Third-year WR Finding Fit In Birds Offense
Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni didn’t mince words at his end-of season press conference when discussing second-year receiver Quez Watkins.
“Quez has big-play ability in him,” Sirianni said in January. “I think out of the No. 2 wideouts I’ve been around in the NFL, he can be one of the best No. 2’s that I’ve been around in the NFL, because of his skill set and because of his ability to make plays.”
Taking the effusive praise from Sirianni at face value, one can only conclude that Watkins, the 2020 sixth-round pick, is primed for a more substantial role in the Eagles’ passing attack.
“I think a lot of us talk about Jalen Hurts and his ability to just be very steady,” Sirianni continued. “Quez Watkins is very – and that’s a trait that we all value in Jalen Hurts – Quez Watkins is the same way. He’s not going to get too up, he’s not going to get too down throughout the course of a game, throughout the course of a year.”
For many young players who lack defined roles, remaining engaged and even-keel on a weekly basis is often among their biggest obstacles at the pro level, but even despite serving as the second receiver on a notoriously inconsistent aerial attack last season, Watkins approached each week with optimism and conviction.
The result was a breakout of sorts, as Watkins caught 43 balls for 647 yards — second among receivers to only rookie DeVonta Smith – and a touchdown, a major step-up from his four-catch, 43-yard rookie year.
Watkins will now have a chance to earn the distinction of being the best No. 3 wideout Sirianni has presided over, following the draft night addition of Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown.
For Watkins, the silver lining in the depth chart bump is that the vast majority of his receiving yards last season came from the inside, an otherwise unfamiliar role for the 23-year-old in which he embraced and ultimately thrived.
“Honestly, last year helped me get out of my comfort zone,” Watkins said. “I played outside all my career in college and stuff like that. But moving in the slot got me out of my comfort zone. I’m able to go inside, outside. I’m able to do both, so it’s just another tool for me.”
Moving inside, where he learned to fight through traffic and elude different defenders, helped expedite Watkins’ growth and enabled the former Southern Miss star to refine his skill set, becoming a more complete receiver. Before that, Watkins had become accustomed to lining up primarily on the outside, where he consistently beat single coverage with blazing long speed.
“It was like an obstacle course inside,” Watkins joked. “Outside, I just get to use more of my speed. As it went on I feel like I learned a lot playing in the slot.”
Rather than becoming disillusioned by the scarce target share and undefined role in a fluid playbook, Watkins concentrated on improving different aspects of his game every week.
He said he studied tape of Cooper Kupp, Keenan Allen, and Brandin Cooks, three of the NFL’s best receivers who also often line up inside. He zeroed in how those receivers learned to win routes without running at top speed.
“We’re all different,” he said. “But I know me – I’m fast – but I need to learn from them how to slow myself down.”
The 6-foot, 193-pound speedster – once billed as a predominately finesse, big-play threat – emerged into the offense’s best contested-catch threat, the byproduct of that extra work.
Even with expected target monsters Brown and Smith sitting atop the receiver hierarchy, Watkins answered enough questions in his 12 starts last season to warrant more attention from Hurts in 2022.
Although his target share might not exceed the 62 from 2021, the addition of Brown figures to create more downfield opportunities for Watkins to exploit opposing secondaries.
“My role doesn’t change,” Watkins insisted. “We all are guys who are all gonna compete and we’re all gonna do our part. We’re gonna do our 1/11 on the field. So, my role is not gonna change. I’m gonna continue to do what I do.”
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.