An Arizona number appeared on Ryan Watson’s phone during the sixth round of the NFL draft on Saturday, just as the Cardinals were set to announce their selection.
The Air Force defensive end thought that his moment had arrived.
But like everything else that took place on that confusing day for Falcons hoping for a professional opportunity, things weren’t what they seemed.
The Cardinals didn’t have a pick in the seventh – and final – round, so they were reaching out to Watson as quickly as possible to say they’d like to sign him as a free agent.
“It showed they were really interested in me that the second they were done drafting, they called me,” Watson said. “So that was nice.”
Watson agreed to terms with Arizona and will work out with their rookies from May 12-15 in what amounts to a tryout. He doesn’t appear on the Cardinals list of undrafted free agents because he hasn’t technically signed.
As of Thursday afternoon, none of Watson’s teammates had signed with teams or accepted invitations to camps.
The craziness for Watson began when teammate Weston Steelhammer posted a link at about 9:30 a.m. Saturday on a group chat explaining that Air Force had reversed its policy and would not grant reserve status for athletes before they served two years on active duty.
Air Force had reached out to receiver Jalen Robinette on Thursday night to inform him of the change, but Robinette and his agent apparently kept that news quiet. There were instructions for academy officials to contact Steelhammer, Watson and Jacob Onyechi with the news Saturday, but somewhere the line of communication broke down and Watson was not informed. So he concluded that the news reports he was seeing were false.
As scouts contacted him for clarification, Watson dismissed the talk as speculation and told them not to worry.
Then the Cardinals came in with an offer, and Watson and agent Justin VanFulpen opted to go with them over interest from Green Bay, Minnesota and San Francisco. Watson then verbally agreed to the deal and was set to sign.
A short time later, the Cardinals called to ask about the policy change.
It was then that Watson called Col. Brian Hill, the academy’s vice athletic director, and was told of the change.
VanFulpen said he then learned from the NFL that teams were advised not to sign service academy players while the situation was being resolved.
Contacted on Thursday, the Cardinals said only that Watson was not listed among their signed undrafted free agents.
VanFulpen said that because the NFL doesn’t guarantee contracts, this is a moot point. A signed contract could have been voided the day it was signed. The key, he said, is that Watson will get a chance to participate in a mini-camp next week and then see where this leads. Even if Watson and his classmates are required to serve two years on active duty, they’ll be able to stay with a team through the summer and most of training camp before reporting to their first military assignment. If there’s mutual interest at that point, the players would be able to sign and be placed on the NFL’s military reserve status until their time on active duty is completed and they can be activated.
“I came to the Air Force Academy to be a lieutenant,” said Watson, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound four-year contributor who had 11 sacks last year in his lone year as a full-time starter. “I feel like that decision is above my pay grade, and I will obey the lawful orders from those over me. I may not understand it. I may not agree with it. But it’s the situation.”
Watson will serve in Ohio as an acquisitions officer, though his agent remains hopeful that the military will allow the Class of ’17 to be grandfathered in under the previous policy.
For Watson, who had private workouts with Atlanta and Green Bay, there was obvious disappointment to coming that close to being drafted only to be left wondering if and when he’ll ever get a chance to play in the NFL. He said he’s talked with Air Force graduate Ben Garland, who served on active duty before a career that included a Super Bowl earlier this year with Atlanta. Garland has offered specific advice on what will come next, down to the details about the paperwork that will need to be filed at specific times.
Beyond that, Watson has started considering the benefits to having extra time to allow his body to recover from his college career and having two extra years to work out and add size.
“There are definitely some perks to it,” Watson said. “It’s definitely not all bad. Of course I’d prefer to go right now, but there are benefits to waiting two years.”