watson in 1993 when the Packers drafted him as a safety out of Howard. His experience with the Packers was much shorter, having been waived in camp, followed by a failed physical and a return to Green Bay only to be waived again before latching on with the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Packers expect to have the younger Watson around a lot longer. Likely for the duration of Rodgers’ tenure — and the hope would be well beyond, too. The second round has proven, for whatever reason, to be particularly fertile draft terroir for the position.

The list of second-round wideouts just in the last 10 years includes Michael Thomas, A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, Jarvis Landry, Robert Woods, Alshon Jeffery, Allen Robinson, Tee Higgins, Michael Pittman Jr., Chase Claypool, Tyler Boyd, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Sterling Shepard, Christian Kirk, Courtland Sutton and others.

It’s also the round the Packers have unearthed some of their best receivers of the past few decades, including Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the man Watson essentially is replacing, Davante Adams.

So the expectations are reasonably high for Watson, despite him catching only 105 passes in 52 college games. Wajed also offered up this theory: that given what unfolded in Green Bay last year, Watson wouldn’t have been drafted where he was had Rodgers not signed off on it.

“We know for a fact that Aaron actually — because of all the drama that happened last year — Aaron has to be very much involved in this decision,” Wajed said. “So the receiver that Aaron wanted happened to be Christian Watson. And he texted him right away, letting him know that he will be getting with him and sharing with him what they need to do to pack away.”

North Dakota State WR Christian Watson made the most of his college touches, but drops were an issue the past two seasons especially. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
North Dakota State WR Christian Watson made the most of his college touches, but drops were an issue the past two seasons especially. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What can the Packers expect from Christian Watson in Year 1?

If Rodgers did indeed handpick Watson as it’s suggested, it’s notable. If true, it’s a sign that Rodgers is heavily involved in offensive personnel decisions and that he’s a fan of Watson’s skill set.

That’s the good news, perhaps even very good. Green Bay even tried to trade up for Watson with the final pick of Round 1. They clearly like him, trading two second-rounders (Nos. 53 and 59 overall) to pick Watson.

For the “Packers don’t draft first-round receivers” hive, that’s a first-round-caliber investment — in an FCS-level player who never caught more than seven passes in a game there. No pressure, or anything.

The Packers need receivers to step up this season. The Adams trade is being portrayed as a necessary evil from a financial perspective, and we now know he told the Packers he wanted out. So they granted him his wish. But there’s nothing close to an established, clear-cut go-to receiver on the order of Adams right now.

Allen Lazard and Cobb are the holdovers with 10 or more career catches. Juwann Winfree and Amari Rodgers are returnees who fall below that threshold. Sammy Watkins was signed, too. But Watkins’ production the past three seasons (116-1,488-6 receiving) doesn’t even match Adams’ numbers in 2021.

The Packers also drafted three wideouts: Watson, fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs and seventh-rounder Samori Toure.

All hands on deck, as it were. The young guys, including 2021 third-rounder Amari Rodgers, must step up. But wondering how much Watson and the rookie can produce isn’t just a timely fantasy-football debate — it’s also a real-world question mark as Rodgers creeps toward the twilight of his career.

“You always feel good right now, but the bottom line is you’ve got to get these guys in here and see what they can do,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of the three three rookie receivers. “And a lot of it’s going to be how fast can these guys pick up the offense?”

Aaron Rodgers' spotty history with rookie receivers

The latter point LaFleur brought up is a logical worry. It could, in theory, be a big leap for Watson, even though the school has produced multiple NFL quarterbacks and offensive starters in recent years.

Watson spent five years with the Bison in a power-run offense that set up play-action shots; they averaged 18.6 pass attempts per game since 2018 and ran a pretty limited route tree.

He also earned a bit of a reputation as having shaky hands there. Watson suffered 15 drops over four seasons on 180 targets, per PFF, for an average of one drop every 12 times he was thrown the ball. Not great. Even worse is that 11 of those drops came on his final 106 college targets, or one every 8.8 tries the past two seasons.

Two things Rodgers can’t deal with: mental errors and dropped passes. Especially for a rookie.

Rookie receivers easily can be frozen out by Rodgers if they’re not careful. Watson said he’s ready to receive an earful from his new QB.

“I know he’s going to be tough on me, and that’s exactly what I want,” Watson told Green Bay media after being picked. “I want someone who’s going to continue to push me to be the best possible player that I can be, and I know that with him being one of the greatest, that he’s going to get everything out of me.”

Rodgers told Pat McAfee last week he might even show up to the team’s voluntary portions of the offseason, something he hasn’t done in a few years now.

Perhaps he’s mellowed on his being-tough-on-the-young-guys approach. In January, he said: “Maybe I didn’t see that my intense desire to be great could be misconstrued at times as me getting on my teammates. That’s the beauty in leadership. You have to understand how to push the right buttons on guys to get them to respond in the right way. I’m proud of my ability to listen and grow.”

That might prove true. But history also has shown that Rodgers hasn’t leaned on rookie receivers extensively. Even if you can’t say it’s to the point where he flat out ignores them, Rodgers has never truly had a first-year wideout who has been a huge feature of the Packers’ offense.

Since 2008, Rodgers’ first full season of starting, the Packers have had only five rookie receivers catch more than 12 passes — and none of them caught more than 38. The Year 1 receiving-yards leader with Rodgers at QB? Not Cobb, not Nelson and not Adams — it was Marques Valdes-Scantling, with 538 yards in 2018.

Of those yards, 399 of them came on 22 catches (38 targets) in a six-game span between Weeks 4 and 9. In the final seven games that season, Valdes-Scantling caught 15 passes (on 33 targets) for 179 yards and no TDs.

Cobb didn't truly enter Rodgers' circle of trust until Year 2 of his career. Adams didn't really emerge until his third season — with Packers fans wanting to run him off prior to that. Nelson truly broke out in Year 4, although you could argue it happened in the playoffs of Year 3.

It took Randall Cobb (left) a few years to develop chemistry with Aaron Rodgers (right), but Cobb could be counted on to produce again in 2022. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
It took Randall Cobb (left) a few years to develop chemistry with Aaron Rodgers (right), but Cobb could be counted on to produce again in 2022. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Someone must step up into Packers' WR void

Between Adams and Valdes-Scantling, the Packers are losing their two most-targeted receivers from last season with a combined 224 throws from Rodgers. That’s 39.3% of his targets from 2021.

LaFleur and new offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich clearly can lean on their top two running backs, Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, to help shoulder the load. They combined for 358 carries and 86 catches (on 102 targets) last season. Those numbers very reasonably could go up in 2022.

Cobb is Old Faithful. Lazard came up big late in the regular season. Watkins is the wild card to the mix, still capable of big games here and there. But clearly, the Packers are going to ask more from their rookie wideouts — and specifically Watson — this season more than in others.

But to this point, it’s interesting that LaFleur seems to have lumped the three WR draft picks together when talking about immediate expectations from the rookies.

“Certainly we’re not going to find Davante Adams, at least not initially,” LaFleur said after the draft. “Certainly, I don’t want to limit any of these guys and say they can’t become that.

“It’s a process and it takes some time. Certainly, we’re going to push them to be their best right away because that’s what we need from them.”

It’s also worth a reminder that in Valdes-Scantling’s rookie season, he was the second of three Packers WR picks that year, too, following fourth-rounder J’Mon Moore, who caught only two passes in his career.

That means we can’t overlook Doubs, who caught 138 passes for 2,111 yards and 20 TDs in his final 20 college games. That included two 200-yard games in that span.

And if Watson isn’t caught up initially with his receiving responsibilities, he also can contribute in other ways: as a runner (49-392-2 in 52 games), run blocker and kick returner (career 26.4-yard average, two TDs).

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