TAMPA — Markees Watts wasn’t drafted. He wasn’t even among the players who signed with an NFL team as undrafted free agent.
That’s about 650 or more players who got in line for a pro career this year before him.
Watts had a tryout with the Jets, who didn’t sign him. Then the Bucs offered him $1,000 after he impressed them enough in a workout to add him to the 90-man roster.
Mind you, this wasn’t a guy who left the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as a flash in the pan, a player who flared brilliantly for a year or two before fizzling out.
Watts finished as the school’s all-time sack leader with 21.5. That broke the mark set by former teammate Alex Highsmith, who had 14.5 sacks with the Steelers last season and was rewarded with a $68 million contract.
So when Watts got the word last week that he won a job in the NFL at outside linebacker with the Bucs, he had mixed reactions.
Joy, for sure. But also, the slight that burned inside him raged to an inferno.
“My first thought was the pressure, that had multiplied,” Watts said. “I was just sitting in the hotel room waiting and as soon as it happened, I got excited. But a chip on my shoulder just got larger.”
Despite his production in college, Watts was overlooked because at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, he’s a little smaller than most NFL outside linebackers. He also ran a 4.70 40-yard dash.
So he wasn’t big. He wasn’t fast. What was he?
“He really jumped off the tape, even that very first time we had him in here on a tryout because he is a (Gumby),” Bucs general manager Jason Licht said of Watts. “He plays about this low to the ground. He is very explosive off the edge. He is smart, plays hard, has natural power. He’s got a big upside, so we’re very excited about him. He’s a good guy and I like having him on the team a lot. He’s going to help in all aspects of the game — pass rush, special teams.”
The Bucs are loaded at outside linebacker, yet they found room for Watts. Shaquil Barrett is returning from a torn Achilles. Cam Gill missed last season on the injured list. Anthony Nelson re-signed as a free agent, and the Bucs drafted Louisville linebacker YaYa Diaby in the third round and Jose Ramirez in the sixth.
But Watts kept making plays in practice and in the preseason games.
Lining up in the preseason opener against former Georgia left tackle Broderick Jones, the Steelers’ first-round pick, Watts not only bull-rushed him, but he sacked rookie quarterback Tanner Morgan, forcing a fumble. A few plays later, he went up against former Georgia tight end Darnell Washington, setting the edge on a run play and turning it back inside before making the tackle.
“It’s just the beginning,” said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. “I want to see how he develops because he’s got a couple moves that I like.”
Normally, you might say Watts has some big shoes to fill. In this case, it’s a uniform. He’s wearing No. 58, which Barrett donned until switching to No. 7 this year.
“I think he showed a lot in training camp and the games and that’s why he’s still here,” Barrett said of Watts. “In the games, he was able to come out and replicate it some. ... I think he’s got some speed off the edge. He’s got the power moves and his speed turns to power.”
Watts feels as if he has to go out now and prove the Bucs right.
“It means the world to me,” he said. “I came here as a tryout, everybody knows that. I had one opportunity and when I had a chance to get off that transit on my way here, It was breathtaking to be honest, to see the facility. I was like, ‘Man, this is the place to be and I want to be here.’
“Then to go out and make that work and have another opportunity to be on the team, to make the 53-man roster, was unreal. I owe it to them. I feel like I owe the general manager. I feel like I owe (Todd Bowles), my position coach and my teammates, because they believed in me not once, but twice and I want to make it up to them.
“That chip has to multiply in size, not just for me, but big enough for everybody.”
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