GREEN BAY, Wis. – Jerry Rice is arguably the best receiver in NFL history. He played at Mississippi Valley State, an FCS-level school. Cooper Kupp is arguably the best receiver in the NFL today. He played at Eastern Washington, also an FCS-level school.
The Green Bay Packers, in dire need of an impact receiver after trading Davante Adams, traded two second-round picks to the rival Vikings to move up to No. 34 overall to select Christian Watson. He played at North Dakota State, an FCS dynasty.
As Rice and Kupp (and Hall of Fame receivers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens) show, great players can be found outside the power conferences.
However, the list of FCS receivers taken early in drafts is short and not sweet. In fact, looking back at the past quarter-century of drafts, Watson is one of only six receivers selected between No. 20 overall and No. 50 overall.
Brian Quick, Appalachian State (2012): The 33rd pick by the St. Louis Rams, Quick caught 114 passes for 1,593 yards and 10 touchdowns in seven NFL seasons. His best season came in 2016, when he caught 41 passes for 564 yards and three scores.
Jerome Simpson, Coastal Carolina (2008): The 46th pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, Simpson caught 150 passes for 2,058 yards and nine touchdowns in seven NFL seasons. He had seasons of 50 receptions for the Bengals in 2011 and 48 receptions for the Vikings in 2013 but had a career catch rate of merely 49.2 percent.
Sylvester Morris, Jackson State (2000): The 21st pick by the Kansas City Chiefs, Morris caught 48 passes for 678 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie and never played again due to a massive knee injury.
Jimmy Smith, Jackson State (1992): The 36th pick by the Dallas Cowboys, Smith didn’t catch any passes as a rookie, didn’t play at all in 1993 due to abdominal issues that required surgery and was released by the Cowboys and Eagles in 1994. He parlayed a tryout into 11 superlative seasons with the Jaguars. He finished his career with 862 receptions for 12,287 yards and 67 touchdowns. He led the NFL with 116 receptions in 1999 and was picked for five consecutive Pro Bowls.
Shawn Collins, Northern Arizona (1989): The 27th pick by the Atlanta Falcons, Collins caught 58 passes for 862 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie but only 40 passes the rest of his career. His time in the NFL ended with four games for the Packers in 1993 in which he did not catch a pass.
Among receivers drafted in Watson’s vicinity, that’s one hit and four misses the past 25 years – not exactly inspiring if projecting past performance to future results. Of course, the history is interesting and nothing more. Watson will sink or swim based on his own merits. Moreover, Watson’s combination of elite size and speed would stand out at Alabama just as is stood out at North Dakota State.
“He’s going to be a problem once he figures things out,” offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich predicted at the start of offseason practices.
Figuring things out begins with mastering the playbook and then getting on the same page with Aaron Rodgers. That’s a notoriously challenging part of a receiver’s progression but the Packers might not have the luxury of easing Watson into things.
“It’s amazing,” Watson said of playing with Rodgers at minicamp. “He looks like he’s just kind of chilling out and it’s just kind of a leisure throw and it comes out at you 100 miles per hour. He puts it in the right spot 99.9 percent of the time.”
Countdown to Packers Training Camp
Get ready for July 27, the first practice of training camp, with this unique series of features.
Part 1 (30 days): All Matt LaFleur does is win (in the regular season)
Part 2 (29 days): Dominant Rasul Douglas
Part 3 (28 days): Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon
Part 4 (27 days): 27 is the magic number
Part 5 (26 days): Rich Bisaccia’s brilliance on special teams
Part 6 (25 days): Aaron Rodgers vs. the NFC North
Part 7 (24 days): Can defensive live up to hype?
Part 8 (23 days; July 4): These players will provide the touchdown-scoring fireworks
Part 9 (22 days): Homefield dominance
NFC North Insiders
Get ready for the 2022 NFL season with our 12-part NFC North Insiders series, with stories running every Saturday and Sunday until training camp.
Part 3: Most overrated player for each team.
Part 4: Most underrated player for each team.
Part 5: Best-case scenarios
Part 6: Worst-case scenarios