CLEMSON, S.C. – The first half of January was unusually busy for Clemson coaches as far as the NFL draft was concerned.
After having just four players declare early for the NFL draft in the last five years, three Tigers spurned their final season of college to enter the professional ranks.
Junior wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant declared, as did junior cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
Did they make the right decisions? What are their prospects in the draft and at the next level? Let’s take a look.
WR Sammy Watkins
Watkins bounced back from a disappointing sophomore season with one of the best seasons ever by a Clemson receiver. He made 101 receptions for 1,484 yards and 12 touchdowns, breaking program single-season records for receptions and receiving yardage. He saved the best for last: In Clemson’s 40-35 Orange Bowl win over Ohio State, Watkins caught 16 passes for 227 yards (both Clemson single-game records) and two touchdowns. His reception total also tied an ACC single-game record and set a BCS bowl game record.
In three years, Watkins piled up 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns on 240 receptions, setting Clemson career records for receptions and receiving yardage.
He is the only three-time first-team All-American in Clemson history, and it was no surprise when Watkins declared for the draft on Jan. 6.
“Obviously, Sammy, somebody’s going to take him in the top 10 or it’s crazy,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said last week. “He is a special, special, one-in-a-million kind of guy.”
Watkins is an explosive, big-play receiver with excellent speed. He is the only player in college football this season with two catches of 90-plus yards, both for touchdowns. NFL draft experts have taken notice.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller rates Watkins No. 3 on his latest top 50 big board. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former scout, projects Watkins No. 2 overall to the St. Louis Rams. CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang pegs him No. 7 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and fellow CBS mock drafter Dane Brugler has him No. 5 to the Oakland Raiders.
The 6’1” Watkins has the ability to make an immediate impact on any NFL roster, especially if he is paired with a solid quarterback. He made the right decision leaving Clemson.
WR Martavis Bryant
Bryant was a 4-star recruit when he entered Clemson alongside Watkins, but entering the 2013 season he hadn’t lived up to the hype. Following an academic suspension for the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl, his career was in jeopardy. But staying home for that bowl lit a fire in Bryant’s belly, and he responded with the best season of his career.
He had 42 receptions for 846 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 19.7 yards per catch (ranking ninth nationally among players with at least 20 receptions). Bryant has two young children, so his decision to declare was financially motivated.
“Since last January, I have not had one issue with him. Not one,” Swinney said. “Since we got back from the Chick-fil-A Bowl, he was waiting on me in my office, because I really didn’t even want him back. He sat in there and we had a great conversation. The best thing that happened to him was having to sit at home.
“He committed. For the first time, he really made a great commitment. And it was consistent. All spring, all summer, the offseason, through fall camp, the whole deal. Because he knew he had the ability to really be a special player.”
Bryant stands 6’5” and has excellent speed: He projects as a mid-round draft selection with the ability to impact a team very positively with his deep passing-game skills. He’ll be a value for a team selecting in the mid-to-late rounds.
CB Bashaud Breeland
Following an injury-plagued sophomore season, Breeland played up to his potential and then some in 2013. He was a second-team All-ACC selection and emerged as Clemson’s top cornerback, making four interceptions and 13 pass breakups.
Like Bryant, Breeland also has a young child, which influenced his draft decision.
“I’m so proud of that guy,” Swinney said. “He was a great freshman for us, really, really struggled as a sophomore on and off the field, and man, he was incredibly consistent and played with great confidence. Really became a leader for us this year on that back end. Quietly had a great year. I’m excited for him. It’s what he feels like he needs to do. He’ll be drafted as high as he possibly can and maximize that opportunity.”
Breeland could have improved his stock with another season in college, but he is a tough, hard-hitting cornerback who should have no problem making a roster and making an impact in the NFL. He’ll be a likely late-round selection, although if he can perform well at the scouting combine, it’d be crucial for his draft position and success.