For most of the first half of the season, the image of Christian Watson dropping a surefire touchdown on the Green Bay Packers’ first offensive play of the season was seared into fans’ collective memories. However, that drop was on a straight-line go route down the right sideline. Conversely, Watson’s emergence for the Packers over the last month has been largely built off his ability to expand his route tree and develop into much more of a multi-dimensional pass-catching threat at all three levels.
It’s easy to see why Green Bay, among other teams in the NFL, was high on Watson coming into the 2022 draft. He possesses a dream combination of size and speed. However, a common knock on Watson was that he would need to “develop a more refined route tree” to make an impact in the NFL. From his very first play, Watson showed that he could turn on the after-burners. But it’s been truly eye-opening to see the different ways in which he’s been able to become a threat within Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.
In his breakout Week 10 game against the Dallas Cowboys, Watson got Green Bay on the scoreboard with a 58-yard touchdown catch on a relatively simple play-action pass concept. Facing third-and-1 on their own 42-yard line, Aaron Rodgers saw Watson get a clean release off the line and use his speed to create just enough space and leverage to take a shot. Rodgers underthrew the ball just a tad, probably because he isn’t quite used to a man of Watson’s speed. But Watson made a terrific adjustment to haul the ball in over his shoulder at the 15-yard line, waltzing into the end zone after the defensive back hit the turf.
It’s a terrific usage of Watson’s No. 1 skill, straight-line speed. But it’s also been a launching point for Watson’s confidence and Green Bay’s motivation to continue getting the ball into its rookie wideout’s hands.
The second touchdown against Dallas feels like the next natural progression for Watson. In a critical spot on fourth-and-7, Watson lined up as the outside man in a trips right formation alongside Allen Lazard and Samori Toure. Lazard and Toure clear out to the right, allowing Watson to build up a head of steam as he launches into an intermediate crossing pattern. Rodgers buys just a little bit of time in the pocket by stepping up. However, he sees that Watson has already dusted the single-high safety, who had no shot at keeping up as Watson crossed the formation from right to left. Again, the throw was just behind Watson, but he was able to make an adjustment while keeping his stride and scoot into the end zone for six.
With the threat of Watson breaking free deep on plays like these lingering in the minds of defensive coordinators, increasingly more opportunities underneath have opened up for the Packers in recent weeks. Whereas the deep threats have some room for error (as seen on both touchdowns above), slants and crossers in front of the secondary require timing and precision to be executed effectively. In Green Bay’s Week 12 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Jordan Love replaced an injured Rodgers and saw firsthand what Watson’s in-game speed is like. This pass isn’t even quite in stride, as Watson catches with a bit of a stutter step at the Packers’ 46, but he can hit the throttle to make the angles that the Philadelphia defensive backs look irrelevant.
It’s still a limited sample size in Watson’s rookie season, but it’s clear that LaFleur is scheming ways for that speed to be impactful, outside of just lining him out wide and chucking it deep. The deep ball is and has always been a potential threat. Still, for Watson to develop into a complete wideout, he will need to make an impact on the intermediate and underneath routes, using horizontal speed to create chaos in a secondary trying to pass off Watson to a teammate as he blurs across their field of vision.
In the traditional role of a wide receiver, these routes come in addition to the ways that Green Bay is already getting Watson the ball in the backfield. He’s got two rushing touchdowns on the season, a 15-yard carry against the New England Patriots, and a 46-yard dagger against the Chicago Bears just over a week ago to clinch yet another victory. These types of plays help elevate the dynamism that Watson can provide, especially in the early stages of his career, where athleticism wins out while the advanced technical skills develop.
What remains to be seen is some advanced stuff, such as sideline work against elite cornerbacks or getting releases when jammed at the line of scrimmage — details that make players like Davante Adams among the game’s best. Those traits will hopefully come. In the meantime, the Packers’ offense has found a way to incorporate its new toy in an array of enticing ways, piling up yards, touchdowns, and (gasp!) a few wins in the process.