CLEMSON, S.C. – Dabo Swinney is normally very circumspect about his players’ NFL draft status.
Clemson’s outspoken head coach wants what is best for his players, and he’ll advise them to leave school early if they’re a first-round selection or if he feels it is their best move.
But during the season, he rarely discusses players’ stock in any sort of specific way, which made what happened this week surprising.
When asked about junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins’ draft status, Swinney said, “Sammy Watkins is a top-10 pick. I’d be surprised if he came back (for a senior season). Of course, I didn't think C.J. Spiller was coming back (in 2008) and he did.”
It was a departure for Swinney: last spring, following DeAndre Hopkins’ declaration for the NFL draft, Swinney said he thought Hopkins should’ve stayed in school and that he was a high second-round pick.
Hopkins, of course, proved him wrong, going 26th overall to the Houston Texans and emerging as a starter in his first professional season.
Viewed in that prism, his comments about Watkins are enlightening.
Is Watkins a top-10 pick? Judging by a review of recent NFL mock drafts and taking into account his vastly improved on-field performance, it could be hard to argue against it.
Watkins has regained the special form he displayed in 2011, one of the best freshman seasons ever by a collegiate receiver.
He had 82 receptions, 1,219 yards and 12 receiving touchdowns, as well as 33 kick returns for 826 yards, including a game-changing 89-yard kick return score at Maryland.
He was named a first-team All-American by SI.com, FoxSports.com, Rivals.com, Pro Football Weekly and the Associated Press. In addition, he was just the fourth true freshman in NCAA history to be named a first-team AP All-American.
The others? Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson.
The Sporting News, Rivals.com and the Columbus (Oh.) Touchdown Club named him their national freshman of the year. He was a first-team All-ACC selection and the ACC’s Rookie of the Year.
Last fall, however, Watkins’ performance took a major step back.
He was arrested in May 2012 for possession of marijuana and prescription pills, which he didn't hold a prescription for. Although the arrest was cleared by pre-trial diversion, Watkins was suspended for the first two games by Swinney.
He was never really himself, hampered by dehydration and a kidney ailment which forced him to miss the Boston College game. Injuries hurt, too; he was knocked out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl with a severely sprained ankle suffered when LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo slammed into him on Clemson’s second offensive play.
His numbers dropped significantly: 57 receptions for 708 yards and three touchdowns, with 13 kick returns for 257 yards.
A healthier, more focused Watkins showed up this fall, committed to being a more complete player and leader.
“I think from my point of view, I didn't play as well (last fall) being physical and blocking,” he said this week. “I wanted to transition myself into being that physical guy, being that physical player and I think I have. Think every game, I’m getting better at being physical, blocking, trying to block guys.”
Watkins’ stats have reflected his improved overall commitment.
Entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Virginia, Watkins is averaging 101.6 receiving yards per game (third in the ACC) and 7.2 receptions per game (also third in the ACC). He has 58 receptions for 813 yards and five touchdowns and is on pace for 87 receptions, 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns.
In other words, save a couple of scores, he is right in line with his standout 2011 that took the nation by storm.
Last week’s 40-27 win at Maryland was one of Watkins’ finest moments in a Clemson uniform. With the offense struggling to find rhythm, he was quarterback Tajh Boyd’s best target. He caught a Clemson single-game record of 14 passes for 163 yards and displayed physical presence, trucking a Maryland safety by lowering his shoulder as he sprinted upfield following a screen pass.
“He’s having a great year,” Swinney said. “He’s dialed in, focused, catching the ball well. He’s hungry and wants that extra yard on plays. I think he had over 100 yards after the catch at Maryland. He’s stepped up in a big way.”
Boyd has noticed a difference, too.
“It’s his work ethic,” Boyd said. “You could see it in the summer, when I had a chance to work with him. It’s his mentality, how he approaches the game and practices that has translated to the game.
“He’s relentless. You saw the plays he had against Maryland, and his drive and attitude reflects on everyone. Everyone wants to step out and do their best. He goes out and tries to perform at a high level at all times.”
NFL draft analysts have taken notice as well. Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller pegs Watkins at No. 9 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles, calling him an excellent fit for Chip Kelly’s fast-paced West Coast offense.
The Big Lead projects him as the No. 10 overall pick, going to the St. Louis Rams, who “desperately need a deep threat.”
CBSSports.com analyst Rob Rang projects Watkins as No. 9 overall to the Cleveland Browns.
Yahoo! Sports analyst Eric Edholm sees Watkins as the No. 14 overall pick, going two hours up Interstate 85 to the Carolina Panthers.
And Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples sees him as the No. 17 collegiate prospect, right ahead of Boyd at No. 18.
Three other receivers are also receiving first-round buzz: Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Southern California’s Marquise Lee.
Watkins’ numbers are not as good as Evans (48 receptions, 1,101 yards and 11 scores) but similar to Matthews (66 receptions, 890 yards, five touchdowns) and better than those of Lee, who has battled through injuries this season (32 receptions, 403 yards, one touchdown).
If Watkins can keep up his pace over the final four games and Clemson’s bowl game, there is no reason he shouldn’t be considered alongside Evans as the draft’s top receiver.
Teams’ needs often dictate draft status, but Watkins should feel secure about his opportunity to become a Top 10 pick next April.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article were obtained directly by the author.
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