Can Christian Watson Compete for Rookie of the Year?

The Green Bay Packers have exercised two second round picks on NDSU wide receiver Christian Watson. This is the highest capital they’ve spent on this position since drafting Davante Adams out of Fresno State in 2014. The Packers’ track record for drafting second round receivers has been excellent, but they don’t always shine as rookies. Will Christian Watson break the mold and emerge as a serious candidate for offensive rookie of the year? Only time will tell, but some level of analysis can be done to see what the odds are for Watson to have a historic year.

Previous Years Haven’t Offered Much Opportunity to Rookie Receivers

The Packers under Aaron Rodgers have always started off on opening day with a clear cut veteran wide receiver who would see the majority of the target share in a given year. Even in a year like 2015 when Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the preseason, and Davante Adams was about to have the worst year of his young career, this remained true.

Randall Cobb, of course, led the team in targets that year, followed by veteran James Jones who had just made his triumphant return to the Packers for that season. While Randall Cobb is with the Packers these days, he’s not what he was back in 2015, and Allen Lazard seems to be the only familiar veteran who it would be realistic to call a “wide receiver one” with the departure of Davante Adams.

It is true that no Packers team in the last 20 years has offered this kind of opportunity to a rookie receiver. However, it is still worth asking if that fact alone is enough to make a rookie the top targeted pass-catcher on a team like the Packers.

The vacancies at wide receiver certainly leave the door at least cracked open for a rookie such as Christian Watson to come in and compete for the largest share of targets. The issue with this line of thinking falls with why the Packers have typically not been keen on giving large roles to rookie wide receivers, and there are a few reasons.

A Multi-Faceted Approach

When Aaron Rodgers hasn’t had “his guy” in the past, the offense always seems to spread out a lot more. Brian Gutekunst has implied that replacing Davante Adams’ production will not happen by way of one player taking on the ten targets per game everyone is used to seeing him rack up. With that being said, it is likely we will see the same type of offense from past games and seasons where there has been injury to the Packers’ top receiver.

Aaron Rodgers has shown in the past that he likes to, whenever possible, default to guys he trusts. If spreading the ball around to Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard, or even his tight ends and running backs is a realistic possibility in a game, it’s most likely what will occur.

Christian Watson will have to work hard to gain the trust of his quarterback if he wants to see the lion’s share of the targets on this offense. And perhaps that is possible.

What is Watson’s Role?

I’m not going to pretend to be some expert, or to know what’s going on in the building, but there are a two facts worth noting. First, Matt Lafleur’s offense is incredibly difficult to grasp all at once for a rookie receiver. This is true of any offense, but between the schematics and terminology, this offense is notorious for the learning curve (the same goes for Shanahan’s offense, as well as McVay’s, as they stem from the same coaching tree).

If a receiver has any shot of winning offensive rookie of the year in this type of scheme, it will likely have be on the back of incredible playmaking ability, because fully adapting to this offense in one season doesn’t seem realistic. I’m not going to call Watson a “project” either, because I don’t know enough about him to confidently say that, but almost no rookie ever finds themselves in the circumstance of immediately dominating as their team’s top wide receiver. Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson are the the exceptions, not the rules.

The second fact, which has been established, is that the quarterback has to want to throw the ball to someone. If Watson can’t quickly establish a rapport with Rodgers, then his case for rookie of the year won’t exist. A rookie in this offense will likely rely on learning some plays, some protections, and carving out a small role for themselves where they can. Some guys will shine as role players and earn trust, and some guys obviously won’t. I have confidence that Watson will shine in his roles, but I don’t exactly see him exploding in year one.

Watson’s Likelihood for Offensive Rookie of the Year

The 2022 Packers pass catching group will likely look more like a committee than it has in any full season in the last 20 years. It is not a knock on Watson to say that a complicated offense led by a veteran like Aaron Rodgers will likely result in more targets going to experienced veterans like Cobb, Lazard, or even Robert Tonyan over any rookie wide receiver.

The Packers have almost always slowly rolled rookie wideouts on to the scene, and while there is no “clear cut” number one receiver, there are still guys who are looking to take a step up in roles they have already secured on offense.

Do I know if Christian Watson can come in and be as polished and talented as Ja’Marr Chase immediately was? Of course not. However, I can predict that the Packers may be unwilling to drop him into that sort of role regardless of what they feel he is capable of.

As a soft prediction: Christian Watson will probably receive no votes for offensive rookie of the year. However, there is hopefully enough analysis here to demonstrate that this is not a bad thing by any means.

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Zack is a college student and cheesehead from California. When he’s not in class or writing, you can find him talking about the Packers on Twitter at @Zack_Upchurch.

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