Armon Watts was a bulldozer in a field of boulders during a key play Monday night in Seattle. The Vikings rookie bench-pressed 299-pound Seahawks center Joey Hunt 4 yards into the backfield then jumped — perhaps unnecessarily for a 6-5 defensive tackle — to swat Russell Wilson’s pass backward.
Wilson responded by tipping the ball into the arms of safety Anthony Harris, whose easy return accounted for the Vikings’ first defensive touchdown in more than a year during Monday night’s 37-30 loss to the Seahawks.
Not bad for Watts’ 25th snap as an NFL defender, but consider it a group text: He’s watched the play enough.
“Too many,” Watts said. “A lot of people have been sending it to me.”
They’ll move on if Watts, a promising newcomer in the Vikings defensive line rotation, keeps making plays Sunday against the Lions. Texters include family and friends back home in St. Louis, where the 23-year-old Watts also played basketball and soccer at Christian Brothers College High School, an all-boys Catholic prep academy.
Watts, a sixth-round pick out of Arkansas last spring, is the son of Dereck Watts and Glenda Williams. She is a self-employed life coach in St. Louis. Before ever living in Minnesota, Watts did right by the state’s sports fans in declining a scholarship to play for the University of Wisconsin — one of his many D-I offers — as a three-star, 17-year-old recruit tipping the scales at 274 pounds.
His top picks were Arkansas and Missouri, whose campus was about 200 miles closer to home. But the Tigers’ embrace was slow. Watts, who has a daughter, Niya, said his top priority was off the field when choosing the Razorbacks over the Tigers and Badgers.
“I wanted to be somewhere closer to home,” Watts said. “Somewhere where my family could drive.”
As he has done with the Vikings, Watts made a quick first impression at Arkansas. Then a redshirt freshman in 2015, Watts pressured Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker into a second-quarter interception during a close game at then-No. 8 Alabama.
But the limelight faded as Watts had two tackles that entire season, followed by two years spent on the sideline. He credited a better work ethic for breaking out as a fifth-year senior in 2018 with seven sacks, ranking 10th in the SEC. Size, production and a strong East-West Shrine Game under Vikings assistant defensive line coach Rob Rodriguez made him a late-round pick.
He’s wasted little time in Minnesota, playing well enough in exhibitions that the Vikings made him the 10th defensive lineman on the 53-man roster instead of exposing him to waivers.
“He’s got a really good future,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s strong. He’s got quickness. He’s got good hands. He’s still learning the technique, but he’s done a nice job when he’s been in the game.”
Watts has eight tackles, including a half sack, and a pass deflection in 33 snaps. All have come since the Nov. 10 win in Dallas where the defense, for the first time, was without nose tackle Linval Joseph, who had arthroscopic knee surgery.
A month later, Watts remains involved in the defensive tackle rotation with fellow reserve Jaleel Johnson, even with Joseph playing 71% of the snaps in his return against the Seahawks.
“They’re starting to trust me more,” Watts said. “Obviously, I’ve been going out there and doing my job, contributing to the team. The more I can do, the more they trust me and the more confidence I get.”
Defensive end Danielle Hunter noticed something right away.
The Pro Bowler bestowed a lofty compliment on the quiet rookie one day this summer.
“I told him he was kind of like me when I came in,” Hunter said. “You just come in, do your work and you don’t say nothing to nobody.”
Watts has apparently been a star pupil in the smallest of NFL sample sizes. He has “zero minuses every week,” according to Hunter, when Vikings coaches graded Watts’ games against the Cowboys (seven snaps), Broncos (15 snaps) and Seahawks (11 snaps).
“The more they trust you, they put you out there,” Watts said. “I just want to take that momentum into the offseason, build on top of this season and get better going into next season.”