‘That dude can roll:’ Why Justin Watson could help Chiefs ... and why we hope he does

Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com
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Shortly after the Chiefs signed receiver Justin Watson in February, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer was excited to get a text from new teammate Patrick Mahomes.

Never mind that it could have been from anybody.

“Somebody could have gotten me pretty good,” Watson said, smiling, “because I didn’t do anything to verify.”

Persuaded by the Texas area code, though, Watson embraced the welcome to Kansas City that included an invitation to an informal camp Mahomes planned to hold with a revamped receiving corps in his native state.

If Watson was delighted by the development, turns out the feeling was promptly reciprocated.

After the first day of throwing to him, among better-known new targets like Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mahomes called general manager Brett Veach.

“I was, like, ‘Wait, how fast is this guy?’” Mahomes recalled in May. “He was running so fast that I was late on my throws.”

So we know “that dude can roll,” as Mahomes put it then.

And now chances are the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Watson will earn a role with the Chiefs.

Not only as a potential key cog of what special teams coordinator Dave Toub calls “a complete reset” of that element of the team but also as a possible fifth receiver behind the aforementioned duo, Mecole Hardman and rookie Skyy Moore.

“The quarterback, he trusts him, which is a plus,” coach Andy Reid said on Wednesday.

Reid also described Watson as a “big kid. Tall. Fast. Smart. Penn grad, right, so he’s got capacity there.”

Which brings us to our preoccupation with Watson.

Because a long, long time ago, I had some of the sorts of experiences he had at the University of Pennsylvania.

Except for I played “left out,” as a reserve wide receiver who seldom got on the field.

And my coach, alas, told me I was “not fast enough for my size and not big enough for my speed.”

Oh, and as my man Sam McDowell immediately reminded me after Reid said that about the presumed “capacity” of a Penn guy … that’s not always the case.

Still, those days forever resonate to me in the special friendships and profound lessons of a lifetime.

So I love at least the sense of some common ground with Watson, including having seen him play during a reunion of old teammates in a 2016 game at Yale — when he had 10 catches on his way to a school-record 286 for 3,777 yards in a two-time Ivy League championship career.

And the fact he immediately rattled off the name of the quarterback (Gary Vura) of our 1982 Ivy League co-championship team (after winning a total of two games in the previous three seasons).

Not to mention his knowledge of Chiefs-Penn lore in the form of my friend Joe Valerio, who is tied with two others for the most touchdown catches by an offensive lineman in NFL history with four.

“My goal is I’ve got to score more touchdowns than Joe while I’m here,” Watson said, smiling, when we first spoke a few weeks ago.

Here’s hoping.

And here’s why that could come to be:

While Watson has just 23 receptions for 258 yards and two touchdowns in three-plus seasons with the Bucs after missing virtually all of last season with a knee injury he believes since rehabbing he’s fully healthy for the first time since college and at 26 feels faster than he ever has.

The knee “bothered me pretty much my whole (NFL) career,” he said. “It’s a scary thing getting knee surgery. But now, on the other end of it, it was the best thing that could have happened for this season.

“I just feel like I’m so explosive. I’m pain-free. And when you’re pain-free and don’t have to think about an injury, it’s fun playing football.”

Before his knee had mounting issues and ultimately hobbled him, according to the Boston Globe, Watson caused quite a buzz on his pro day at Penn when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds based on the average stopwatch time of some two dozen scouts there.

That would have been good for fifth in that year’s NFL Combine … if Watson had been invited.

Being left flying, and we do mean flying, under the radar like that informed an attitude that has sustained him over the years.

Control what you can control, he said, especially by looking at this way: “Don’t count your reps; make your reps count.”

The Chiefs made him feel he’d get a fair chance, one he’s been grateful for. And maybe this is what was meant to be all along.

When he was at Penn, the Chiefs were among those heavily scouting Watson — who recalled the team’s logo being the first from the NFL he ever saw in the stands for a practice at Franklin Field.

In fact, the night before the 2018 NFL Draft, a Chiefs scout called and told him, “Be ready tomorrow; I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re calling you.”

Instead, Tampa Bay selected Watson, the first Penn player drafted since 2002, in the fifth round.

That became part of something more that he brings to the Chiefs: being a Super Bowl champ, albeit at Kansas City’s expense in Super Bowl LV, and having played with Tom Brady.

A “receiver’s dream,” he called it, to have learned from Brady and now to be with Mahomes, each of whom he says have similarly relentless attention to detail and uncanny senses of the field.

In Tampa, he also developed a passion for special teams that could be crucial to his opportunity to be here for the more glamorous opportunities with Mahomes.

One of the reasons he signed with the Chiefs, he said, was because they’re such a point of emphasis under Toub.

“That’s good to hear,” Toub said, smiling, amid trying to replace about a half-dozen four-phase special teams players. “You can just tell it’s important to him. You can tell how he is in meetings. You can tell he’s a leader … by example.”

Much as he wants to be the best in any circumstance on the field, though, nothing quite moves a receiver like the chance to play with a quarterbacking phenom. Again.

For all the similarities in makeup he might see between Brady and Mahomes, one clear adjustment is that “there is no place on the field that is off-limits for (Mahomes) to throw the ball. Most quarterbacks, if you’re 50 yards downfield, you have to start slowing up if the ball hasn’t been thrown yet. With Pat, it’s … put your head down and keep running, because if you’re open he’ll find you.”

When Watson gets on the field, he thinks he’ll be easy for Mahomes to find because of a connection that began in Texas that he believes is only gaining momentum now.

Pointing to the intangible chemistry of adjusting on the go and connecting on an unscripted break, he said, “It’s just cool when you start seeing plays the same way as the quarterback.”

And just cool for one former Quaker to get to watch another who is fast enough for his size and big enough for his speed, along with plenty of other dimensions to distinguish him, try to make his reps count as never before.