NAPA -- Menelik Watson has a long injury history, not that he needs a reminder. The Raiders right tackle ended up on injured reserve twice in three seasons, and missed 31 games in that span.
The 2013 second-round pick dealt with knee and calf issues as a rookie. A foot/ankle injury cut 2014 four games short. Such bad luck was trumped by an Achilles’ tendon torn last preseason, when he was ever so close to being named the Raiders starting right tackle.
That’s enough to drive a man mad. It has at times during a period dominated with professional starts and stops. Watson used to let anger steer and push and push and push too hard to return too fast. He was rehabbing pissed and playing tense, fretting whether another setback lurked around the bend.
During this offseason, Watson shed all that stress. He’s happier, more buoyant. A great weight has been lifted.
“There’s a real change in mentality,” Watson said. “I’m not worried about getting injured. I’m not worried about making mistakes. I’m focused on getting better and just playing free. I cherish every day where I get to out and have fun.”
This is a relatively new outlook. He certainly didn’t take hold this time last year, when his Achilles’ tendon tore in the third preseason game. That’s an automatic season-ender, one that sent Watson to Pensacola, Fla. for surgery and some intense rehab.
His focus was linear then, aimed only at getting better. Tunnel vision was easier then because he was, figuratively speaking, on an island away from the real world. A storm cloud accompanied his return to the Raiders, where he prepped with a team he couldn’t play for and dwelled on an arduous road back.
A trip back to Manchester, England this spring finally cleared skies.
“That’s when things changed,” Watson said. “I saw my daughter. I saw my family. I recalibrated myself. Home will do that to you.”
It was a reminder that life was still good, even with a series of professional setbacks.
“I don’t like to stay negative,” Watson said. “…Being in America living out my dream should be a great experience. If you focus on negatives, you get stuck on them. You just can’t progress.”
Progress. That’s the main focus during this training camp. Watson wants to stay on the field, to practice and play consistently. Each snap is invaluable to a player still new to the sport, with a junior college season, a year at Florida State and 17 NFL games to his credit.
“We’re hopeful that, with the program (Raiders strength coach Joe Gomes) has put in and his extra attention paid to stretching and yoga will help him,” offensive line coach Mike Tice said. “He’s a thick muscle guy, a real bulldog.
“Playing football is important for a guy who hasn’t played a lot of football. We’re excited about where he’s at, and we’re hopeful can sustain it.”
Sustaining solid play will give him a chance to start at right tackle. There’s an open competition for that job, featuring combatants Watson and Austin Howard. The Englishman isn’t concerned with a position battle or the talk surrounding it. He isn’t concerned about the injury history or what else might go wrong.
Those things sit outside his purview. Watson’s solely focused on what’s within it. That includes his true return to football on Friday, when the Raiders open their exhibition against the host Arizona Cardinals. Watson is excited for the opportunity to go play again.
“That happens when you get older and wiser and, having that mindset of letting the fear go,” Watson said. “I’m going to give myself to the game and…if it means something happens to me, then something happens. It if means I can play this game and help this team win, then that’s what happens.
“…People always say to only worry about what you can control, but that’s a hard thing to do. It requires discipline to focus on the right things, but I’ve been doing that more and more lately.”
Watson the player still has a surly disposition, though the man is set on enjoying the grand opportunity presented now.
“As you and everybody else knows, it hasn’t been the most free-flowing couple of years for me,” Watson said. “The biggest change for me this year is that I’m so appreciative. I’m so grateful I get to wake up every single day and play football. Coming into this camp, my mindset wasn’t on who’s going to start. It was on playing this game I love. They could ask me to play defense or catch a pass and I wouldn’t care. I just want to play and play every day.”