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Can 49ers’ Austin Watkins Jr. be the next undrafted rookie...[NEED SUBSCRIPTION]
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WesternBlazer Online
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Exclamation Can 49ers’ Austin Watkins Jr. be the next undrafted rookie...[NEED SUBSCRIPTION]
Can 49ers’ Austin Watkins Jr. be the next undrafted rookie receiver to carve out a role?
06-06-2021 09:17 PM
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CyberBlazer Offline
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RE: Can 49ers’ Austin Watkins Jr. be the next undrafted rookie...[NEED SUBSCRIPTION]
(06-06-2021 09:17 PM)WesternBlazer Wrote:  Can 49ers’ Austin Watkins Jr. be the next undrafted rookie receiver to carve out a role?

If the 49ers have their druthers, the receiving corps that dresses on game days come fall will look a whole lot different than the one that took the practice field Wednesday.

Deebo Samuel, tending to a personal matter, wasn’t present. Neither was Jalen Hurd, who’s still rehabbing from the torn ACL he suffered last year. Brandon Aiyuk, Richie James and Travis Benjamin, all dealing with minor strains, also missed the session.

That left Mohamed Sanu, Trent Sherfield and Jauan Jennings as the wideouts who saw the most run for the 49ers. It also allowed for rookie Austin Watkins Jr., undrafted out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, to enjoy extensive second-team action.

Since it’s June and not October, this might actually be beneficial in the larger picture for the 49ers. After all, developmental practice time is where most of this voluntary offseason program’s value lies: How efficiently can youngsters like Watkins, who’ll likely face an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster, leverage the crash course of OTAs to better position themselves for training camp?

Competition for the six or seven roster spots at receiver promises to be a crowded affair.

“As far as the whole group, I’ve been really excited with the group,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said last week. “I’m looking forward to Deebo and Aiyuk taking a step forward and all these guys that we brought here. With Sanu coming back, we had him for a little bit last year, and Travis coming back, I think they’ve added some stuff to the group.”

Aiyuk, Samuel and Sherfield — a special-teams ace who signed a contract containing $200,000 of guaranteed money — can be considered the only sure bets to make the 53-man roster. Hurd should make the cut if he can stay healthy this time around. Though James, Sanu and Benjamin (who opted out of the 2020 season) are all proven players, a smattering of other receivers — Jennings and Watkins are part of a group that also includes River Cracraft, Kevin White, Bennie Fowler and now Andy Jones — project to make a push for at least one of the lower roster spots.

And it’ll be an even tighter squeeze, of course, if the 49ers end up acquiring All-Pro Atlanta receiver Julio Jones, a Shanahan favorite who remains on the trading block.

The possibilities make the next three months particularly unpredictable, but Watkins’ chances shouldn’t be discounted. At 6-foot-1 and nearly 210 pounds, Watkins, the younger cousin of Ravens receiver Sammy Watkins, already looks the part. He weighs about 20 pounds more than former 49ers receiver Kendrick Bourne did as a rookie in 2017. Bourne also came aboard as an undrafted free agent.

“He is a physical specimen,” UAB head coach Bill Clark said of Watkins in a phone conversation last month. “No doubt, God gave him a lot of great tools. But we love training here. We train and we believe in making athletes. And that is who this guy is. He’s followed every piece of that. He loves to train. He loves the weight room. He loves to run routes and catch balls.

“He’s one of those, you literally have to lock up and tell him ‘you need to go in.’ He just works and works and works.”

The 49ers hope Watkins can use his sturdy frame to port college dependability into the NFL. At UAB, Watkins dropped only two passes over 101 catchable targets, all while 76 percent of his receptions went for a first down or a touchdown. He racked up 1,092 receiving yards on 19.2 yards per catch in 2019, his only full starting slate. The pandemic forced an abbreviated seven-game schedule in 2020, during which Watkins racked up 468 more receiving yards.

Watkins’ strength, even though it’s proven effective in contested-catch situations, might be most appealing to Shanahan for what it can accomplish in run blocking.

“He’s big enough to sometimes look like a tight end,” Clark said. “And you go back and look at some film, and he puts guys on the flat of their back.”

UAB recruited Watkins, a southwest Florida native, out of Dodge City Community College in Kansas, where he played two seasons. Watkins enrolled at UAB in 2018, the program’s second season following a two-year shutdown. The Blazers had developed special familiarity with the junior college circuit at that time, as they were looking to repopulate their roster with upperclassmen who were more physically developed than fresh high school recruits.

Watkins immediately impressed UAB’s staff in 2018.

“That first year, he served on scout team,” Clark said. “That’s when we saw him against that first-team defense — and those three years we had a top-10 defense nationally. Guys were draped all over him and he was catching the ball. So we knew.”

Watkins earned immediate playing time, but felt that he could use more polish. A new NCAA rule enacted in 2018 allowed players to redshirt if they’d played in no more than four games, and Watkins decided to capitalize on it.

“He was playing his first year, and that was when the four-game rule came in, and he said, ‘Coach, I really want to get my craft better and play more two more years,'” Clark said. “He was starting for us and then he chose to redshirt — and then he went to the scout team.

“And I said, ‘Look, you understand you’re going from a starter to the scout team?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I’m good with it.’ So that tells you a lot about who he is.”

Watkins showcased his refined game over the subsequent two seasons. Many analysts, including The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, projected that he’d be picked in the late rounds of the recent NFL Draft. But no team selected Watkins. Perhaps that was partly due to his relatively limited college sample or to his steady-yet-unremarkable 4.55 40-yard dash time.

“We really thought Austin — heck, everybody I heard from thought he was going to get drafted,” Clark said. “So we were really shocked that he was still sitting there. I think the 49ers got a steal, but give them credit for doing their homework and finding him.”

Shanahan wasn’t looking specifically for a burner. He wanted quality receiver depth that can line up across the formation, move the chains and block. And since Watkins’ tape shows that potential adaptability, the 49ers pounced shortly after the draft.

How this all unfolds is anyone’s guess. At the 49ers’ rookie minicamp last month, Watkins’ first publicized NFL practice moment wasn’t a good one. He slipped on a slant pattern during one-on-one drills, and that helped defensive back Deommodore Lenoir’s physical coverage turn into an interception.

That won’t be Watkins’ last teaching moment. This June’s OTAs minicamp and then training camp in August are all about learning by doing. Then the dust will settle, and perhaps the 49ers will keep another undrafted rookie in their building.

Their most recent such wideout, Bourne, turned into a success story — but it didn’t come without some bumps. Bourne made the team in 2017, then stuck with the 49ers for four years before signing a three-year deal worth up to $15 million with New England in March.

Now, Watkins will try to carve out a similar niche. Perhaps he can eventually even contribute in Bourne’s former third-receiver role, where dependability is mandatory.

“I think he’s been prepared,” Clark said. “Obviously, there will be a jump. But I think this guy is going to work at it. He’s going to study it, and he’s going to do everything possible. He has great hands, he loves the game and he’s physical. It’s important to him and he’s going to work for what he can get.”

Enjoy 04-cheers
06-06-2021 10:13 PM
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BlazerFromMD Offline
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RE: Can 49ers’ Austin Watkins Jr. be the next undrafted rookie...[NEED SUBSCRIPTION]
Well, we can scratch Jones out of that article, since he got traded to the Titans.
06-07-2021 09:33 AM
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notnow Offline
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RE: Can 49ers’ Austin Watkins Jr. be the next undrafted rookie...[NEED SUBSCRIPTION]
Nice story. I'll be a SF 49er fan again!
06-07-2021 02:26 PM
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