Welcome back to Bucs Report’s “Make-Or-Break” series!
We are going to highlight the players heading into their final contract year and discuss what they need to do on the field in 2021 in order to obtain another contract with the Bucs. One prerequisite that must be checked off in order to qualify: The profiled player(s) have to be in the final year of a multi-year deal. Players who signed one-year deals in 2021 will not be considered.
Justin Watson and the Bucs so far…
Watson was drafted 144th overall in the 2018 draft. Both Adam Humphries and Desean Jackson were in contract years, so Jason Licht needed a plan in case one -or both- didn’t return. Watson could not only fill Humphries’ slot position, but he could play on the outside a la Jackson, as well.
Watson saw action in 12 games during his rookie season, but it was only 6.5% of offensive snaps. It was clear he was at the bottom of the receiving pecking order. He had one catch for five yards on three targets. He did play 43% of special teams snaps, however, recording six solo tackles on the season.
So you’re saying there’s a chance…
Hoping to see more action with the void left by the departures of Humphries and Jackson, Watson would get a small jump in action in 2019. Getting on the field for 19.9% of the offense’s snaps, Watson would record the first receiving touchdown of his career. With 26 targets, he hauled in 15 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns. His numbers were good for limited targets. He only had two drops and a 57.7% catch rate.
While sharing snaps with newly acquired rookie Scotty Miller in 2019 Watson was outshined. Miller would see a leap in snaps in 2020 (43.7%) and Watson would be the wide receiver to take a seat. His time on the field was diminished to 15% of plays. Watson was further buried on the depth chart after the additions of Tyler Johnson and Antonio Brown.
He still managed to set career-highs in yards per catch (13.4) and catch percentage (63.6%), while his former career-long of 17-yards was shattered with a 36-yard reception.
Oh, he also recorded his first-ever career sack on this attempted fake punt by Carolina:
What does he need to do in order to get that second contract?
2020 will be interesting for Watson. If Johnson emerges much like he is expected to, and Brown is retained, Watson again falls deep down the depth chart. He’ll likely see less than 15% of the offensive snaps and be relegated to continue serving in a reserve role.
If Brown does not return, then he could see more action. But for the time being he is still the fifth option at wide receiver. He will have to prove something early on. Starting with camps and preseason. Watson will need to catch everything that comes his direction and increase a yards after catch per reception number that was 2.7 yards in 2020.
He also needs to show that he can still be a solid contributor on special teams. If he can do this, then his chances of getting a second contract with the Bucs will become even better.
How are his prospects shaping up for 2022?
Watson is not likely to see the field much in 2021. He will have to go above and beyond on each pass thrown his way. Selling out his body for the catch and furthermore for every inch after. Each potential drop he has is a huge strike against his return. Any fumble he coughs up will be another strike against his return.
In other words, he must be perfect in a small sample size.
One outside factor that Watson may have going his way is the amount of wide receivers Bruce Arians likes to have on his team. Especially ones with good hands. Plus, the two bottom receivers are likely going to play mostly special teams, which is where Watson has made his biggest impact in Tampa Bay.
And forget the recent injuries to Mike Evans, Chris Godwn, and even Antonio Brown. This receiving corps needs all the options it can have. Keeping Watson around shields the Bucs in this regard, as well.
There are three things to watch in this scenario: First, if Brown returns Watson will not have much of a chance to prove himself. Second, if Johnson takes a step forward in his progress Watson loses out again. And last -and a telling sign that he would not likely be back- is the 2021 draft. He may be out if the Buccaneers take another receiver.
If the first two things happen, I don’t foresee him coming back unless there is a injury in 2021. The third would solidify his departure. In Watson’s case I see all three things happening and pushing him out.
There is one additional wild card: If the Buccaneers cannot sign Chris Godwin to a long-term deal and Brown is not on the team, they may keep Watson for depth. You hate to see it, but as of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll get that second contact.
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