The NFL’s Next Big Thing Isn't Really Big at All
Clemson’s Sammy Watkins is either going to be a prospect who changes the game when it comes to evaluating receivers for the NFL draft, or he’s going to reinforce long-held beliefs about the position.
When you picture the most physically gifted and dominating receivers in today’s NFL, the list goes something like this: Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Andre Johnson, Dez Bryant, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas. They are the best of the best, true nightmare matchups, players for whom defensive coordinators must tailor their game plans.
What do they have in common? They are all extremely strong on the ball in contested scenarios, and each is a perfect blend of size, speed and overall athletic ability. And did I mention size? All of the aforementioned but Bryant and Andre Johnson measured 6-foot-3 or taller at their respective combines. And those two—who aren’t exactly smurfs at a combine-measured 6-foot-2—have vertical jumps of at least 38 inches (not to mention 34-inch arms) that allow them to play even bigger.
Watkins is being talked about as a sure-fire top-10 pick in next month’s draft, perhaps even a top-five pick, which means people are expecting him to have the same impact as today’s top receivers. Yet he stands a mere six-feet and three-quarters of an inch, with 32-inch arms, and has a pedestrian 34-inch vertical. Which means Watkins will have to break the mold in order to live up to the hype.
He may be just the player to do it, because he’s so different from any prospect I can remember seeing. Watkins’ closest NFL comparables are Donte' Stallworth (the 13th overall pick in 2002) and Torrey Smith (the 58th pick in 2011). Neither of those two has ever earned a Pro Bowl nod, although Smith has developed into a very good player and would be a top 20 pick in a redo of his draft.
Like Watkins, Stallworth and Smith are just a shade over six feet. And all three can run—Watkins clocked a 4.43 in the 40, while Stallworth and Smith, respectively, posted a 4.22 and a 4.41. If there’s one big difference, however, it’s that Stallworth and Smith have much better vertical leaps (39 and 41 inches).
But it is Watkins’ build that could prove to be the next step in the evolution of wideouts. For a player of his height, we have yet to see his kind of physical package on an NFL field. While Smith and Stallworth were skinny coming out of college, about 200 pounds each, Watkins weighed in at 211 pounds—and he plays even stronger. He’s essentially a young Anquan Boldin, with speed to burn.
Watch Watkins bowl over an Ohio State defender after catching a short pass; watch him block for a teammate; and watch him catch a pass falling out of bounds with a defender all over his back. These are rare qualities to see in a prospect at the nascent stage of his pro career. Even better is Watkins’ ability to catch the ball with his hands—instead of trapping it against his chest—and make receptions outside the frame of his body. Again, these are elite-level qualities for any receiver, let alone one who turns 21 on June 14.
Then there’s Watkins’ ability to use his speed to take the top off a defense while making over-the-shoulder catches seem so natural. Here are but two examples of that speed: against Syracuse and against Georgia.
Last but not least, Watkins’s production was outstanding in college. He finished with 240 receptions, 3,391 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns against good competition—and with a quarterback throwing to him who won’t be playing on Sundays anytime soon. That Tajh Boyd is even being talked about as an NFL prospect is a testament to Watkins and the rest of Clemson’s impressive group of receivers.
Watkins is almost like a hybrid receiver/running back with the ball in his hands, given his strength, ability to break tackles, and field vision. He can do the same on kickoff returns as well.
So, yes, all that you’ve heard about Watkins is accurate. He’s largely a complete, polished and outstanding prospect worthy of high praise at such a young age. Watkins shows the potential to be a good route runner, and he appears to play with football intelligence, toughness, competitiveness and, at times, a bit of a nasty edge. There’s little doubt he’ll make his next team better.
But there are a few questions NFL teams should be asking: How high is his ceiling? How does that factor into our decision-making? Does that even matter anymore?
In watching eight of his games from last season, I counted 41 of 80 receptions by Watkins coming behind the line of scrimmage, meaning 51.3% of his catches weren’t contested by defenders and were schemed by the offense, with the blocking set up. That is definitely not going to happen in the NFL.
Being a dynamic playmaker in the NFL requires more than simply running past opponents. That will happen on occasion, likely due to a busted assignment, but that’s not how the elite receivers earn zeros-laden paychecks. The best show a consistent ability to beat man coverage. Watkins, thanks to his strength and some shiftiness, appears to have good potential, but he hasn’t come close to proving that just yet. Almost all collegiate pass coverage (save Alabama, which Clemson didn’t play) lines up anywhere from five to 10 yards off the receiver. Watkins has also flashed some ability to win 50-50 balls and make plays that seem virtually impossible, but he still has far to go in this regard, which really separates the very good from the dynamic playmakers.
Elite NFL receivers have height, length and/or jumping ability to help them make game-changing plays. Watkins lacks those qualities. But his vast strengths, which some of the league’s elite receivers don’t possess, may compensate for any perceived deficiencies.
So, too, might changes in NFL offenses.
While the big and fast receivers still dominate the NFL, the trend toward using more multiple receiver sets and spread offense tactics has raised the profile of the multidimensional receivers. The Rams took 5' 8½" “receiver” Tavon Austin with the eighth overall pick in ’13, a clear departure from traditional top-10 receivers. While Austin’s initial impact was minimal, the shift in NFL thinking at the position was real. Watkins represents a true tweener, between the Tavon Austins of the world and the position’s long-established prototype.
Sammy Watkins just might be the right guy, at the right time, to change the game at receiver.