The Raiders came into the 2013 Draft with no second round pick but they traded back from third to twelfth overall and picked up the tenth pick in the second round in the trade. They used the pick to draft an athletic but inexperienced OT from Florida State, Menelik Watson.
Watson is physically exactly what teams want in a tackle – he’s 6’5” and 310 lbs, a good size for the position. He’s extremely athletic and has shown that in his life, playing many sports.
He grew up in Manchester, England playing the other football, known as soccer on this side of the pond but his size was not to his advantage as he grew older. He transitioned to basketball and played for a traveling team in his teens before deciding that, also, was not right for him. He tried his hand at boxing, no pun intended, before finally settling on football.
This varied background is both a strength and a weakness for Watson. It certainly puts him well behind the curve in learning the nuances of the position. After all, he’s only been playing football for two years at this point – many of his peers played Pee Wee football for more than two years.
As a positive, his background in the other sports show his athleticism and helped train him to be a future OT. His soccer and basketball background helped develop his stamina, an explosive first step and great movement both straight-line and laterally.
His boxing experience was also helpful as he shows good punch (again, no pun intended) out of his stance, getting his hands into his opponent and pushing them back. Punch is important because it stops momentum and helps redirect a defender.
Of course, as physically gifted as Watson is, he cannot completely make up for a lack of experience at the position. Unless a defender runs into his vicinity, he struggles with recognition of blocking assignments. There were multiple plays in which defenders didn’t seek to engage him and he didn’t block anyone or contribute because he didn’t know how to help.
Likewise, Watson had the strength and speed to get to the second level but sometimes struggles to recognize where to turn his attentions once reaching the linebacking corps.
But, when he does realize his blocking assignment, he can be devastatingly good. Here’s an example of what Watson can bring to the Raiders as a run blocker when he understands his place in the scheme. He's at the RT position covered by a tight end who will be blocking the defensive end that is set out very wide:
At the snap, Watson doubles the 3-tech DT and pushes him backward and away from the line of scrimmage:
Getting a good push – remember that punch I mentioned earlier – Watson seperates himself from the DT and passes him along to the guard who continues to ride the momentum away from the line. The runningback is just now getting the ball:
Now the guard has sealed off the DT to the left and the runningback has to pick a hole. Watson, who shed the DT in the last frame, has gone to the second level well. He is a smooth runner and is especially good in transition when he knows what his next assignment will be. Watson engages the linebacker and seals him off with his shoulders square and even:
Watson starts to open a hole by using the linebackers momentum against him and pushing toward the outside of the field. The runningback, Devonta Freeman, makes a smart decision to cut in behind Watson. Freeman, I noted in film review, liked to run between the RG and Watson and frequently used that hole to get good yardage:
Watson brings the linebacker down as the runningback has a suddenly-huge hole to rush through:
Not that every play results in him making good, solid blocks. For ever play like that, there is another in which he makes the initial block and makes it to the next level and then looks around and tried to figure out he’s supposed to be doing next. It’s that inexperience that will really require solid coaching. Luckily, the Raiders have one of the best OL coaches in the business in Tony Sparano.
His inexperience is somewhat offset by his natural athleticism. Unlike the man with whom he’ll be competing for the RT position, Khalif Barnes, I didn’t see any false start penalties called on Watson in the four games I watched. He definitely had holds that weren’t called but that’s probably true of every opponent.
His inconsistencies also extended to his reaction time. There were some snaps in which he was the first player off the line and others in which he lagged almost interminably behind his teammates. Getting a consistent first step at the snap will be a focus of the coaching staff if Watson is to be seriously considered as a rookie starter.
As I mentioned in the previous example, Watson does very well in transitions. I thought that, given his inexperience, defenses would be able to confuse him with stunts on the defensive line but he did remarkably well in recognizing and passing off one defender to pick up another.
He also did better than expected with blitz recognition, again showing his light feet and athleticism. Here’s an example of how he was able to keep his head up, recognize a play changing around him and reacting.
As you can see, here, Watson is uncovered on the line on the right side. He is lined up practically across from the L defensive end, who he initially thinks is who he'll be blocking. However, there is a double blitz on this play. The slot cornerback blitzes in at the snap and the safety on that side also blitzes after hesitating for a moment to disguise his intentions:
At the snap, the line crashes to their right and Watson sees the cornerback coming in from his right:
Watson slides over and engages with the cornerback, stopping his momentum. At this point, the safety makes his move, trying to come around the right side of the line to try to bring the QB down:
Like the last example, Watson uses his upper body strength and pushes the DB into the melee in the center of the line and disconnects himself from that entanglement in order to stop the blitzing safety:
Watson puts himself firmly between the blitzing safety and the quarterback and uses his light feet to slide to his right so that he can keep his body moving but also put himself in the path of the blitzer:
Fully engaging the blitzer, again, he keeps the pocket clear for his quarterback, who is able to throw down the field without being bothered by the two blitzers:
Watson may or may not be ready to start right away, but I understand why McKenzie took the risk on him. He's got as high a ceiling as any player in this draft and even his floor doesn't seem to be as low as many make out. He may never tap into his full potential but he's only going to get better than he is, now.
The sky is the limit for the athletic Brit, and the Raiders hope that his focus and maturity – he's 24 years old as a rookie – will help him tap that potential sooner rather than later.
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