I’ve tried hard to like Sammy Watkins. I really have. And don’t get me wrong, I do, just not as the top receiver in the 2014 draft class. The speed, hands and quickness are all intriguing, but I’m still not convinced that he projects better than Texas A&M‘s Mike Evans at the NFL level.
Evans, the 6-foot-5 behemoth responsible for a good chunk of Johnny Manziel‘s success over the past two seasons in College Station, has proven the best jump-ball receiver in recent memory but is still predicted to fall just outside the top 10 for this May’s draft. Watkins is penciled in as a top-5 pick.
Sure, Watkins was electrifying in his third season at Clemson; he grabbed 101 receptions for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns on his way to being named a first-team All-American. He possesses unbelievable speed (4.34 40-yard dash) and quickness for his size — 6-foot-1, 211 pounds — and is likely more dangerous following the catch than any other wideout available.
But many forget that Watkins was being labeled a fraud following a down season just a year ago; he showed a visible lack of effort at times and was suspended for Clemson’s first two games for possession of marijuana.
While the marijuana charge isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, problems like this do tend to follow players to the league (see: Josh Gordon and Justin Blackmon). It’s something that prospective suitors must take into consideration before investing in Watkins.
Moreover, his route running is oft-cited as a key concern among draft analysts — this can and will present major issues in the NFL. It’s considered an easy fix, but over the years many “can’t-miss” prospects have failed to figure it out (see: Darrius Heyward-Bey and Mike Williams) before falling into obscurity.
Though in the end, it’s not so much that there’s anything wrong with Watkins as it is that there’s simply more right with Evans. Evans absolutely dominated SEC defenses in 2013, lighting them up for 1,394 yards receiving and 12 TDs. His 20.2 YPC was the highest average for any player with 60-plus grabs since UAB‘s Roddy White back in 2004.
Evans has garnered numerous comparisons to Chicago Bears‘ receiver Alshon Jeffery as well. Jeffery played three years at South Carolina, becoming the SEC’s premier downfield threat following a 2010 season in which he amassed 1,517 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. He was praised for his combination of size and speed and has become one of the league’s premier receivers after only two seasons.
Evans is actually two inches taller, jumps higher and surprisingly recorded a faster 40 time (4.47) than did Jeffery. After witnessing the damage he inflicted to opposing secondaries last season, imagining a Jeffery 2.0 is scary, but Evans may be just that.
Evans also possesses the improvisational skills to get open on broken plays; he rarely gives up on a route and routinely comes down with contested catches. Watkins, however, isn’t necessarily a proven pass catcher — many of his receptions have come via short, high-percentage passes. He won’t find space as easily he did lining against unimpressive ACC secondaries and his route-running deficiencies will be exposed and exploited early on.
Watkins will be a great receiver eventually, but Evans is a great one now. He’ll make an impact immediately wherever he ends up and has the potential to ascend to Dez Bryant/Demaryius Thomas status if he can improve his first step. Watkins will be the first wideout off the board in May, but Evans will provide a more immediate impact and ultimately finish with the better career.