GREEN BAY – Christian Watson experienced every emotional swing a rookie could feel during his inaugural season with the Packers.
Injuries and adversity marred the first half of the 23-year-old receiver's year, with a knee procedure costing Watson the early portion of training camp and hamstring flareups sidelining him for three of his first seven NFL contests.
Watson also had a noticeable gaffe on his first NFL snap, dropping a would-be 75-yard touchdown after sprinting past All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson in Green Bay's regular-season opener against Minnesota.
Those setbacks, paired with a concussion in Buffalo, might have been enough for some players to give up on the season, chalking it up to inexperience and bad luck. In Watson's case, the early crucible only made him better.
The second half of the Packers' 2022 season saw the birth of new playmaker, as Watson became one of the league's premier big-play targets. The 6-foot-4, 208-pound receiver caught 31 passes for 523 yards and seven touchdowns during the final eight games of the regular season.
Watson became the first Packers rookie in 71 years to post at least three 100-yard receiving games, while finishing with the NFL's second-highest passer rating when targeted (123.3), according to Pro Football Focus.
"I was thankful for every opportunity, every win, every chance to put on my cleats and go out there and play football," Watson said. "I'm grateful for the ups and the downs throughout this entire season. I'm just thankful to be able to play football."
Watson finished the year with five of Green Bay's 10 longest offensive plays, including the four longest touchdowns. His first TD catch, against Dallas in Week 10, was the Packers' longest of the season at that point and one of three TDs Watson scored in the 31-28 overtime win over the Cowboys.
Watson's celebratory backflip after his first TD against the Cowboys seemingly signaled a turning point for the Packers' offense. Prior to that game, Green Bay averaged just 17.1 points per game during its 3-6 start. Watson touched the ball just 13 times for 107 yards, with his lone TD coming off a 15-yard run against New England in Week 4.
Likewise, Watson's second-half surge had a domino effect on the entire offense. During the final eight games, the Packers averaged 27.0 points per game while Watson produced 594 yards and eight TDs on 35 touches.
While Watson's 63-yard TD catch in Philadelphia was Green Bay's longest scoring play of the season, the rookie's 46-yard TD off a jet sweep in Chicago might be the most lasting image from the Packers' 2022 campaign.
The play, which caught the Bears' defense completely off-guard, sealed a 28-19 win and marked the beginning of a four-game winning streak that catapulted Green Bay back into the playoff picture.
"Certainly, Christian's injuries early just set him back and it took him a while to get rolling," General Manager Brian Gutekunst said. "Once he got rolling, I thought we were a different team. I think teams played us differently once he was going."
The Packers came up on the short end of a 20-16 loss to Detroit in the regular-season finale, but Watson made perhaps his best catch of the season with a 45-yard snag down the sideline despite Lions cornerback Amani Oruwariye being flagged for pass interference on the play.
The bigger Watson played, the more opposing defensive coordinators paid attention to the rookie receiver's whereabouts on gameday. That diversion took some of the burden off the rest of the offense and gives Head Coach Matt LaFleur a plethora of options for how he wants to utilize Watson's skill set moving forward.
"He gave us a legitimate home-run threat," said LaFleur during his season-ending news conference. "You can move him anywhere within the formation and know that he's going to go out there and execute to the best of his abilities. I think there's some things within just his releases and route refinement that we still, like most young players, you can always improve upon, and that gets me quite excited. I don't think there's anything this guy can't do."
Watson, who turns 24 in May, appreciated all the ups and downs that accompanied his rookie season. He learned a lifetime of lessons from the likes of Aaron Rodgers and veteran receivers Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb.
After an impressive debut, Watson has big plans for this offseason. He aims to continue developing his body and getting on top of the soft-tissue problems that hampered him early in the season.
"Being able to be that player I want to be at all times," said Watson when asked about his goal for 2023. "In terms of my actual game, I just want to be dominant. At the line and at the catch, just knowing that if the ball is coming my way, I'm going to make a play."