Throughout the draft process, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen will take a closer look at some of the top prospects in the 2014 class. Today he breaks down Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Watkins plays at a low 4.4 speed on tape, and he accelerates quickly after the catch. That allows the receiver to press a defender’s cushion, separate with the ball in the air and produce in the vertical route tree against both zone and man coverage.
At 6’1”, 205 pounds, Watkins’ electric speed also shows up when he works the edge on the jet sweep or displays a sudden burst up the field to attack the running lane off the wide receiver tunnel screen.
Watkins played in a variety of alignments at Clemson. Think of the wide receiver as the backside X, in the slot or as an option out of the backfield to create specific matchups that cater to his speed and overall skill set as an athlete.
Here’s a look at how Clemson targeted Watkins during its Orange Bowl win over Ohio State from an inside alignment in a slot open formation (trips to the open side of the field).
With the safety driving to No. 3 (and the cornerback occupied by the outside vertical), Clemson has the one-on-one matchup they want: Watkins versus a slot defender. That’s stealing when looking at Watkins’ ability to separate on the inside vertical seam against a defender in an outside leverage position.
I expect Watkins to run in the low to mid-4.4s at the NFL combine later this month, and that will solidify what shows up on the tape. He is a player who compares to the Ravens' Torrey Smith in terms of vertical speed.
Production After the Catch
Watkins has a unique ability to win in the open field. Whether that is on special teams as a kick returner, catching the ball underneath or producing off the screen/jet sweep, Watkins displays his lateral quickness to make defenders miss.
The Clemson wide receiver welcomes (or initiates) contact after the catch, and he plays with a physical style similar to that of a Brandon Marshall by lowering his pad level to run through tackles. That forces defensive backs to square up, wrap the arms and use the proper technique to get him on the ground.
NFL offenses are multiple in their approach to the game plan. That leads to creativity and the need for players who can align all over the field while producing on underneath concepts. Think of the three-step game, the shallow drive route in Hi-Lo combinations or the screens that allow a receiver with the talent/size of Watkins to showcase his playmaking ability in positive matchups.
Watkins—like the majority of rookie receivers—will need reps versus pro defensive backs to consistently win at the line of scrimmage in 2014. That's tough work outside of the numbers.
However, looking at his college tape, Watkins can sink the hips, explode out of the break and come back to the football. He has solid footwork against both press- and off-man, plus he understands how to win with leverage. That shows up on multiple breaking routes when Watkins releases on an inside stem, sells the post and then works back to the out/7 (corner).
While I do believe Watkins will earn his money early in 2014 as a vertical threat, there is no question he can produce within the entire route tree. Look at the three-step slant, the deep dig or the intermediate curl/comeback as examples.
Development is always the key with young receivers in the NFL when discussing route-running ability. But in terms of finding a player who is pro-ready to win matchups from multiple alignments, Watkins can have an immediate impact running a variety of concepts.
Ball Skills/Body Control
With wide receivers, I always study their game at the point of attack. Can they high-point the ball, track the fade and create enough leverage to secure the catch when a defensive back drives to the upfield shoulder?
Watkins will adjust to the ball, climb the ladder, win on the back-shoulder throw and secure the catch with hands—away from his body. That’s key in the red zone and on deep, inside-breaking cuts where he can pin a defender to the outside and finish.
At the pro level, that translates to the inside seam versus Cover 2, the back-shoulder fade in the red zone or the 7 cut versus Cover 1 where Watkins can work away from the defender/safety help.
Watkins has the size/strength to take the ball away from defensive backs, and he will adjust down the field to find the fade. He is a very athletic player who will command attention from defensive coordinators in the NFL.
Watkins is a legit prospect with size, speed and big-play ability. He grades out as a true talent who can produce within the route tree while forcing opposing defenses to account for his skill set after the catch.
I believe Watkins carries a top-15 grade, and his stock should continue to rise once NFL scouts get a stopwatch time on him at the combine/pro day. It will be another step in the process for a wide receiver at the top of the class in Matt Miller’s recent positional rankings.
The tape tells the story here—Watkins can play.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.