The Cleveland Browns have plenty of receivers on the roster this year. That is indisputable. In meetings, this room has to bring in extra chairs. At one point, 14 receivers were under contract.
And already there may be a few surprises on who exactly makes this final roster come the final cutdown day. One name to be looking at is Austin Watkins, Jr.
Right off, Watkins has been a part of a pro football championship. He was a member of the Birmingham Stallions of the USFL which captured their second straight league title this past spring. While the Stallions were winning the initial season’s championship the year before, Watkins was playing elsewhere – namely Canada.
So far in Browns camp, very few receivers have been released. Before training camp, Michael Woods ruptured an Achilles and will likely become an IR inhabitant. Isaiah Weston was placed on the reserve/retired list. Marquez Stevenson was released. Daylen Baldwin was waived with an injury designation right after the Hall of Game against the New York Jets, but WR Jalen Wayne was signed to take his spot. It’s still up in the air what to do about Marquise Goodwin.
And just after Cleveland waived the troubled but talented DT Perrion Winfrey, 11 players from various positions were brought in for a tryout for the open roster spot. Watkins was chosen and inked to a training camp contract to compete.
With Birmingham capturing back-to-back USFL championships, it is not surprising that this club has had the most players signed into the NFL this year. Former Stallions/Browns receiver Davion Davis led the USFL in receiving yards and has signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
So, who is Austin Watkins, Jr.? Why is he tearing up the preseason and yet nobody is talking about him? Can he make this Browns roster? Really, with all the camp bodies in the receiver room, is it a realistic notion to think that a developmental league player can actually make this Cleveland team?
After the second preseason game against the Washington Commanders, the Browns have 11 healthy receivers on the roster. The norm is to keep six.
Watkins (6’-3”, 210 pounds) is a Southern kid having grown up in Ft. Meyers, Florida. Well, South Florida is more Little Cuba/Puerto Rico/Dominican Republic with a large Hispanic network just like all of the southern portions of the state. Ft. Meyers is located on the Gulf of Mexico two hours south of Tampa and just three hours northwest of Miami.
He attended North Ft. Meyers High School, or “North” as it’s commonly called. Watkins played running back and receiver depending on the formation. Having played RB taught him how to block for other players, juke moves, and how to take a hit.
Watkins had interest from Bethune-Cookman, Bowling Green, UAB, Marshall, Baylor, and Southeastern Louisiana. His cousin is NFL receiver Sammy Watkins.
The issue with each of these colleges was Watkins had a low GPA. He needed help.
After high school. Watkins attended Dodge City Community College in Dodge City, Kansas, a school with less than 2,000 students. Playing here would allow him to boast his GPA while still playing football. As a freshman, he had 10 starts with 38 receptions for 376 yards and a single touchdown catch. The following year he started all nine games with 24 catches for 330 yards and four scores.
He then transferred to UAB where he had 1,643 yards on 98 receptions and nine touchdowns with a 16.8 yards per catch average. In 2019 alone, he became only the third receiver in UAB history to eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau in a single season with 1,092 yards. His highlight was 159 yards and a touchdown against Appalachian State. That year he accounted for 38.8% of UAB’s offense.
Watkins ran back one kickoff and was never used as a punt returner. His 40 time is 4.53. Going into his senior season, he was on the preseason Biletnikoff Award watch list.
Watkins was named Second Team All-Conference USA as a junior and First Team All-C-USA his final year. He accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl.
His pro football life
Watkins went undrafted in 2021. He was signed as an undrafted free agent by the San Francisco 49ers and was having a good training camp. However, in his first preseason game, he broke his foot. What came next was him being waived/injured and placed on IR. After he recuperated, Watkins was signed to the Niners practice squad in November for three weeks before being released.
Despite being undrafted, Watkins kept the faith that he could succeed at the NFL level. He told the News-Press:
“I see players from Fort Myers on TV every Sunday. So, I just keep dreaming. If they can make it, I can make it.”
During the winter, he signed a reserve/future contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before training camp began, he was again waived. Three months later he signed a contract with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL who placed him on their practice squad.
After not receiving a single NFL tryout or call about attending any team’s training camp, Watkins opted to play in the re-boot of the USFL. His new home was the Memphis Showboats.
Before training camp with Memphis, Watkins’ rights were traded to Birmingham. For the year he totaled 16 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown. Not exactly magic numbers, but he has good size and is a very good downfield blocker.
TRANSFER OF PLAYING RIGHTS:— B2B CHAMPIONSTALLIONS (@USFLStallions) January 11, 2023
Memphis Showboats to Birmingham Stallions:
• WR Austin Watkins, UAB
Watkins has above-average hands (9 5/8”) who needs to track the ball in flight better and improve consistency. He is a physical receiver who has good build-up speed for his size. So far the knock on him was that his route tree was limited on the first two levels. He has shown the ability to utilize his size against smaller press corners looking to blanket him underneath.
It should also be noted that with his large frame, he has the strength to make contested catches. He’s good at finding the soft spots in zone and is a wide, reliable target with 33-inch arms.
Since Watkins arrived in Browns’ training camp, he has impressed the coaches.
Let’s take a look at his preseason stats so far.
In the Hall of Fame Game against the New York Jets, Watkins played in 35% of offensive snaps. He led Cleveland in receiving yards with 35 and caught both targets. He also scored one of the three touchdowns in the 21-16 victory. His touchdown catch midway through the fourth quarter from 22 yards out was a strike from rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson (DTR) which capped off a nine-play, 78-yard drive and ultimately was the game-winner.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson to Austin Watkins Passing TD (1/1) pic.twitter.com/CjyhHB5FWX— NFL TD Videos (@NFLTDVideos2023) August 11, 2023
In the second preseason game against Washington, Watkins again was the leading receiver for the Browns as he netted 71 yards on six catches amidst eight targets. And he only played two-and-one-half quarters. He had four first-down catches and put the Browns in scoring position in the third quarter with a 10-yard catch to the Commanders’ 17-yard line. The next play was a touchdown pass to David Bell.
After his second straight game where he was the leading receiver, Watkins has been viewed as a reliable receiver with good hands. And while the stadium is usually full of #80 jerseys, so far, despite that being his number, only the nameplate states a different name.
After the Washington game, Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski told Pro Football Talk regarding Watkins:
“I’ve been really impressed with Watkins. He’s caught up to what we’re doing and what we’re about and is giving some really good reps. Really fun night for us just to watch those young guys compete. So really proud of that effort.”
For Browns fans, does Watkins have your attention? Can he make this year’s final roster?
Since the Kevin Stefanski era, Cleveland has traditionally kept six receivers. However, if the offense throws the ball a ton more than their ground-and-pound running game strategy, it is very possible the franchise will keep seven in this group.
A quick look shows the receivers that are locks: Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Elijah Moore, and rookie Cedric Tillman. A return man will most likely become the fifth receiver in either Jakeem Grant, Jaelon Darden, or even Mike Harley, Jr.
That leaves either one - or maybe two - more slots. David Bell should cement a roster spot now that Marquise Goodwin has health issues. That may complete the receiver room, or open it up for one more body. The competition for the seventh and final spot would come down to the two losers of the starting returner, Anthony Schwartz, rookie free agent Jalen Wayne, and Watkins.
Going down the stretch
It is easy to be enamored with Watkins as a player. He is this year’s underdog.
He came to the NFL via the community college route, played in the CFL, and then became a champion of the USFL.
Remember past training camps where an unknown receiver would get accolades all throughout training camp such as Davion Davis, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi, Michael Woods, and D.J. Montgomery? Each of these guys tore up the preseason, usually against the other team’s backups, and became the darling of Browns fans.
And maybe Watkins falls into that category this year as well. He has been getting his snaps without any first-team reps. In fact, all of his catches in preseason games have come off the hand of DTR who just may end up as this year’s QB3.
Austin Watkins Jr. putting on a show pic.twitter.com/NC8Vd7Mv3c— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) August 6, 2023
Watkins is giving it his best no matter who is on the field. He has shown flashes of a guy who the Browns should keep as he is making plays not only in live games but in practices as well. He has very good body control and obvious skills.
He has been given the opportunity he needs to prove he belongs as a member of the Browns. And the list of receivers who have had their fair share of bumps and bruises may sway that vote to retain him. After all, what is the use of having an Air Raid offense when your receivers are constantly hurt? Depth is obviously needed.
And yes, it’s true. If you take away his junior year of college, his community college numbers, his other UAB season, playing briefly for the 49ers, in the CFL, and finally less than awe-inspiring numbers in the USFL, none of Watkins’ stats jump out and state he can make a difference on game day.
But all of that journey has led him to Cleveland.
And maybe – just maybe – there is some stardust residual still swirling around inside that Number 80 jersey.