Packers WR Christian Watson's approach to Year 2: 'He's trying to be great'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Rasul Douglas saw the same thing as everyone else who was around Ray Nitschke Field for the opening day of Green Bay Packers training camp last week.

In full view of the entire team and a few thousand fans in the stands, Christian Watson dropped a simple swing pass in the left flat on a well-placed throw from quarterback Jordan Love. One team period later, Love went to Watson again, this time over the middle and he struggled to hang on. A tough grader might call it a drop even though cornerback Jaire Alexander might have gotten in the way.

While some may think Watson still hasn’t gotten over the drops that plagued him last year -- especially during the first half of his rookie season -- Douglas saw something else: Watson’s swagger.

Watson didn’t smack his helmet with both hands like he did after he dropped a would-be 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the first game of last season at Minnesota. Nor did he slam the ball into the turf like he did after one of two back-to-back drops against the Cowboys in Week 10.

Don’t get Watson wrong; he didn’t do a backflip after these drops in camp. But he didn’t show any signs of frustration, either.

“Exactly,” Douglas said. “It’s that confidence in knowing, ‘OK, I can put that behind me and I’ll get another one.’ That’s a big deal breaker or maker for players.”

Sure enough on Day 2 of training camp, Watson caught a pair of touchdowns and hasn’t dropped another pass.

Here’s something else to remember: Watson had only four drops last season as a rookie, according to ESPN Stats & Information (although some statistical-based organizations charged him with five, which would have increased his drop percentage from 6.1% to 10.9%). And he had none in the last six games of the season.

It might have been the high-profile nature of his drops -- the long pass against Minnesota, two in the highly anticipated game against the Cowboys and one in the red zone of a Thursday night game against the Titans -- that made it worse.

Meanwhile, fellow 2022 draft pick Romeo Doubs actually had more drops (six) and a higher drop percentage (8.8%), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Still, it was Watson who arrived in the NFL with questions about his hands. One scout said that’s why a 6-foot-4 receiver who ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the combine didn’t go in the first round and was available to the Packers at No. 34 overall.

It didn’t help Watson’s rookie year that he got almost no practice time with quarterback Aaron Rodgers before that deep ball against the Vikings in the opener. Rodgers skipped most of the offseason program, and Watson’s mid-summer knee surgery meant he didn’t catch a pass from his quarterback until the 18th practice of training camp.

“One of my biggest goals was just to not let ‘12’ down,” Watson said referring to Rodgers, “not let the vets in the room down. Just got my head spinning thinking about stuff too much. When I [dropped] a ball, first thing I’m thinking of is, ‘I just let everyone down’ and I’m thinking about the next time and [thinking] ‘Oh, I can’t let them down the next time’ instead of the opposite of thinking, ‘I’ve got to make it next time and I’ve got to get this thing rolling.’

“The mentality is definitely a lot different this year.”

In reality, that began to change last season. Before the Dallas game, Watson had just 10 catches for 88 yards without a touchdown catch and missed three games because of a hamstring injury. From Week 10 on, he caught 31 passes for 523 yards and seven touchdowns. No receiver caught more touchdowns during that stretch than Watson (Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams matched him with seven).

“We even saw it in practice,” Douglas recalled. “[Watson] would catch the ball [early in the season] and just walk back to the huddle. Then around Week 10 or 11, he’d have a little pose at the end of the catch. It’s like OK, now he feels like, s---, I can catch everything.’”

It helped Watson reach a different headspace.

“I understand my weaknesses, and I understand my strengths,” Watson said. “Now I’ve just got to go out there and continue to show who I am.”

He also understood he had work to do.

Days after the season ended, Watson spent $3,000 on his personal JUGS machine and had it delivered to his Green Bay home. He stayed in town for two weeks right after the season, and immediately went to work on his hands before he took a postseason break.

He stayed in Green Bay for an extra week after the offseason program ended in June and returned two weeks early before training camp in July.

“Man, he’s trying to be great,” said Doubs, who has been to Watson’s house to catch balls off the JUGS machine. “We’re all trying to get it together and make sure we’re doing the right things.”

That’s where the technical work took place.

“Sometimes I found myself with my hands too far apart,” Watson said. “That leads to bobbles or the ball going through your hands. Just finding little ways to improve. I don’t think I was a poor pass-catcher. I just left some opportunities out there with poor hand placement, and that is what it is.”

The work has continued in training camp. Inside the Don Hutson Center, the Packers’ indoor practice facility, receivers coach/passing game coordinator Jason Vrable asks his players to catch at least 100 passes a day -- 150 would be ideal, he says -- off the JUGS machines either before or after practice.

“When you see guys that are going outside of maybe just the framework of what we have to offer on a daily basis,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said not specifically talking about Watson, “when they go outside of that and they're trying to get better, that's really encouraging.”

It all could lead to more backflips, like the one he did in the end zone after his 58-yard touchdown catch against the Cowboys, which was the first of three scores in that game.

"He just seems like a much more confident player and I think we saw that kind of take shape last year, about halfway through the season," LaFleur said. "You gotta remember -- I think any time you're a young player and you miss all of training camp essentially, that's tough. That's difficult, so just him being healthy, he had a really good offseason and just his knowledge with our offense, he is one of the most intelligent players that I've ever been around."

As if Watson needed to validate his coach's comments, he made perhaps his best play of training camp late in Monday's practice. He turned on the jets down the right sideline, ran past safety Innis Gaines and caught an over-the-shoulder pass from Love for a 67-yard touchdown on a play that looked an awful lot like the dropped 75-yarder at Minnesota.

“I feel like he has everything,” Douglas said. “Just keep catching the ball at a great rate, but I think confidence is one of the biggest essentials any player can use and need. And when you’ve got confidence, you feel like you can make plays even if you really can’t make them.”