You could say that Menelik Watson is motivated heading into 2016 – and you wouldn't be wrong – but, motivated doesn't come close to what he's feeling on the verge of his fourth NFL season.
2016 is a critical year in Watson's young career and he's well aware.
After missing the entire 2015 season due to injury, the athletic lineman is approaching his rehabilitation and training for the season ahead with a renewed sense of drive and determination – but his motives for that training might surprise you.
Watson isn't interested in individual accolades. He isn't even interested in listening to the fanfare surrounding his return to the football field – all he's interested in is repaying the time and effort people have invested in him, both on and off, the football field.
"I'm just fighting to get back, man because I feel like I owe everybody here," Watson told Raiders.com. "When I was coming out of Florida State, nobody knew who I was. I was an English guy who played two years of football – two semesters of football. [General Manager] Reggie took a big chance on me, and ever since I've been here, all I've wanted to do is pay him back, because there were 31 teams that passed on me, some twice."
He continued, "This year is dedicated to Reggie. It's dedicated to [Owner] Mark Davis. It's dedicated to Coach [Jack] Del Rio. It's dedicated to [offensive line] Coach [Mike] Tice. It's dedicated to the staff. It's dedicated to all the players. It's dedicated to everybody in this building. That's what my motivation is right now. I want to prove [it] to them, and myself."
Heading into last year – his third season in the NFL – Watson was expected to compete for the starting job at right guard, and as training camp progressed, he had certainly put himself in position to earn a look from newly-hired Head Coach Jack Del Rio and his staff.
However, the entire trajectory of his season changed during the team's third preseason game – ironically, a game in which he was designated as a captain.
On the Raiders' second possession of the afternoon, with the team facing a 3rd and 8, Watson dropped back to his right, squaring up with outside linebacker Alex Okafor.
Okafor ended up slipping by Watson – forcing an incomplete pass from quarterback Derek Carr and earning a holding penalty on Watson – but the real damage was more crippling than a forced punt in a preseason game. On the play, Watson ruptured his Achilles' tendon, ending his season prematurely, and with it, any hope he had of being the starting right tackle for the Raiders. The Florida State-product wouldn't play another snap that day at the Coliseum, or another snap for the Silver and Black in 2015.
He was officially put on Injured Reserve September 1, and for the British National, a harsh reality set in over the next few days.
"It was – and I don't want to curse – but, it was a lot," Watson said. "Frustration doesn't even [come close to] the word."
Watson was so upset by the injury that after he was placed on Injured Reserve and had surgery, he took some time away from the team, deciding to focus on his injury rehabilitation in Florida.
"After I had my injury, I decided to go to Pensacola to Dr. [James] Andrews because I wanted to get away, and I was away for four weeks," Watson explained. "I was away from the guys, and I think that helped a lot, because I feel like if was around right after my surgery, I think I probably would have torn the place down. I was frustrated beyond belief, but at the same time, I had some great people around me."
He continued, "I had about two days of just sheer anger, man. I was frustrated, not only for me but when I think about it, I think about everybody who's invested time in me. It's not about me; it's about my teammates. The bond we had all built in the preseason, to have that shattered and to have to see them moving on without me, it was frustrating."
However, Watson received a phone call during his time in Florida that inspired him to return west and continue his rehabilitation back in the Bay Area, and it wasn't just a call from anyone – it was a phone call from Head Coach Jack Del Rio.
"A good coach is everything," Watson said. "When you get a coach who believes in you, you'll run through the wall for him without any second questioning, and to have Coach call me, to have long conversations in the middle of the season – mind you we're four games into the season – and to have him call me, and we're on the phone for an hour, and then call me again the next day, and then the next day, while we're trying to hash out the next step for me and my career; it means a lot."
Raiders offensive tackle Menelik Watson prepares for the 2016 season.
He continued, "I didn't have that my first two years, so when I was going through my injuries, I had nobody to lean on. I felt like I was out here by myself, but to know that your coach has your back, and I had Coach Tice call me, and we spoke on the phone a couple of times, and to have that, it just meant a lot. It was just more motivation for me to come back, even more."
That motivation has manifested itself in a variety of ways since his return to Northern California. Not only is Watson approaching his rehabilitation with the intensity of a man trying to fulfill a dream, but he's also taking extra steps to ensure that he's in top form when the Raiders officially begin the 2016 season.
In addition to the typical rehab work he puts in at the team's facility, he's also taken up yoga, returned to one of his childhood joys, boxing, and has also begun biking the nearly three miles from his home to the team's Alameda, Calif., facility several times per week.
"We have to be better than we were last year, and that's a challenge that everybody's willing to take on," he stated. "I know I personally am. I'm trying to be better every year. I'm out here rehabbing by myself and it's a bit lonely, but I can't wait for the guys to get back and us to all start dreaming about a Super Bowl, and we can really put the pieces together and make something special this year."
Even without Watson, the Silver and Black boasted one of the best offensive lines in the NFL in 2015 – allowing just 33 sacks all season – but with the addition of Kelechi Osemele and the return of Donald Penn, as well as Watson, they're looking to be even more dominant in 2016.
As impressive as the chatter has been surrounding the unit, though, Watson views it just as that – chatter.
"As far as the hearsay and the talk, I'm not interested at all," he said. "We all talk to each other, and I think that's the most important thing, for us to continue to be who we are, don't listen to the hearsay; nothing's changed now. They didn't like us two years ago, so why do they like us now? That goes for everybody, the whole team, not just the offensive line. I think we have to carry that chip on our shoulder. I think we have to grow and just continue to be us, and the results will take care of themselves."
The past seven months have been trying for the Manchester-native, and while he may not be back to where he wants to be right now, he's hopeful that by the time the team reports to Training Camp 2016, he'll be back to playing at the high level he knows he's capable of.
While it remains to be seen how much work, if any, Watson will get once the Raiders officially begin the offseason program April 18, the big lineman is playing the long game – even if for the time being it pains him.
"Obviously, the season's not until September, but I'm craving to get in that huddle again," he said. "That's what I miss. I miss getting in that huddle. I miss getting the play call. I miss lining up. I miss the communication, and I miss looking across from the guy in front of me, and telling myself that he's not going to win."
See, motivated doesn't even come close.