In an increasingly pass-dominated NFL, true No. 1 receivers are more valuable than ever. While statistics for all receivers are up across the board, there are still only a handful of game-changing players at the position; studs who can single-handedly lift an offense.
The search for the next great receiver continues at the 2014 NFL draft, where Clemson's Sammy Watkins has separated himself from the pack as the top wide receiver of his class. While other receivers like Marqise Lee and Mike Evans have garnered early first-round hype, Watkins is being compared to some of the best young receivers in the league:
Indeed, the former Clemson Tiger is a supremely athletic receiver who isn't even particularly polished in his route-running. Make no mistake, Watkins is far more than a one-route burner, but even without immaculate mechanics, he has put up some of the best numbers in the nation.
Simply cruising by on his athleticism will not work in the NFL, of course, but Watkins has shown the aptitude and variety in skill set to improve the rough edges around his game. As NationalFootballPost.com's Greg Gabriel notes in his scouting report, Watkins has demonstrated the body control and footwork that would imply he can improve his route-running:
The other types of routes he runs are slants, comebacks, outs and go’s. He does a good job setting up defenders with double moves on some of his deeper routes. On the shorter routes, he shows his excellent body control as he can sink his hips and get out of cuts quickly to gain separation. He is very good at adjusting his routes and finding an open seam in zone. He has excellent hands and always tries to snatch the ball.
While I still feel he has to improve his route running skills to be a top NFL route runner, I have no doubt that he will. Watkins has excellent big play ability, and while he won’t be a clubs number one receiver as a rookie, he should be by his second year. I have no doubt that he will be the first receiver drafted come May.
Differentiating between the league's best receivers requires a focus on the nuances of the position, and Watkins excels in this regard.
Matt Waldman of Football Outsiders wrote an excellent and comprehensive breakdown of what separates Watkins on his scouting blog, the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I strongly recommend reading the whole piece, as it offers a highly informative breakdown of subtle techniques like body control on bad throws and pace on routes, but the end of the piece stands out:
By the time Watkins breaks to the corner, he has left the corner in the dust. All of these qualities are performed with the same efficiency I see as a ball carrier – patience, pacing, and layers of moves.
It’s not an indicator of good route running with many receivers, but it’s behavior consistent with Watkins across all aspects of his game.
The doubts surrounding Watkins' route-running ability do not stem from poor technique or inconsistency, but simply because he did not often run complicated routes at Clemson. The plethora of bubble screens was a perfectly logical option for the Tigers offense, as it gave their best playmaker open space to wreak havoc. But it also created a misconception about Watkins' skill set.
One area everyone agrees Watkins excels in is his deep-route ability. Over three seasons, Watkins averaged 14.1 yards per reception on 240 catches and scored 27 touchdowns. Per Sports-Reference.com, only five receivers in that span had at least 200 catches, 14 yards per catch and 20 touchdowns.
The elite production is backed up by immense physical talents, as few have questioned Watkins' raw athleticism. In fact, there is a chance the Clemson receiver might challenge Chris Johnson's 40-yard dash combine record:
Regardless, it's hard to imagine Watkins' stock dipping at all after the combine, which should be tailor-made for him. Watkins appears to realize this, and according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, he includes to exhibit his full arsenal of skills in all the combine drills:
At this point, Watkins looks like a near lock for the top 10, perhaps even the top five. Recently, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks pinpointed the Rams and Raiders as potential targets, which would make Watkins among the first five players selected.
The best receivers in the league are game-changers because they can shred the defense in a variety of ways. Watkins will immediately become one of the league's best deep threats, but it is his underrated polish that makes him the clear-cut top receiver in this class, as well as a foundational centerpiece an offense can build around.
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