Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB
Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

The NFL’s Next Big Thing Isn’t Really Big at All

But Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins has the strength to outmuscle linebackers and the speed to leave cornerbacks in his dust. Can this potential top five pick break the mold, or will he just end up breaking a general manager’s heart?

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

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.

Watkins against Georgia last August. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)
Watkins against Georgia last August. (Al Tielemans/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB)

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.

sammy-watkins-chart-800-bedard

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.

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42 comments
JackReacher32
JackReacher32

Admittedly in this article, but not completely divulged, is he was a sub-par physical athlete at the combine in every fashion, but every other impact player of his stature has physically had something that sets them apart from the pack.

Watkins is destined to be a bust only because he was given undue praise. He was a great receiver in an average, to less than capable conference, and was only extremely productive in several big games. He is not a #1 WR or a large impact #2. His NFL career will be littered with the constant suggestion that, "He could have been more in the right system...." Can he be a useful player at the next level? Of couse, but make no mistake: He is an over-hyped collegiate player, that will be taken far too high, and the team that gambles will wonder why they lost.

LucilleBluth
LucilleBluth

And if you made that list of dominant WRs say 3 years ago it would be littered with names like Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Steve Smith, Hakeem Knicks, Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings. All sub 6'1 receivers.


Watkins isn't breaking any mold he just happens to be coming into the league at a time when a bunch of tall WRs played really well. The list of 6' WRs that have thrived playing on the outside in the NFL is very long. 

daveyineluctable
daveyineluctable

Excuse me for sounding too old-school. But don't all these reasons seem EXACTLY WHY Sammy Watkins WON'T DO WELL in the NFL???


For the record, I actually LOVE and ADMIRED Watkins while he was at Clemson (along with another GREAT WR in Martavious Bryant--who deserves a lot of attention, and I believe will surprise a lot of people who are selling him short), but there are LITERALLY COUNTLESS players who have had STELLAR and UNFORGETTABLE careers playing college football (because it is literally a different game), who go on to do practically NOTHING in the NFL (which should not diminish their accomplishments in college football, again, it IS a different game).


I mean, obviously, we'll have to wait and see. But, if I had to bet on it, I really think, time and time again, that getting to the NFL level, overwhelming SPEED and STRENGTH, and even vision, are COMPLETELY NEGATED, for 99.9% of players. Think Denard Robinson, he TOASTED offenses, or Tim Tebow, he RAN THROUGH players, or Ron Dayne, Troy Smith, Matt Leinart. I think, it's quite obvious, that these skillsets, advantageous in college just didn't transfer to the NFL.


I appreciate your analysis, as much of my watching Sammy Watkins, he seemed to have 70% of his production come from receptions in the flat.


However, if your previous analysis of the NFL's current top wide-receivers holds true, then it it's acutally MIKE EVANS that would be the TOP WR in this years draft (and a COMPLETE ANOMALY at that, akin to Calvin Johnson), 6'5" 230 lbs, 4.5 40-yd dash, faster 20-yard Shuttle than Watkins, and only playing football for 4 years (started as a junior in high school), former basketball player who knows how to fight for the ball.



Frotoon
Frotoon

And then the Seahawks win the Super Bowl with receivers that are pedestrian. Appetizers.

jellis7707
jellis7707

Slot receiver.  There's a 100 of them.   What's the point of this article?

AnthonyWilliams
AnthonyWilliams

As long as there are no Gamecock defenders on the field.

dchiu2013
dchiu2013

What is his Wonderlic test score?

COLTSnHEELS
COLTSnHEELS

I started to read this until you left Reggie off the list, wtf ever

Ciscos
Ciscos

I like Watkins.


He's fluid in his routes.  He has great separation both in the cut and at the top of his routes.  He's physical off the line in press and just as physical competing for the ball.  His hands typically wrap the meat of the ball and not simply collapsing around the tip.


If the only knock scouts have about his physical attributes is his size, then I can live with that. He's going to make an NFL team very happy.


His off the field stuff shouldn't be an issue anymore (hopefully). I'd like to believe he learned his lesson.  And I'd be surprised if a team that needs a WR doesn't jump in the draft to get him.

CoreyHardin
CoreyHardin

Stop comparing this guy to Steve Smith.  He's bigger, faster, and more heralded than Steve Smith.  Being small and over looked gave Steve an edge as he plays with a nasty chip on his shoulder.  Sammy is just a natural athlete with great receiver skills.  He isn't 6'5" but he isn't 5' 9" either.

rwmurch
rwmurch

@Ronald Harden I am a Giants fan and I was thinking the same thing RE: Steve Smith who used to give the Giants secondary fits (not that that's ever been hard to do) . Smith at his combine only measured 5'9" has been to 5 pro-bowls and was an Alumni Receiver of the year. So if I were a GM I wouldn't think it is that big of a risk seeing the NFL has had  this size and caliber of a receiver  for going on 13 years with his most recent pro-bowl in 2011. 

davidjcu
davidjcu

Considering that the top 2 picks at receiver in last years draft were under 6'2". Not to mention DeSean Jackson, Anquan Boldin,Steve Smith, Wes Welker are under 6'2" and are doing just fine. I get it big receivers can really get up there, but when mentioning Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, AJ Green yes they have size, but they are excellent route runners.

Ronald Harden
Ronald Harden

Sounds to me like this is a description of the new and improved Steve Smith recently of the Carolina Panthers.

DLaw
DLaw

Oh, and by the way CRAP SELLS

DLaw
DLaw

This whole thing about "evaluating" players in anticipation of drafting them is bean counter BS (trademark rights reserved).  It proves out every year - every year.  Metrics are crap.  I could go one, but if you see me you see me and if you don't, there is nothing that I could write that would change your sensor mind.

Thanks for allowing my rant.

IBleedBlackandSilver
IBleedBlackandSilver

We'll see how he does if he can understand defensive coverages and schemes and also grasp his offensive packages.  We'll see - let's not anoint him yet.

maizenbluedoc
maizenbluedoc

I hope the Browns take this guy because he can make a less than stellar QB look good. I am certainly not a Clemson fan, but this guy is to good to pass on. Of course the Browns' past history in drafts picks has been less than stellar. 

drudown
drudown

Redefine the position? 


That is as disingenuous as a different "declarant on the take" claiming "fracking" is going to "redefine" Energy production, i.e., it poisons our water and exacerbated Global Warming. 


Watkins' tape is average at best compared to Evans', sorry. Gee, kid of like solar power makes more sense. 


dsp
dsp

Watkins has the best hands of any receiver that has come out in years and that is what the pros love about him.  He always reaches out to catch the ball and never lets it get to his body and that is what allows him to use his speed once he catches the ball in space on the fly.   Don't be shocked to see a team from back in the pack like the Pats, Panthers, Colts or 49ers trade up to the 3 or 4 spot to take him.  

MichaelC
MichaelC

Really? Wasn't the same type of player drafted last year by the Vikings (late in the first round) - Cordarrelle Patterson? Diverse skill sets - caught four TDs, rushed for 3 TDs, returned 2 kickoffs for TDs - similar speed/physical attributes, and scouting report. 


How is Watkins any different?

slickwilly
slickwilly

I do think he'll be productive but he is a little bit overrated. He's not the great wide receiver prospect that people are making him out to be.

Sulkaman
Sulkaman

Watkins is going to be a monster.  For those doubters below, you either haven't seen him play or know little to nothing about football.

Matthew W
Matthew W

This just in,

NFL Scouts are OBSESSED with measureables when there's no correlation to measureables being a determining factor in NFL success. 

There are plenty of "short" or "average" height WRs who have great careers despite not being 6'5 with a 10,000" vertical. 

With good body control, good hands, a good brain, and a good QB to put the ball in areas where he can get it a receiver of any height will succeed in the NFL.

SydAus
SydAus

When will the NFL start testing for HGH?

Bigger, stronger, faster...   Means more injuries...  Means more changes to the game to protect players.

Take HGH out of the game please, and less rules tampering will occur.

FFAvenger
FFAvenger

And by "redefine" you mean "be Pierre Garcon 2.0"

auttoe
auttoe

I agree, he's Steve Smith 2

J Diddy
J Diddy

Love his game and think he becomes another Steve Smith type of receiver--but stronger. He should have a long and successful NFL career because he'll learn how to run routes and not just out-jump or outrun defenders. More than anything, he's a playmaker.  

Ciscos
Ciscos

@davidjcuFor the most part you're right, but Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson are not great route runners. AJ Green runs very good routes.  Both Johnson's get by being physical and use their size more than running excellent routes.  That's not a knock against them, but if the scale is route running, I wouldn't use the word "excellent."

Ciscos
Ciscos

@IBleedBlackandSilver You make an excellent point. That'll also be indicative of the type of coaching he was getting at Clemson too.  Given pro schemes are more diverse and in some cases, complicated, but I would think as long as he has the basics, he should be able to at least discern what type of coverage he's looking at.


Great point!

yummypeaches
yummypeaches

@maizenbluedoc Your assuming he will make to 4 ; ) You guys were smart enough to offer a high enough pick  for Josh Gordon but yes I get you and he is one step from missing major time .

Ciscos
Ciscos

@drudown Agree on the "redefine the position thing."  However, I disagree with his film being "...average..." Especially compared to Evans. If that's Mike Evans, you're completely wrong.


Routes - Evans route running is nothing to be desired. He gets by on his size. In fact, had he not been 6'5 or whatever, he wouldn't scratch the top 15. Vincent Jackson, who is around the same size, is and was a better WR than Evans coming out of college and he went in the second round. AJax runs better routes than Evans. That said, so does Watkins and more than a dozen other draft eligible players.


Hands - At 6'5 playing WR in the league, you better have good hands. His ability to catch isn't a question. If he's getting looked at for the league, he knows how to catch.


Beating the Press - The one thing 98% of the college teams he faced didn't do was press him. Those that did showed he has a very hard time beating it.  His off-the-press technique is horrible. So why didn't more teams press him. In NCAAF no one is going to expose their defense and risk him beating them over the top (being 6'5). But that same fear doesn't apply to the league. There are big safeties and better corners. Watkins on the other hand has excellent off-the-press technique.  Big difference.


I'm not a Watkins or Clemson homer, but he's far from average and far better choice than Evans at 6'5 or 6'0.

Ciscos
Ciscos

@MichaelC Cause Patterson was last 2013 and this is now 2014. Come'on Michael, you know how the machine works. lol.

Andrew Stoddard
Andrew Stoddard

@MichaelC Patterson is not near the "receiver" Watkins is.  Patterson was/is more of an athlete (freak athlete at that) that happens to play WR.  Watkins is more advanced at route running, has better hands, and is overall more "fluid" at the position.

Bongo
Bongo

@Matthew W :  Yeah, by now there have been enough "too short for the NFL" receivers who've been successful that this whole idea that they need to be 6'3" or taller and blah blah blah, just seems like nonsense.


Sure, size, speed and vertical leap are nice, but like you say, those other things are what a team really wants.  They want guys who run the proper routes, who will be where the QB expects them to be on timing routes, who can fight for the ball, and who don't drop passes.

CoreyHardin
CoreyHardin

@auttoe  He's bigger and faster than Steve Smith.  Steve Smith is a pit bill who plays with a chip on his shoulder.  Sammy has no such chip.

usameos6
usameos6

@Ciscos @CoreyHardin  It's lazy reporting .... any shorter receiver comparison automatically equals Steve Smith.  It's like when any white cornerback was compared to Jason Sehorn or any short QB is compared to Drew Brees instead of actually evaluating skillsets.

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