As the Denver Broncos and all other National Football League teams progress through the days of league sanctioned OTAs, I am again reminded that sometimes talent shows up where you least expect it.
The days before training camp move on with a certain sameness, and many people not paying much heed to the daily news stories until camp actually opens. But the coaches are watching every day, and each new day is an opportunity for a player to rise or fall, however slightly, in the eyes of those observing him.
I can think of many examples of watching players in the offseason and forming a personal opinion that an unknown is going to be a big time player.
One such example is Steve Watson, who played wide receiver for the Broncos from 1979 through 1987.
Few might remember, but Watson was also a superb special teams player, although that was a job he left behind when his offensive value became too great to risk in additional collision. But I remember when we signed Watson, well before he became a key player.
The Broncos continued with their Organized Team Activity practices on Monday, finally joined by Shane Ray.
He was undrafted in the 1979 player selection process, which at that time consisted of 12 rounds. Thus, more than 300 players were chosen by NFL teams, but Watson was not.
The Broncos signed him as a free agent and he opened eyes on the very first day of his very first camp in Denver.
Each player was required to be timed in a 40-yard dash, one of the first requisites for the draftees and free agents. After the workout the press wanted to know who had run the fastest time, so that they could interview him, and I got the information from the coaches that is was a "young kid from Temple named Watson." That was it.
There were dozens of players present, all pretty much anonymous, so I began to look for who I thought to likely be Watson—a 5'10" type defensive back or wide receiver. I was only half right. He was a wide receiver, but he was a lithe 6-4, maybe the tallest player in Bronco history to ever record the fastest time in the 40-yard dash.
When the on-field practices began, it took very little time for Watson to show that he would catch virtually every ball thrown to him, and it seemed like the coaches never yelled at him for running the wrong pattern or for failing to tuck the ball in and run all the way downfield to complete the play.
There was no hot dog in Steve Watson and he was happy to help on any request I made. Certainly, a player is judged by what he does on the field, not by how nice he is to the PR man, but you can always recognize class, and class couple with natural talent, intellect and an excellent work ethic combine to make up pretty much the exact package coaches are seeking.
The Broncos took to the field to begin OTAs with the season just a few months away. Here are shots from Wednesday's action. (All photos by DenverBroncos.com digital staff)
He immediately became a guy that I thought was going to make it.
In the team's annual squad scrimmage to end training camp, Watson made one of those catches on a midair diving reception over the middle like the ones I had seen him make routinely in the quiet of the offseason.
At the end of his rookie year, head coach Red Miller noted that film study showed that "there had been three unusually superior plays made during the season, and Watson made two of them," commenting that he surely would get more playing time in his second year.
Watson had caught just six passes in each of his first two years, but he followed that up with reception totals of 60 for 1,244 yards and 13 touchdowns in his breakout Pro Bowl season of 1981, then had season reception totals of 36, 59, 69, 61and 45 in establishing himself as an excellent receiver and a real fan favorite.
Any time you can sign a future Pro Bowl player as a free agent you have got to be quite pleased.
But the part to take note of here is the fact that Steve Watson was an absolute complete unknown when he came to the Mile High City for the first time. Plus he had played his college football at Temple, a Philadelphia school that generally received a good deal less publicity than the national powers.
Way before he was a Pro Bowl wide receiver playing to the cheers of 75,000 Bronco fans, Watson was an obscure young player making a positive impression one day at a time.
This is that time once again.
While we cannot predict the future of the Bronco roster, I can say with certainty that it will be comprised of players who earned their way onto it one day at a time, and some of those final roster names will be players who turned an early surprise into the consistency and reliability that makes someone a National Football League player.