There has always been a debate about how soon a player is ready for the NFL. There have been very few players who as freshmen came in and played well enough to even warrant the conversation. Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins was one of them. After his freshman year, a season in which he amassed over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, many said he was a first-round pick at that point. And then 2012 happened. Injuries and illness hit him hard, and his sophomore season was a huge disappointment. But a healthy and focused Watkins in 2013 could make a massive rebound and be firmly in the mix to be the first wide receiver off the board in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Watkins isn’t a huge wide receiver at 6-foot-1 and just over 200 pounds, but his game is not built on being physical, it’s built on speed. It will be interesting to see how he times compared to another top wide receiver, Marqise Lee from USC, because Lee’s speed is underrated and Watkins’ is the hallmark of his game. In the open field, he can simply run away from defenders and is so shifty. Watkins looses very little speed in his change of direction, which makes him even more difficult to tackle. In many cases, he takes a short catch and turns it into a long run through his exceptional acceleration and long speed.
From a technical standpoint, Watkins’ skills are still developing. Watkins runs decent routes, but it isn’t the strength of his game. Most plays he sees off coverage and does a good job using his speed and agility to find seams in zones, and his quarterback gets him the football. But overall, his routes will need to be tightened up, especially against press coverage at the next level. Watkins has nice hands and does a good job extending and not allowing the football to get into his body.
The part of Watkins’ game that I always really liked was his versatility. He showed as a freshman that he could line up on the outside and use his speed or in the slot and take advantage of matchups. Clemson even used him in the run game and on special teams. Some have hinted that Watkins is going to be used much more exclusively on the outside this year. This is a bad thing. Being a multi-purpose offensive weapon is one of the things that keeps him in the mix to be a top draft pick. Watkins is going to see more double teams this year and is going to have to really shore up his route running and physical play if he expects to find himself as a top-10 pick in 2014.
But let me say this. Watkins’ potential is as good as any wide receiver in the country. His weaknesses are coachable and his strengths are elite. Obviously, for all he does on the field this year, all eyes will be on his off-field problems from the past and if he has put them behind him. This is always a wildcard with any prospect, and every team is going to grade him out differently in that area. But make no mistake, a healthy Watkins can play.