Sammy Watkins was a commodity early.
ESPN ranked him the fourth-best wide receiver in the country out of high school back in early 2011; Rivals had him at #3. The plus marks were as obvious as they were numerous: speed. burst, hands, feel for space, elusiveness, hops... The natural athletic ability was overwhelming. And coming out of southwestern Florida, the scouting community was well aware. Offers came in from across Florida and surrounding big programs like Auburn, Tennessee and Clemson. A late visit to Michigan proffered the possibility that Watkins might leave the region all together, and in retrospect makes for one of the most interesting what ifs in the country ...
Of course, time tells the tale. From his explosive freshman season to the productive career that helped the Clemson program close 2013 with their best end-of-season ranking in three decades, Watkins has made good on the recruiting hype and some.
Now one of the top prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft (and perhaps the best WR prospect since A.J. Green and Julio Jones), Watkins is back in a similar scouting box with the obvious platitudes jumping off of tape and some questions left unanswered ... largely because they've never needed to have been.
First off, let's be clear. I'm talking about game speed. Not combine speed/40 speed. Game speed. The simple kind of speed that turns people around.
Speed kills indeed.
The kind of speed that when defenders give you a 10-yard cushion, you still get behind them.
That's reproducable. And that's worth saying now when 40-times and speed talk abound. Say what you will about this kind of stuff, but game speed trumps everything.
Speed alone makes a track star. Speed with other traits makes an athlete for other sports ... and when those traits include elusiveness, acceleration and hands that makes a football player.
Here, uninterrupted, is the second Clemson drive from the 2014 Orange Bowl against Ohio State.
It's not just raw speed and burst though. He's got the ability to escape tackles even when the angle's right.
elu·siveadjective \ē-ˈlü-siv, -ˈlü-ziv\
- hard to find or capture
There are, to me, three major factors in elusiveness: speed, power and agility.
If you can run away from would-be tacklers, either in acceleration or with a final gear, that's one characteristic. If you can use overwhelming strength to get rid of defenders, that's another. And everyone knows a good juke when they see it. I would argue that balance is central to all three, but when you get them all in a single highlight, most people are just overwhelmed with the result.
Here's another play from that freshman year game against Auburn in which Watkins runs out of the backfield on third-and-three but faces long odds to convert for the first:
What's impressive is that he shows all three facets of elusiveness here. There's the athleticism to avoid a blitzing T'Sharvan Bell, helped by an almost imperceptible, but instinctive, change of angle to give Watkins just a bit more room to deal with Bell's attempt. There's the burst to get around Demetruce McNeal who had a full run-in to set a good angle. Watkins' acceleration puts him in front of McNeal's tackle attempt just enough to get by. Then there's the strength to take on the hit from Daren Bates (as in current Ram Daren Bates) and ride that into Neiko Thorpe (Kansas City Chief previously, Oakland Raider currently) and still cross the first down threshold.
That's four defenders, all with a good shot at Watkins. First down.
It's an isolated case, sure, but his tape shows these skills over and over and over. No, he's not overly powerful. But speed and agility?
That was Ohio St. safety C.J. Burnett who could be a day 3 pick who was completely shook by Watkins. There's a moment where Barnett's arms and eyes are pointed toward Watkins, but the rest of his upper torso, hips and lower torso are all headed the wrong way. Watkins was in full control of his body at that speed, and Barnett couldn't play to that speed.
As a receiver though, Watkins is more than just an athlete. There's a reason he doesn't play cornerback ...
Watkins doesn't possess the greatest hands, but they're well above average. Here's a series of clips all from the 2013 Clemson-Florida St. game:
There's a lot in there. Focus, dexterity, strength -- more wide receiver skills than just pure athleticism.
Look, Sammy Watkins isn't your intermediate threat. He's not Julio Jones, a guy whose technique and upper body strength opens up a section of the route tree that most who can produce there can't do much else. Watkins can work under and over the top with an elite blend of speed, acceleration and athleticism for his size. And in that respect ...
Sammy Watkins is just a bigger Tavon Austin with better hands.— Joe McAtee (@3k_) March 15, 2014
Which is great if you're looking for a special talent, but worrisome if you're a Rams fan. Why?
If you're a Rams fan and you're absolute that the staff can't incorporate Austin properly, there's no reason to take Watkins— Joe McAtee (@3k_) March 15, 2014
And that's kind of what it comes down to for us Rams fans this year. Want a bigger Tavon who has the hands to help convert in tougher third down or red zone situations? Sammy can do that. Need a bigger possession type who can threaten the middle of the field consistently? That's not Sammy's game. So in the end, it comes down to coaching.
So if you think the Schottey and Austin can excel in 2014, Watkins should be a top target— Joe McAtee (@3k_) March 15, 2014
If you think Austin will be held back as long as Schottey's in charge, Watkins would be a waste of a pick.— Joe McAtee (@3k_) March 15, 2014
Things are never as easy as they seem.