In advance of the 2014 NFL Draft, Bucky Brooks is examining the best team fits for one high-profile prospect each week. Click here for the debut subject of this series, Jadeveon Clowney. As for today's installment ...
With the prominence of the passing game in today's NFL, scouts and coaches view wide receiver as one of the marquee positions on the field. Teams annually spend high draft picks (and big bucks) on pass catchers with the potential to put the ball in the paint from anywhere on the field.
Looking at the 2014 NFL Draft, I believe the wideout class is as deep and talented as any to enter the league in over a decade. The group not only features big, athletic pass catchers with strong hands, but it is loaded with explosive catch-and-run playmakers possessing the ability to turn short passes into big gains. NFL offensive coordinators covet skilled runners, particularly guys with kick/punt-return experience, because they are adept at maneuvering through traffic. This is a critical aspect for receivers in quick-rhythm attacks that place a premium on yards after catch (like the West Coast offense).
As I study the top wideouts in this year's class, Clemson's Sammy Watkins stands out as the premier playmaker. Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds with legit 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, Watkins is an explosive receiver capable of blowing past defenders on vertical passes and busting a big play on a short throw. This is a truly dynamic athlete with exceptional balance, body control and short-area quickness. He excels at getting in and out of his breaks to create significant separation from defenders at the top of routes. Now, Watkins is definitely not a finished product as an overall route runner, but his pure athleticism makes it hard for defenders to stay with him in isolated matchups.
Thus, teams at the top of the draft are salivating over Watkins' potential as a No. 1 receiver. The Clemson standout thrived in that role in 2011 and 2013, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark in both seasons and corralling 24 of his 27 career receiving touchdowns during those years. Watkins had a down season in 2012, but his mere presence on the field helped open things up for teammate DeAndre Hopkins, who parlayed an 18-touchdown campaign into a first-round draft selection. Scouts believe Watkins is capable of making an immediate impact in today's NFL, based on the restricted contact/physicality allowed in the secondary.
Given Watkins' skill set and long-term potential, I've come up with five potential landing spots in May's draft.
St. Louis Rams (No. 2 overall pick)
To earn a playoff berth in 2014, the Rams must find a way to score against the stingy defenses of their NFC West brethren. Although a series of additions last offseason (Tavon Austin, Jared Cook and Stedman Bailey) added some juice to the lineup, Watkins' explosive catch-and-run skills would give St. Louis a true No. 1 receiver on the perimeter. With Austin and Cook controlling the middle of the field from the slot and tight end positions, respectively, Watkins would find plenty of room to work on the perimeter against one-on-one coverage. This would inevitably produce big plays for an offense that's struggled to put points on the board in the Sam Bradford era.
Oakland Raiders (No. 5)
Brooks: Clowney's best fit?
Jadeveon Clowney is one of the main figures in the 2014 draft. Which team would suit him best? Bucky Brooks has five in mind. READ
The Raiders desperately need a franchise quarterback, but a top signal-caller is worthless without explosive weapons on the outside. Watkins is an electrifying playmaker with a versatile game that can befuddle a defense in many different ways. Although he still needs to refine his route-running skills to become a true No. 1 receiver as a pro, he is an impact player with all of the tools needed to anchor a passing game on the perimeter. Looking at the Raiders' recent offensive struggles, the presence of a legitimate weapon in the passing game would make the Silver and Black more competitive in 2014.
Detroit Lions (No. 10)
The Lions' offense has been one of the most potent units in the NFL over the past few years, but an overreliance on Calvin Johnson has stunted the growth of Matthew Stafford. While the franchise quarterback has thrown for 4,500-plus yards in each of the past three seasons, his completion percentage has dropped each year. Now, some of Stafford's issues can be attributed to his gunslinger mentality, but the presence of another dynamic weapon on the perimeter could encourage him to distribute the ball all over the place, like an efficient point guard. Watkins not only would represent a significant upgrade over any non-Megatron receiver on the roster right now, but he would alleviate the pressure on Johnson to make every play in the passing game. Detroit's offense would be a nightmare to defend with explosive playmakers on both sides of the field.
Baltimore Ravens (No. 16/17*)
Last offseason's Anquan Boldin trade left Joe Flacco without his security blanket in the middle of the field. The former Pro Bowler was a terrific third-down/red-zone specialist, with the size, strength and toughness to make big catches in traffic. While Watkins definitely isn't a receiver in that mold, he is a clutch performer adept at delivering game-changing plays on the perimeter. He would team with Torrey Smith to give the Ravens a pair of speedsters on the outside, thus maximizing Flacco's skill as a deep-ball thrower. Factor in new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's plans to install a deadly play-action passing game, and the pairing of Watkins and Smith on the outside would make the Ravens a headache to defend in 2014.
New York Jets (No. 18)
The Jets thrust Geno Smith into the starting lineup in Year 1, yet provided him with few weapons on the perimeter to foster his development. Consequently, the rookie quarterback slogged through a topsy-turvy season that saw him toss 21 interceptions, yet deliver a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives. While the youngster needs to learn how to take care of the ball and avoid the costly mistake, the presence of a dynamic receiver on the outside would take his game to the next level. With Watkins capable of stretching the field on vertical routes, Smith would see bigger windows on underneath routes, while still having the option to target his new toy on downfield throws. Additionally, Watkins' spectacular running skills would allow Smith to generate gaudy production on low-risk throws like slants and screens. If the Jets can find a way to produce a few more points on offense, the stifling defense is more than capable of carrying Gang Green back into the playoffs next year.