While all eyes in Philadelphia have been firmly pressed on Jalen Hurts, there’s another player from that draft class who is continuing to demand attention. Quez Watkins was drafted in the sixth-round of last year’s NFL Draft but has scorched the turf at the NovaCare Complex on a daily basis, leading up to his 79-yard touchdown against the Steelers last Thursday. But where has this sudden rise come from?
The rookie year of Quez Watkins
Watkins didn’t exactly have a glamorous rookie season. He missed a huge chunk of the season thanks to an injury sustained in Training Camp, meaning he would only feature in 6 games for an already faltering offense that was going through a change at QB. He ended that season with only 7 receptions for a total of 106 yards, 32 of which came on that dazzling screen pass against the Cardinals that went all the way to the house.
Coming out of college, it was clear that the Eagles were drawn to his speed. He ran a 4.35 40-yard dash and had a reputation for being a burner. The problem was that there wasn’t much else to his skillset and at 6’0, 190 lbs, many thought he could be limited to the slot to begin with.
When looking back through his rookie tape, a few things become very clear:
Despite being drafted with an incredible athletic profile, the Eagles did very little to make the most of it. Watkins was rarely used on go-routes and when he was, another problem emerged. Instead, he was used frequently outside on shorter passes over the middle with sudden breaks that demanded a refined route-runner to create separation for his quarterback. Again, this highlighted another weakness.
Watkins really struggled against press coverage. Against the Cardinals, he’d be hit with a jam and be unable to break contact until a further 4-5 steps upfield, severely hampering the timing of his route and forcing Jalen Hurts to look elsewhere. He was often rerouted as a result and if he didn’t have room to burst off the line freely, he lacked the hand technique or confidence to brush off an arm looking to latch onto him.
Give me a break
If you can’t separate at the bottom of a route, then you have to be able to break cleanly at the top of it. As a rookie, Watkins couldn’t. His problem was almost like that of Avonte Maddox in that he has so much raw speed, that channeling it becomes a problem. A curl route against the Cardinals highlighted this, where in looking to stop on a dime, Watkins propelled his head forward and pushed all the momentum over his legs, forcing him to have to take an extra 5-6 steps to slow himself down, in the same way that when a car brakes, you jolt forward. The head-holt alone allowed the CB to break back over the top of the route and negate the work of Watkins before he’d even turned around.
If that sounds confusing, put it like this. Crisp route-runners are often lauded for their hips. The very best in the game are able to stop On a dime by pushing energy through their core, sinking their hips and dropping shoulders into a route, which means they can then burst out of the break and aim for YAC, or at the very least, shield the ball. By bowing his head like a charging bull, Watkins was pushing even more energy in front of him, leading to a very sloppy break.
The end result
Throw all of the above into a bowl with a dying offense, a Head Coach who lost his spark, and a rookie QB with minimal experience, and you have a receiver whose confidence was clearly taking some hits. Concentration drops haunted him at the end of the year, with 2 going on the record, but arguably a few more that should’ve gone down as a reception that had just passed him by. The speed was on show and it was clear by the actions of Jourdan Lewis against the Cowboys, who bailed on a play a second before the snap in a bid to keep the speedster in front of him, that the potential is there.
We have to remember the room Watkins is working in. Aaron Moorehead was one of only two offensive coaches retained and the wideouts surrounding him are all sublime route-runners. DeVonta Smith is as clinical as they come, and while Jalen Reagor was drafted for his ability to separate, John Hightower’s ability to put his foot in the ground and create a window is second to none.
New head Coach Nick Sirianni put a heavy emphasis on abandoning ’banana routes’, setting the scene for a transformative offseason.
When talking to reporters after his impressive preseason debut, Quez Watkins stated something very interesting, and it’s what prompted me to go back and look at his rookie tape:
“This whole offseason I just made everything personal. Everything people said I couldn’t do. ‘I was only fast.’ I just made everything personal and put the work in.”
This immediately made me think of an offseason workout video that was ripped apart by fans, that showed the wideout trying to stop on a curl and expectedly flying forwards past the cone. He heard the noise.
He started working out with his Eagles teammates and before long, his technique of stopping on a curl was dramatically improved:
The biggest thing that has stood out so far was in the public practice at the Linc, where he caught a huge bomb from Jalen Hurts. The impressive thing here wasn’t the speed, or the separation, but the leap to make the grab.
There wasn’t a single time last year where Watkins jumped up to make a catch. The confidence in his play here to get up and snag it out of harms way is beyond impressive.
Through camp, all we’ve seen and heard are positive sentiments regarding Watkins and against the Patriots on Monday during an open practice, we really got an up-close and personal look with his route-running.
Watkins is now able to throw off a jam with his hands instead of trying to drive through it with his shoulders, using his upper body to push through contact with leverage, as opposed to almost sinking into the DB’s hip pocket. This means he can sustain more momentum into the stem of the route and find that extra gear that very few have to create separation.
It’s been an offseason of work for Quez Watkins, as it has been for most. But it’s very rare that you see such a night-and-day contrast in terms of both style of play and mentality over the course of just a few short months. Has he earned a starting role? I’m not sure. But I’m certain that if Watkins continues to develop at this rate, his story is only just beginning.
Quez Watkins was drafted in the sixth-round of last year’s NFL Draft but has scorched the turf at the NovaCare Complex on a daily basis,