NAPA – Raiders right tackle Menelik Watson can be an intimidating presence. He stands 6-foot-5, 315 pounds and, when he rocks a neck roll, a reflective visor, an intensely caged facemask and a beard leaking out of his chinstrap, Watson doesn’t seem like someone to mess with. The look matches his on-field persona, which feeds on competition and just the right amount of channeled rage.
Take Watson away from the field and you’ll meet a drastically different person, someone in a very good place. Watson recently got engaged. The Englishman spent quality portions of his offseason with his young daughter in his native Manchester.
Professionally, things are sailing on the calm. He’s healthy. He loves working with this new coaching staff and is running with the first team in his third Raiders training camp.
“I told myself before the season that, no matter what happened, I was going to enjoy myself,” Watson said. “I’m so blessed to play this game considering the road I traveled and where I came from. I’m about to get married. My family’s doing great. I’m love my job. I’m going to enjoy it for every single moment of this season.”
Watson’s work was previously a source of great stress. He would hang on mistakes, even bumps and bruises that slowed his progress. Watson felt he had to live up to his second-round draft status on every practice. He didn’t want to use football inexperience as an excuse. Watson had two years playing experience before getting drafted No. 42 overall in 2013 from Florida State. He wanted to excel right away, without setback. That's rarely the way an NFL career works.
Big things that didn’t go right became a black cloud over him. That was clear in his first training camp. He missed significant time with injury, and then got hurt again just a few reps into his return practice. Watson left the field in a huff, slammed his helmet to the ground and steamed just outside the training room.
He has come a long way in two years time.
“Things happened really fast, from junior college to Florida State to the NFL,” Watson said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself despite that fact. I didn’t want a lack of playing experience as an excuse. That said, a lot of my issues came from inexperience. I didn’t know how to best treat my body, when to turn the intensity on and off, and, when playing is more mental than physical. But I’ve learned and learned a lot. Now I feel like an offensive lineman, not an athlete playing offensive line.
“That was one of the biggest adjustments I’ve made over the last two years, and I am starting to feel really comfortable with what I’m doing out there.”
Offensive line coach Mike Tice is a big reason why. Watson has great respect for Tice’s methods. The veteran coach has found ways to unlock Watson’s athleticism and let out some steam when necessary. It’s vital for someone who plays with emotion and still expects nothing but the best.
“When you put such a high demand on yourself, you naturally get upset if things don’t go exactly right,” Watson said. “The nice thing about Coach Tice and the staff is that I’m able to be more emotional. I’m able to fix things while expressing my emotions. If I do something wrong, I’m able to have that second of anger before I recoup and get back at it. In the past, that avenue has been shut down. Emotionally, I was all over the place because I wasn’t able to express frustration and then move on. Now I am able to do that, self correct and then move on to the next play.”
Tice is trying to groom this athlete, which is a work in progress. Watson is allowed to grow with the first unit, a group he’s manned since the offseason program.
“He has been much improved, and has minimized mental mistakes,” Tice said. “He’s done a better job with his hands, and has done a better job keeping square and staying with blocks. I think there has been a big leap with him already.”
Personally and professionally. Watson has found stability after years of shuttling across oceans, between sports and schools. This long, twisted road has finally straightened out, and Watson is finally in a good place
“It’s night and day for me. Everything just feels right,” Watson said. “I’m responding to coaching and my body is working with me. I’m so happy where I am, and I’m really excited to play football and come to work every day.”