The SI 64, No. 9: WR Sammy Watkins
With the 2014 NFL draft fast approaching, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to start getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. And to that end, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke have assembled their own definitive Big Board, consisting of the players they feel deserve to be selected in the first two rounds.
The SI 64 -- which can be found in its entirety here -- uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and why they’re slotted as such. And as we get to the single digits in our rankings, it's time to break down a receiver with truly special potential.
Bio: Many draft analysts will tell you that the 2014 class contains the deepest group of receivers they've seen in at least a decade. And Clemson's Sammy Watkins can be found near the top of all those lists for a multitude of reasons. Facing some of the nation's best defenses, he put up 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns on 240 catches in his three-year collegiate career, and really exploded onto the scene in 2013, grabbing 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 scores. When DeAndre Hopkins left for the NFL following the 2012 season, and Watkins became every defense's primary target, he was even more productive than he'd been before, which speaks to his potential.
"I think I can do just about anything on the field from wide receiver to running back to slot -- I can make plays all over the field," he said in February. "What I love doing is dominating defenses. I think that’s what I bring to the game and I think that’s going to turn over to the NFL. When I come into the NFL, I think I can be that dominant receiver.”
Athletically, yes. Schematically? There are a few things to work out in Watkins' case, but over time, he could be just as dominant as he hopes.
Strengths: One of the things that makes Watkins so captivating as a player is that he is a legit weapon to make a big play from anywhere -- from the backfield to the slot to any position in trips or bunch formations. Tremendous after-catch player on bubble screens, and he's very dangerous on end-arounds. As a backfield weapon, he looks and thinks like a running back with his foot-fakes and acceleration. Has the pure speed and second gear to outrun college cornerbacks to the end zone, but will also gain separation with an estimable array of jukes off the line and in space. Tremendously effective in motion plays, especially out of the backfield -- this is how he often creates separation -- and his understanding of formation spacing and timing serves him well. He's very tough to cover when he's hitting the line with a full head of steam, and his NFL team would do well to use him in these types of "waggle" plays. Blocks with above-average effort and form, though not a lot of power.
Weaknesses: Watkins' height creates concerns with regards to jump balls and contested catches; he's simply not big enough to grab some of the balls that more physically imposing receivers might. And while he's strong, he needs space to operate -- he'll get taken down on first contact a lot if the first contact is a form tackle attempt, though he'll drive his helmet in and try to gain extra yardage. Watkins said at the combine that he's comfortable with all manner of route concepts, but he was a quick up-and-out and vertical target at Clemson, and there are times when he appears a step slow on some more angular routes -- especially curls and comebacks or anything with really quick cuts. Has the physical talent to master the techniques required and shows it at times, but that could be a process.
To his credit, Watkins addressed specific route issues from the podium at the scouting combine.
"I’ve become a pretty good route runner, but there are areas I can still improve in with getting out of my routes," he said. "What I’m really focused on is my curl routes and my comebacks. I’ve got to get my transitions, and know when to run full speed or not, and sync my hips and get out of my routes.”
Conclusion: It's clear that Watkins is one of the best athletes in this draft class at any position, and he'll help whatever team drafts him right away, as long as that team understands what he can and can't do. Watkins has credited South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington (a very underrated player, in my book) with helping him grasp other route concepts besides the bubble screen and the straight go.
“They say I can’t run routes, so I definitely have to show them that I am probably one of the best receivers at running routes in the combine,” Watkins told TheState.com in February. “I don’t think a lot of guys are on mine, and [Ellington's] level on route running and knowing the fundamentals of break points and things like that.”
NFL teams don't always take these limitations and strengths into account. When the Vikings took Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson with one of their three first-round picks in 2013, it took a while for the now-departed coaching staff to mix him in as anything but a dynamic returner. When he was finally given the opportunity to use his full array of attributes, Patterson put up performances Minnesota hadn't seen from a rookie receiver since Randy Moss scalded the league with his talent in 1998. Watkins could have a similar impact at the next level, but it will take an open-minded staff and creative playbook to get the most from him at the start.
NFL player comparison: Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota Vikings (1st round, Tennessee, 2013)