Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is widely considered the top prospect at his position this year. Greg Cosell of NFL Films recently said he was "the best receiving prospect since A.J. Green and Julio Jones," according to Aaron Wilson of the National Football Post.
However, if Watkins is going to join those standouts and be among the first handful of players to be selected in May's 2014 NFL draft, he still has some work to do at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
You Can't Teach Speed
Mind you, this isn't to say Watkins hasn't already done plenty.
In two of the past three seasons, the 6'1", 211-pounder topped 1,000 receiving yards and scored double-digit touchdowns for the Tigers. He also showed himself to be a dangerous return man and even carried the ball 32 times for 231 yards back in 2011.
In short, Watkins is a handful with the football in his hands.
Just ask the Ohio State Buckeyes.
He put on a clinic in the Tigers' Orange Bowl win over Ohio State. Clemson bubble-screened the Buckeyes to a bloody pulp in the game, with Watkins setting bowl records for catches (16) and yardage (227).
The junior's ability to do damage in the open field caught the eye of Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, who gave Watkins a top-15 grade overall:
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.
Bleacher Report NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller is also an admirer, calling Watkins "dominant" and writing his "potential is unlimited":
He's electricity personified, showing the speed and strength to break a play open at any time. He's also a versatile wide receiver, something you rarely see coming out of college these days. As a route-runner and a pass-catcher, he stands out from the crowd.
With all that said, Watkins doesn't possess Jones or Green's size and strength. As Rob Rang of CBS Sports wrote, "Only average height with a leaner than ideal build, lacking elite muscle definition or strength. Not overly physical and won't break many tackles."
Also, he missed the first two games of the 2012 season as the result of a drug arrest. Ben Kercheval of College Football Talk reported at the time that Watkins "made a mistake and realized that when this first happened," but in an era when Justin Blackmon is still fresh in the minds of NFL general managers, teams won't overlook the misstep.
Cream of the Crop
Draftniks may not be looking past Watkins' red flags, but they also don't appear to be overly hung up on them.
|Site/Ranker||WR Ranking||OVR Ranking|
|Bleacher Report/Matt Miller||1||3|
|CBS Sports/Rob Rang||1||6|
|Optimum Scouting/Eric Galko*||1||8|
* QBs not included in overall rankings
He is an almost universal choice as the top wide receiver this year. That in and of itself is an achievement, given that draftniks agree about as often as politicians make statements that are both truthful and sincere.
Bleacher Report's Ryan Lownes thinks Watkins is a mortal lock to be a top-10 pick in May:
Sammy Watkins, on the other hand, is a slam-dunk Top 10 pick. Far more polished than some give him credit for.— Ryan Lownes (@ryanlownes) January 14, 2014
Miller took that one step farther:
If Sammy Watkins drops to 10, GMs will be fired. RT @HiJakeGriffith: if sammy drops to 10...— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 24, 2014
In fact, a few mock drafters, including USA Today's Mike Loyko, believe that Watkins is not only the top wide receiver available, but he might even sneak inside the top five:
Yes, to Cleveland. Before a quarterback.
Dash for the Cash
Make no mistake: If Watkins is going to vault all the way into the top five, teams such as the Browns or Oakland Raiders (both of whom have a glaring need at quarterback) will have to fall in love with him.
That, or another team would need to be willing to foot the high price tag borne of moving up that far in the first round.
For either to become a reality, Watkins will need to build on his momentum from the Orange Bowl with a strong combine.
According to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, that's the plan:
If you like speed, some good news: #Clemson WR Sammy Watkins will do all drills at the Combine. Should be a fascinating 40-yard dash— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 12, 2014
As Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk reports, Watkins unofficially ran a sub-4.3-second 40-yard dash at Clemson earlier this year.
The 40 is the most talked-about drill at the combine every year. If he can run even in the low 4.3s, a lot of heads are going to swivel.
Is Sammy Watkins worthy of a top-five pick?
Frankly, it's wise of Watkins to buck the growing trend of top-end players who eschew working out in Indy and wait for their pro day.
It's a low-risk, high-reward play. One so-so 40 time isn't going to drop Watkins out of the top 10—not with so many teams that are picking early in need of a go-to pass-catcher.
However, most of the drills of interest to scouts where wideouts are concerned just so happen to be drills that play directly to Watkins' strengths.
If he tears up the track and drops jaws in the three-cone drill, then the brain trusts in Cleveland and Oakland are going to face a harder decision than they thought.
And the top five picks in May's draft will be even cloudier than they are now.