The NFL's transformation into a passing league has made it imperative for every offense to prominently feature a dynamic pass catcher in the game plan. With league rules restricting significant contact in the defensive backfield, receivers with explosive speed, quickness and athleticism have significant advantages on the perimeter. Moreover, the free access granted by several defensive teams on the perimeter has led to receivers having a greater impact on the outcome of games.
With more offensive coordinators willing to build their respective game plans around the talents of explosive pass catchers, NFL scouts have been paying close attention to the gradual development of Clemson's Sammy Watkins. A junior standout, Watkins was regarded as one of the top playmakers in college football after totaling 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman. While his production dipped dramatically in 2012 because of injuries and questionable focus, Watkins has returned to form this season with 71 receptions for 1,086 yards and nine scores. More important, Watkins has displayed the dominant playmaking ability that has made him nearly impossible to neutralize, as evidenced in Clemson's 55-31 win over Georgia Tech.
Given Watkins' re-emergence as the top wide receiver in college football, I decided to dig into the tape to see what makes him such a special player. Here's what I discovered:
Watkins is an extraordinary athlete with explosive speed and quickness. He displays exceptional body control getting in and out of breaks, and shows outstanding short area burst running away from defenders at the top of routes. Watkins capably runs all of the routes on the route tree, but he is at his best running vertical routes or shallow crossers that allow him to take advantage of his outstanding straight-line speed. Watching Watkins terrorize defenses throughout his career, he has routinely hurt opponents on deep balls and "catch and run" routes over the middle of the field. With NFL offensive coordinators, particularly West Coast Offense advocates, frequently incorporating those concepts into the game plan, Watkins has the tools to be a dynamic weapon on the perimeter as a pro.
The top receivers in the NFL excel at snatching balls outside of the strike zone. Elite pass catchers easily track and adjust to errant throws and exhibit strong hands and superb hand-eye coordination. Watkins is a natural pass catcher with extraordinary ball skills. He frequently comes down with contested catches in traffic, which makes him a dangerous weapon in the red zone. Looking at Watkins' 42-yard touchdown catch against Georgia Tech on Thursday night, it was his combination of ball skills, athleticism and concentration that stood out to me. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he snatched the pass over the top of a lurking defender and continued to waltz into the end zone. These are the type of plays Watkins has consistently made throughout his career; I expect him to continue to make them when he advances to the next level.
Watkins is one of the best "catch and run" playmakers I've seen in the college game. He excels at maneuvering through traffic with the ball in his hands, but also displays the toughness to run through arm tackles on the perimeter. Of course, Watkins' effectiveness as a runner can be attributed to his explosive skills as a punt/kick returner. He simply has a knack for making defenders miss and is fearless with the ball in his hands. As a result, Watkins is a threat to score from anywhere on the field on screens, quick routes and reverses designed to get him quick touches on the perimeter. With more NFL offenses utilizing similar concepts to take advantage of their top playmakers' skills, Watkins could become an immediate difference-maker as a pro.
Players capable of putting the ball in the paint are coveted at every level. NFL offensive coordinators, in particular, prefer receivers on the perimeter with the potential to deliver explosive plays -- receptions of 20-plus yards -- because of their game-changing impact. Watkins is a phenomenal big-play receiver with the speed, athleticism and running skills to hurt opponents with the deep ball or catch-and-run plays. He has scored 24 touchdowns (22 receiving; one rushing and one kick return) in 33 career games and has also shown a knack for delivering big plays on the perimeter as a designated home-run threat. Against Georgia Tech, Watkins hauled in five catches for 108 yards, with a pair of 40-plus receptions that showcased his explosive skills as a vertical playmaker and crafty running specialist. On his 41-yard second-quarter touchdown, Watkins snatched the ball over the top of an outstretched defender on a go-route. The play highlighted Watkins' special combination of speed, athleticism and ball skills. On the other hand, Watkins' 44-yard touchdown on a bubble screen showcased his aforementioned running skills and explosiveness in space. With a resume full of similar efforts, Watkins will attract the attention of every NFL offensive coordinator looking to juice up their respective units.
Since my days playing Pee-Wee football as a youngster, I've watched big-time players take over games in the clutch with their spectacular skills. Elite players have a way of rising to the occasion to deliver whatever is needed to win the game. Watkins certainly qualifies as a clutch performer based on his impressive resume as the Tigers' No.1 receiver. He has posted 14 100-yard games in his career, including seven this season despite routinely facing double coverage on weekly basis. Of course, critics will suggest Watkins' numbers are inflated by the Tigers' spread offense and the utilization of bubble screens, but his 14.3 yards-per-reception average throughout his career is indicative of his big-play ability as a No. 1 receiver. Factor in his propensity for putting the ball in the paint, and I don't think there's any doubt that he is a clutch performer with the potential to take over the game at any point.
Watkins has been on the radar of NFL scouts since terrorizing the college football landscape as a freshman. Although his game and production took a dip a season ago, it is apparent that Watkins has regained his spectacular form as a junior. He has been sensational as an all-around playmaker on the perimeter and has displayed noticeable improvement as a route runner. Factoring in his renewed concentration and focus, Watkins will captivate the imagination of coaches and scouts looking for a Torrey Smith-like playmaker to add to the line-up.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.