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Christian Watson’s athleticism, versatility could make Packers’ big swing pay off

Sending two second picks to move up is aggressive by any means, but when the picks are sent to an arch-rival, the player you’re taking has to be special. Will Christian Watson fit that bill.

NFL Combine Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

It was a stunning move when it was announced, and that was before the player’s name was even read off.

Within minutes of the second round getting underway Saturday, news broke that the Green Bay Packers were not only trading up, but that their trade partners were the Minnesota Vikings. That was a stunner to kick off the second day of the draft but it wasn’t the only surprise to come out of that story.

The Packers jumped up all the way to the 34th pick, giving up the 53rd and 59th selections. At first glance, it appeared the Vikings had utterly fleeced Green Bay. Did the Vikings’ rookie general manager, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, take experienced GM Brian Gutekunst to the cleaners? It sure seemed that way, at least initially, as the traditional trade value charts mark this as a major overpay by Green Bay.

Buzz quickly spread the Packers were finally getting their wide receiver and sure enough, it was North Dakota State’s Christian Watson who was on his way to Green Bay. The initial reaction was mixed, with many thinking he was an almost perfect fit for the Packers while others were floored they gave up both second round picks to get a receiver some viewed as a project (albeit an athletically gifted one).

Even now, in the immediate aftermath of the draft, the trade remains one-sided in Minnesota’s favor. However, when viewing the complete draft class, one can see why the Packers did what they did. Flawed process be damned, some say: If you love a player, go and get him.

Clearly the Packers were infatuated with Watson and it’s not hard to see why. A freakish athlete and versatile playmaker, he’s also physical enough to punish defenders after the catch. He’s the prototype of a wide receiver in the Matt LaFleur offense and may well give Aaron Rodgers an even better deep threat than the departed Marques Valdes-Scantling.

He is the kind of player that one can understand breaking process for. With a 9.96 RAS, you could not find a better pure athlete in this year’s crop of wide receivers and as we’ve discussed on APC already, Gutekunst loves himself an athlete.

So what exactly was it that made the Packers swing for the fences in an aggressive trade up with a divisional rival?

The first thing that stands out to me watching tape of Watson is just how smooth he is. From his release to the catch to racking up yards after the completion, Watson is basically silk in a football jersey. Pairing up someone like that with Rodgers is far too tempting to pass up.

Watson also checked another key box in LaFleur’s offense: being a reliable blocker, especially in the run game. NDSU utilizes a run-heavy attack and Watson was selfless when it came to blocking. Instead of putting more highlight reel plays together, Watson did what he had to do to help his team win. His performance is a mix of skill and intangibles that likely endeared him to the Packers even further.

Speaking of NDSU’s offensive attack, he can be utilized all over the field. No more was this evident than against Northern Iowa (seen here in a great Twitter thread by APC’s Paul Noonan) than where he not only broke off a big run on a jet sweep—LaFleur was probably already drooling at this point—but he also made a big catch over the middle and took a big hit on his way to the ground.

In short, Watson is more than just a speedster. He’s a weapon who can be wielded in all sorts of ways. LaFleur is a creative offensive mind and certainly can’t wait to start working with Watson.

Watson also has a championship pedigree, having been a part of two national championship teams in 2019 and 2021. It might have been the FCS, but it’s an impressive feat regardless of the level of competition.

Of course, there are criticisms of Watson, but these are largely factors mostly out of his control.

First off is his workload. He only played about 40% of the snaps for NDSU last season but that’s a function of the structure of the offense more than anything. It is designed to feature a variety of skill-position players, leading a more balanced snap count. For example, Watson had only 43 receptions, which still was more than twice as much as the next receiver (Phoenix Sproles with 20). However, two running backs and the Bison’s quarterback each had over 100 carries, so one can see why the sample size was small. Oh, and they had a fullback with 87 carries too.

In comparison to his new team, it was the mirror opposite of Green Bay’s attack when they had Davante Adams and the targets almost always tilted heavily in Adams’ favor. Given how the Packers don’t have a true alpha at wide receiver (thought Watson certainly has the potential to become one), spreading the ball around will likely be a much larger part of the offense in 2022. That benefits Watson right away as he learns the playbook.

The other big criticism against him was that he was going up against FCS defensive backs and therefore could have trouble adapting to the speed of the NFL. It’s a valid point considering the most notable FCS defensive backs in the league last year were arguably James Bradberry (Samford) and Jeremy Chinn (Southern Illinois). To counter this, one needs only to look at the aforementioned RAS. When that score is calculated, the player’s drill results are measured against all players drafted at the position since 1987. His 9.96 made him the 12th highest wide receiver ever recorded by RAS.

Drops were also a concern, but that can be corrected. Look no further than Adams’ 2015 season.

In other words, quality of competition can be important but sometimes athleticism trumps all; that is what the Packers are counting on with Watson. There is going to be a learning curve, as there is for most prospects, but Watson’s high intelligence should shorten that up considerably and he should be a contributor sooner rather than later. He may even be a big piece in Week 1.

In summary, it’s easy to see why early skepticism has given way to anticipation for many regarding Watson’s selection. Green Bay could have acquired more impact players at other areas of need (EDGE, for example) had they structured the trade differently or not moved at all. However, it’s clear that the Packers viewed Watson in a different tier than the other receivers remaining in the early second round and put a priority on finding a way to get him.

At the end of the day, no one knows how any player picked in the draft is going to ultimately play out. The Packers made an uncharacteristically aggressive move in the second round to get Watson. If that doesn’t tell you how much they love him, there’s not much that will. Fans will have to trust Gutekunst and LaFleur at this stage and just let things run their course.

Green Bay swung for the fences with Watson. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how far the ball lands.