The transition from college to the pros is a challenging one for athletes, especially college football stars, who must adapt to the increased speed and physicality of the NFL.
The players are bigger, stronger and faster. But those with the playmaking instinct have a clear-cut advantage over the rest.
Below, I'll highlight three of the top playmakers available for teams picking in Round 1.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Following a disappointing sophomore campaign at Clemson in 2012, Sammy Watkins separated himself as the top available wide receiver during an explosive junior season in 2013, in which he caught 101 balls for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns.
At 6'1" and 211 pounds, Watkins has the size and strength to thrive in the NFL, and he has the soft hands, breakaway speed and big-play ability to make a massive impact right away.
Earlier this month, Watkins discussed his attributes and why he believes he'll be successful at the next level in an interview with 95.7 The Game, via ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez:
I have some freakish talents and ability to make plays. I can jump, run catch, make somebody miss. That's my game.
I'm able to transition myself and work through tough conditions. I understand football and the preparation, so for me, it's getting in with the team I'm with and learn that playbook. That's all I need to do is really learn that playbook, and after that, just adjusting to the speed of the game and how cornerbacks play in the NFL. That would be the next step. I think after the first few games I'll be definitely fine.
If there's one knock on Watkins—aside from his disappointing 2012 season stemming from a two-game suspension—it's his lack of polish as a route-runner.
But all signs point to Watkins improving in that area over time, and his physical gifts will give him added room for error.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Central Florida's Blake Bortles possesses the frame and build scouts love to see, and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater boasts the accuracy coaches crave, but former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel brings big-play ability and spark that few other prospects can match.
Although many have argued that Manziel's style of play isn't conducive to success in the NFL, it remains to be seen whether pro defenses have the answer for his speed and elusiveness in the pocket.
Plus, Manziel will adapt to the NFL game and will improve with coaching.
The bottom line is that you can't teach what Manziel offers: fearlessness, a competitive drive and a knack for the big play. The 21-year-old threw for more than 4,100 yards in 2013 and scored 93 total touchdowns in two seasons as the starting quarterback for the Aggies.
Manziel's small stature and off-the-field persona will cause teams to think twice before drafting him this spring, but there's no other quarterback available in 2014 who can threaten a defense in more ways than Manziel.
Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
One of the top cornerbacks on the board in 2014, Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert provides value as a playmaking defensive back and as an explosive return man on special teams.
Gilbert scored six kickoff-return touchdowns in his four seasons with the Cowboys and recorded a dozen interceptions since his sophomore season in 2011. He picked off seven passes last season, showcasing his aggressiveness and playmaking instincts in the secondary.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay is one of many who love Gilbert's playmaking potential at the next level, via The Oregonian's Gina Mizell:
Todd McShay calls #OKState CB Justin Gilbert "the best, most consistent cover corner in college football this year...flat-out playmaker."— Gina Mizell (@ginamizell) November 21, 2013
Gilbert's ball skills are second to none, and when you combine that coordination with his excellent speed and prototypical size, you have a dominant cornerback capable of shutting down one side of the field.
While some other top-tier corners may possess better cover skills or fare better against the run, few are as dangerous as Gilbert when the ball is in the air. Not only can he whip his head around and defend the pass, but he can also get his hands on it and return it for six points.
He'll have an opportunity to put that speed and vision on display as a return man in the NFL.
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