Packers trade up in the NFL draft, select wide receiver Christian Watson in the second round
GREEN BAY - Even at the lowest point of his football career, his mailbox empty, the recruiting letters absent, Christian Watson never doubted he was an NFL receiver.
He was groomed for this. Groomed for the NFL part, at least. The son of a former Green Bay Packers safety, Watson grew up in the backyard with Pops. “We lived,” Watson said, “with the football in our hands.” He got used to the feeling of cradling that football, too.
Eventually, Watson split from his father Tim’s path, the son of a defensive back choosing to be a receiver.
“I really wanted to have the rock in my hands,” Watson said. “So when it came down to it, I really wanted to be on the offensive side of the ball and be able to make an impact with the ball in my hands. That’s something I knew I could do really well.”
It was never certain Watson would reemerge with his father’s journey to pro football, as he did Friday night when the Packers leaped full throttle to the front of the second round, trading both their second-round picks to draft their newest receiver with the 34th overall pick. Watson had one scholarship offer out of Plant High in Tampa, Florida. It wasn’t to a major-college program.
Watson instead signed to play at North Dakota State. An FCS powerhouse, the Bison were still far from the national spotlight. The program had 12 players on NFL rosters last season, including former Packers right tackle Billy Turner. For a receiver passed on by every college program except one, the NFL could have seemed like a long shot.
Except Watson thought differently. From the moment he stepped onto campus in Fargo, North Dakota, about as far removed as he could be from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Watson envisioned the phone call he got Friday night from Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst. So when the Packers traded both their second-round picks to the Minnesota Vikings for No. 34 overall to draft Watson, he was grateful but unsurprised.
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“It took a lot,” Watson said. “Obviously, a lot of people that are going to doubt what you’re able to do coming from having one offer, or coming from quote-unquote a smaller school. But I always felt from the moment I stepped onto NDSU’s campus that I was going to be able to achieve everything that I wanted to achieve with the guys around me in that program. So it was nothing that I thought wasn’t going to be possible with the circumstances I was in.”
The Packers left nothing to chance Friday night. After watching the receiver run expire before his team had a chance on the clock in the first round, Gutekunst made an emphatic move to address his roster’s most glaring need. Gutekunst said there were a few conversations as Thursday’s first round concluded to trade up for Watson, but he couldn’t find a match.
“We certainly wanted to make sure we knew what opportunities were out there,” Gutekunst said. “Until you actually have someone who will take a deal, you never really know.”
It took the 53rd pick, which they received in trading Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders, along with No. 59 to reach Watson. That it was the Vikings who presented a final match forced Gutekunst into a wry smile. “You never really want to deal with them,” Gutekunst said, “if you don’t have to.” Gutekunst said there were “four or five” potential trade partners near the top of the second round. Ultimately, the Vikings were highest in that order, and their return price was enough to entice the NFC North rival into acquiescing to their nemesis.
The Packers finished their night selecting UCLA offensive lineman Sean Rhyan in the third round. Rhyan started 31 games at left tackle for the Bruins, but his 32 3/8-inch arms profile more as an NFL guard. It is the Packers' way to draft college tackles with the expectation their athleticism will make solid interior pass blockers.
Ryan's arrival could make it easier for the Packers to kick Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins out to right tackle, if Yosh Nijman is unable to secure the starting job this offseason.
“Elgton can play wherever he wants,” Gutekunst said. “He's that good."
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There are plenty of uncertainties to still figure out on the offensive line, but Friday night was about the Packers' receiver position. For a team in desperate need of pass catchers after trading Davante Adams and losing Marquez Valdes-Scantling in free agency, a steep price to draft Watson was justifiable.
Watson was the seventh receiver drafted in a deep class. The Packers have made a rich living over the years drafting second-round receivers, but Watson’s 34th overall selection is the highest the team has drafted the position since using its first-round pick on Javon Walker in 2002. Watson was selected two picks higher than the Packers drafted Jordy Nelson in 2008.
The Packers don’t assign round grades for players, Gutekunst said. He made clear there would have been no hesitation to draft Watson in the first round, had he found a trade partner.
“He’s a big, fast, physical receiver,” Gutekunst said. “We think his best football is ahead of him. We brought him in for one of our 30 visits, got a chance to spend a lot of time with him, and really felt like he’s a smart kid who we feel will fit our culture. He’s got really good tape, his athletic traits are off the chart, and the more we got to know him as a person we just felt really good about him.”
The jump from FCS to NFL will be a steep transition for Watson. While his testing results were impressive, his most productive college season was a modest 43 catches for 801 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior last year. At the FCS level, those numbers left something to be desired.
During the pre-draft crucible, Watson was docked for inconstant hands and lack of play strength, especially getting off the line of scrimmage against press-man coverage. Both will need to improve to become a successful professional.
As for the massive jump from FCS, the Packers believe NDSU’s pedigree will help ease the transition.
“North Dakota State is a little bit different program than most at that level," Gutekunst said. "I think that would be fair to say. They certainly step outside their level at times and have been very competitive, but at the same time I think it’s the individual player. You’ll kind of see that as they go. All these guys, even from the Georgias and the UCLAs of the world, have a huge adjustment because the NFL thing is not an easy thing. It’s not an easy transition for anyone.”
Asked why he never doubted the NFL would be in his future, Watson first cited his “God-given ability.” He has the tools to eventually become a No. 1 receiver for Aaron Rodgers, measuring 6-5, 208 pounds while running a blazing 4.36 40 at the scouting combine. Watson’s top-end speed could replace the field-stretching presence coach Matt LaFleur’s offense lost when Valdes-Scantling signed with the Kansas City Chiefs.
In the moments after being drafted, Watson said he had not yet spoken with his new quarterback. Watson already knew what he would tell Rodgers when the two have their first phone call.
“I’ll say I’m ready to work,” Watson said. “I’m ready to work, I’m ready to learn, and I’m ready to get after it. I know he’s going to be tough on me, and that’s exactly what I want. I want somebody who’s going to continue to push me to be the best possible player I can be, and I know with him being one of the greatest that he’s going to continue to get everything out of me. So I’m going to tell him that I’m ready to work, and I’m ready to go.”