The 2014 draft class has been regarded as one of the deepest in recent history, but there is still plenty of talent available at the top. At the wide receiver position, nobody ranks above Clemson's Sammy Watkins.
There are others who are in the discussion among potential first-round picks, including Mike Evans (Texas A&M), Odell Beckham, Jr. (Louisiana State), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Marqise Lee (Southern California) and Allen Robinson (Penn State), but in terms of a consistent, versatile, dynamic threat with refined technique, Watkins is head and shoulders above the rest.
At 6'1" and 211 pounds with 32" long arms, Watkins has adequate size for a boundary receiver. He also has the desirable speed to take the top off a defense, as he showed at the combine running a 4.43-second 40-yard dash.
There are plenty of receivers who have the measurables but lack the functionality to translate those tools into big plays on the football field, but Watkins' size and speed were regularly on display at Clemson.
Against North Carolina State, he showed his speed on a play where he didn't even catch the ball. He split the cornerback and the safety, got wide open and threatened for a touchdown catch, but Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd overthrew him by a good two or three yards, missing out on a scoring opportunity.
Watkins showed his big-play ability time and time again over the course of his three-year career, hauling in 28 touchdowns. He didn't pile up the stats against bad teams, though, pulling in at least one touchdown catch in 21 games, the seventh-most games by any player over the past three years.
His speed wasn't the only tool at his disposal.
He did not measure well in the vertical jump (34") or the three-cone drill (6.97 seconds), but his leaping ability is evident from his ability to haul in contested catches, and his quickness is evident any time you watch him come in and out of his breaks or weave through defenders on screens.
He has great size for a boundary wide receiver and knows how to use that size to his advantage. Against Ohio State, he ran downfield and tracked the ball over his head, turning and leaping at just the right time to make the catch despite defensive back Doran Grant standing in his safety bubble.
He glides effortlessly in and out of his breaks, perhaps never more apparent than his effort on the above reception against Georgia in 2013. He faked a post pattern, then moved back up the field, before finally breaking out to the sideline.
Watkins lulled the cornerback to sleep with his moves within the route, and he created additional separation by the time he made his actual break, allowing him to come back to the ball and make the contested catch.
Time and time again throughout his career, Watkins performed Houdini acts with the ball in his hands, displaying a blend of speed and shiftiness that made him hard to track down in the open field. Whether it was on a screen pass or a reverse, Watkins found ways to make an impact.
He has all the tools and looks like the most complete receiver in this year's draft. According to NESN.com's Doug Kyed, the general consensus is that Watkins holds a slight advantage over Evans. There is some disagreement, however. While NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah believes that Evans will be the better rookie, Greg Cosell believes Watkins is the best receiver to enter the league since A.J. Green and Julio Jones back in 2011.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller also compares Watkins to Green and thinks Watkins is an even better prospect than Jones. Thus, it's no surprise that Miller has Watkins ranked as the top wide receiver in the draft:
As a route-runner and a pass-catcher, Watkins stands out from the crowd. He's the man they're all trying to catch, actually. His ability to take a bubble screen, break tackles and run away from defenders makes for great highlights and will scare any defense, but he's a lot more than that.
When you watch Watkins break off a route and separate from defenders, you see the footwork and agility to create space on his own. Watch him high-point and fight for a ball, and you see his strength and concentration.
Basically, watch him and see what NFL teams want at the position.
Watkins isn't the only one who has those skills. He's just the only one who has all of them.
At 6'5" and 231 pounds, Mike Evans has the ability to snatch the ball above his head and away from his body to win jump balls. He doesn't, however, have the polish as a route-runner or the game-breaking speed to create separation on his own, instead relying on his frame and physicality to help him win contested catches.
Brandin Cooks has game-breaking speed, as he showed in running a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He also has top-notch quickness, as displayed in a 6.76-second three-cone drill, but at 5'10" and 189 pounds, he is far short of the ideal frame for a boundary role in the NFL.
Allen Robinson is a polished route-runner with sure hands, and he bears a bigger frame than Watkins at 6'3" and 220 pounds. He does not bear the game-breaking speed that Watkins has, however, and could have limited upside as a result.
There's no doubt about Watkins' upside.
ESPN's Adam Schefter said he expects Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson, Khalil Mack, and Sammy Watkins to be the first 4 picks in the draft.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) April 21, 2014
Watkins can do almost everything that each of those three can do, and he can do things each of them can't do. He has the the skill set and polish to step in and immediately contribute as the No. 1 receiver in an offense, and he is the most versatile and complete prospect at wide receiver in this year's class.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Combine measurements and workout numbers provided by NFL.com.