Former Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins is considered the best player at his position in the upcoming draft class. In fact, it's looking possible—likely even—that Watkins is selected within the first five picks.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco has him going fourth overall to the Cleveland Browns. Yahoo Sports' Shaun King has the Jacksonville Jaguars selecting him third overall. Four experts at NFL.com all see Watkins as a top-five pick.
Agreed. --> RT @NFL_CFB: Mayock on Sammy Watkins: "He's one of the best wide receivers I've seen on tape in the last 10 years."— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 6, 2014
But is Watkins worth such a valuable, high-round pick? The five teams that make the first picks in the draft—the Houston Texans, St. Louis Rams, Jaguars, Browns and Oakland Raiders—could all use him, but there are many positions of need for each of those teams. Watkins will have to be something special, a rare talent, to warrant being selected by any of them.
Since 1990, 11 wide receivers have been selected within the top five of the draft, the most recent being Justin Blackmon, who was selected fifth by the Jaguars in 2012. They include 1996 Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard, multiyear Pro Bowler Keyshawn Johnson and four of the best receivers still playing today—Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green.
|Desmond Howard||1992||Washington||R1, 4||123||1,597||7|
|Michael Westbrook||1995||Washington||R1, 4||285||4,374||26|
|Keyshawn Johnson||1996||Jets||R1, 1||814||10,571||64|
|Peter Warrick||2000||Bengals||R1, 4||275||2,991||18|
|Charles Rogers||2003||Lions||R1, 2||36||440||4|
|Andre Johnson||2003||Texans||R1, 3||927||12.661||61|
|Larry Fitzgerald||2004||Cardinals||R1, 3||846||11,367||87|
|Braylon Edwards||2005||Browns||R1, 3||359||5,522||40|
|Calvin Johnson||2007||Lions||R1, 2||572||9,328||66|
|A.J. Green||2011||Bengals||R1, 4||260||3,833||29|
|Justin Blackmon||2012||Jaguars||R1, 5||93||1,280||6|
Not all of the receivers taken so early have panned out to have stellar careers. There's the aforementioned Blackmon, who is currently suspended indefinitely from the NFL for repeated violations of the league's substance abuse policy.
And there's Charles Rogers, selected second overall by the Detroit Lions in 2003, who went on to catch only 36 passes for 440 yards and four scores in his brief career.
Watkins being selected in the top five ultimately does not guarantee he'll have a successful career. There are factors both in and out of his control that will shape his future, including the quarterback who is throwing to him, the offensive scheme he's in and whether he'll have coaching consistency—each of the teams picking in the top five have changed coaches at least once in recent years.
But if one of these teams thinks Watkins will contribute to a major offensive improvement, it won't pass on taking him. He certainly possesses impressive skills, and he shined in his pro day workout.
Scouts raving about Sammy Watkins pro-day...one claiming "best pro-day workout I've ever seen from a receiver": http://t.co/1CoWP5b8Zr— Tony Pauline (@TonyPauline) March 6, 2014
There's nothing about his collegiate performance that indicates he'll be a bust like Rogers. But will he be a game-changer like Green or Fitzgerald?
Watkins caught 101 passes for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013, averaging 14.5 yards per reception. In his three-year career at Clemson, he has a total of 240 receptions, 3,391 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns, with a 14.1 yards-per-reception average.
He's incredibly fast, running a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, with a 1.53 10-yard split. That speed generated huge yards-after-the-catch numbers and is his biggest strength. He can play wideout or in the slot, making defenders miss with his quick feet. He's an aggressive blocker. He can also return kicks and punts; that kind of dual-threat ability increases his draft stock and makes him a more useful player as a rookie.
However, Watkins' weaknesses are concerning for a receiver projected by so many to be drafted in the top five. As Bleacher Report's Ryan McCrystal points out, most of Watkins' catches came on screens or other short routes. Though he has the speed to be a deep threat, it's not an area of the field he caught many passes in college. As a result, he still needs to develop his route running.
Also, because so many of his receptions came on shorter passes, he hasn't had to fight for a lot of his catches. And at just over 6'0" and 211 pounds, he may not be physical enough to do so with regular success in the NFL.
It's not to say that Watkins cannot do these things; it's just that he wasn't asked to do them very often at Clemson. In this sense, Watkins is a gamble, an unknown. Ideally, he can go deep, fight for passes and his size won't be a liability. Teams will have to test these areas of his game during predraft visits to see if he is as good as advertised.
If Watkins' speed can carry him through his first season while he develops as a route-runner—and if that route running becomes second nature to him without the typically steep learning curve for a young receiver—then he most certainly is worthy of being drafted in the top five.
Not knowing if that will happen, however, might shy away an otherwise receiver-needy team in the top five, especially considering the level of depth at the position in this year's draft class. But that's always the gamble with the draft in any round.
Where do you think Sammy Watkins should be drafted?
Watkins' time with Clemson was head-turning, and his pro day workout managed to show that he's not a one-trick pony, possessing speed and nothing else. He can block, he can return the football, he's probably the most dangerous skill player in this year's draft when it comes to making plays in space, and he's stood out among a class of soon-to-be rookie receivers that is one of the best in recent memory.
Is that enough for Watkins to be drafted with a top-five pick? Probably, and if not, there's no way he will fall out of the top 10. But there are areas in which Watkins lacks experience, and how rapidly he can gain it will do much to influence the perception of his rookie season, no matter the team that takes him.
For what he is, Watkins is easily a top-10 pick. For what he can become, Watkins is worth being taken in the top five. Like any draft decision, it's a leap of faith, but it's not one teams should avoid making.