Sammy Watkins is earning rave reviews in Chiefs camp after ups and downs with the Bills and Rams. Matt Waldman shares the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio’s pre-draft scouting report on Watkins.
Author’s Note: I had Watkins as my top receiver prospect in a rich 2014 receiver class. Odell Beckham was my No. 2 option — a player many didn’t think had the size of a primary threat. Watkins hasn’t performed consistently to expectation but there is little doubt that his skills translate well to the NFL and there’s more upside to mine.
1. Sammy Watkins, Clemson (6-0, 211)
If Sammy Watkins was a product of a football manufacturing center, the assembly team on the factory floor would be laughing at the engineers’ specs:
- The speed of a vertical receiver.
- The technical savvy of a possession receiver.
- The strength, vision, and frame of a running back.
- The feel for zones like a quarterback.
- Obssessive attention to detail of a coach.
“Sure, sure, we’ve got all of those materials in the back – we build Sammy Watkins all the time,” quips the line manager. “Those fumes from the dry erase boards in your offices are messing with your heads. Once we finish our Bo Jackson project, we’ll get right on it!”
Watkins isn’t a physical freak of nature, but don’t be mistaken, the Clemson receiver is a fine athlete. He’s a 200-meter champion and 100-meter runner-up in the state of Florida. What makes him rare, and a great NFL prospect is that he’s a freak for detail and processes the game unfolding in front of him at a high speed.
Watkins plays as fast as he runs in most facets of his game. This is far more difficult than people realize and it’s the difference between great NFL-caliber athletes that are mediocre football players and mediocre NFL-caliber athletes that are great football players.
The details set Watkins apart from his peers. Almost every movement has a purpose and there’s little wasted motion to his game. Because he’s so efficient, it’s easy to miss the things that will make Watkins an instant impact receiver when watching him play running back for a majority of his snaps in the Clemson offense.
Looking at the Clemson scheme in a figurative sense, Watkins’ role was a running back in space. The team featured him on sweeps, swing passes, crossing routes, and screen passes. A significant number of his targets began behind the line of scrimmage.
What’s unusual is how consistent Watkins is at setting his body into position so he can maximize his gains before he even catches the pass. He makes it a habit to get his feet, knees, hips, pads, and head facing downfield and in a position relative to the target where he can extend his arms to the ball and explode from the catch position into his run. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a receiver pre-set his course on these types of targets with as much consistent, maniacal detail as Watkins.
Watkins has excellent hands. He plucks the ball from the air and he can adjust high or low; catch tight or wide of his frame; and although rarely seen because of his role in the offense, Watkins can make plays in the face of hard, physical contact.
Once the ball is in his hands, he has a running back’s mentality. He’s excellent at using his blockers to press the crease and cut back to the open lane. Moreover, his change of direction comes at the latest possible moment and close to the defender to maximize the effect of the cutback.
The most notable detail of Watkins’ running style is his gait. He runs with a low pad level and will then drop the pads further when he encounters contact. He finishes with sound leg drive to squeeze every yard from the play. When he’s in open space, Watkins is as likely to drop the pads, take a good angle, and run through a glancing blow from a defensive back as he is to deliver a stiff arm or make a move to avoid contact altogether.
His decision making in the open field after the catch is often unerring in its feel for the defense. Marqise Lee has a faster initial burst and flashier array of moves in the open field, but Watkins displays far better judgment when navigating the open field. Watkins rarely loses yards as a runner and because of his size and pad level, when he uses a shoulder fake, dip, or cut, to elude a defender’s angle, he runs through more contact than many big-play artists.
There are people who fear that Watkins is a product of his offense and his skills won’t translate to the NFL. This is understandable because Watkins’ role in Clemson’s offense didn’t give the receiver as many opportunities to perform the conventional plays fans expect when they think of a great prospect at the position.
Clemson uses a lot of misdirection in its offense. It wants to keep the defense guessing run or pass as well as which side the offense will execute the play. This involves a lot of plays that stretch the field from sideline to sideline: sweeps, wide receiver screens, swing passes, and pitches. Watkins’ size, speed, and vision made him a perfect match for the role of the primary runner/setup man in this scheme. Defenses have to cheat to the line of scrimmage to anticipate these plays or get gashed for gains of five, seven, and ten yards.
Once defenses have these glorified running plays as their first priority to stop, Clemson uses motion or a play fake to trick the defense into thinking it’s another short pass and then throws the ball into the deeper recesses of the opponents’ zone. DeAndre Hopkins and Martavis Bryant earned the bulk of the vertical targets because Clemson needed defenses to focus on Watkins in the short game.
But don’t be mistaken, Watkins has fine tools as a wide receiver. He has a strong array of release techniques against press coverage. One of his best is a rip move when a defender gets aggressive with the jam. He can also swim or duck the shoulder and use his feet to set up these moves.
What I like most about Watkins’ press-man game at the line of scrimmage is the willingness to use a defender’s position to his advantage. Many young receivers try to win the battle of position at the line. If they don’t win immediately, they’ve delayed the timing of the route.
Watkins often takes the open space that the defender dictates. Instead of forcing his way past the cornerback, Watkins will make the defender second-guess his position. Once the corner reacts to the idea that he is out of position, Watkins then makes his move to break free.
As with everything else about his game, Watkins does this with a fast pace that tests the patience of defenders. His initial release from the line is fast enough to influence defenders to turn their hips and account for the deep route. Watkins forces this action well in the short game.
Watkins makes hard breaks and doesn’t take wasted steps. He also attacks the ball and works to the quarterback after his break. All the while, Watkins displays a sound understanding of route depth and awareness of the boundary. When Watkins earns a rare opportunity in the vertical game, his pacing and minimal use of movement can force even the most patient corners to react the wrong way to the smallest head fake, shoulder fake, or dip the receiver uses at the top of his stem to set up his break.
He’s also a fine route runner versus zone coverage. Not only does he settle into open spots and position his body as an optimal target for his quarterback, but he has demonstrated the skill to note defensive tendencies and adjust. Watkins scored a touchdown against Auburn on a play he suggested after spotting a defensive tendency—as a freshman. When Watkins catches the ball downfield, he can snatch the ball in full stride or win the ball with defenders draped over him. He’s had some drops where he’s abandoned his focus on looking the ball into his body before he runs, but it’s rare.
The least consistent aspect of Watkins’ game is run blocking. There were games where Watkins didn’t sustain his efforts, but when he’s on point, he’s as technically sound as he is as a receiver. Watkins establishes good position on a variety of blocks. He can square the defender and then attack with a hard punch or proper cut technique. He knows how to set up seals inside or out and has a feel for the direction that the runner is supposed to be taking and deliver his efforts with an aggressive mindset.
Watkins can play in any system and in multiple roles. He has the quickness and zone savvy to play the slot, the speed to get deep on the perimeter, and the route skills to win the intermediate timing game. An offense can move him around the formation to draw ideal matchups for Watkins or Watkins’ teammates, this includes featuring Watkins in the backfield a lot like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb.
Include the fact that Watkins can return kicks, and there’s no doubt in my mind that from the standpoint of usable skills, he’s the most versatile receiver in this class. It’s this versatility, attention to detail, upper-tier athleticism, and on-field awareness that makes Watkins a special prospect. I believe he will have a long, productive career with at least a few great statistical years along the way.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Watkins’ role will dictate his fantasy fate. A prospect like Mike Evans could have more consistent, high-end production because of his use in the vertical game that will generate bigger games on fewer targets. However, in the right system, Watkins has the talent to earn high production in one of two modes.
The first I’ll call Jimmy Smith Mode: An all-around primary option capable of burning teams deep, but also moving the chains as a high-volume option all over the field—even against bracket coverage. The other delivery method is Percy Harvin Mode: A hybrid running back in space that is also capable of making downfield plays but earning the bulk of his production with a high volume of touches in multiple looks.
At worst, I believe Watkins will deliver consistent, high-end WR2 fantasy production for the bulk of a long career that could span 10-15 years. That kind of floor makes him one of the top dynasty picks in 2014.
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