Clemson Tigers product Sammy Watkins is the best wide receiver prospect in this year’s draft class, and that’s saying something given how many talented prospects there are at the WR position. I mean, there are about 12 receivers in this year’s draft class who could project as legitimate starters in the NFL, and Watkins leads the pack by a distance of some significance. He has electrifying long speed and quickness, can work off of deeper routes and screens, wins at the catch point, plays bigger than his size, generates plenty of yards after the catch with a great running style, and he is a very polished route-runner. That last aspect of Watkins’s game is especially important, because we’ve seen many playmaking wide receivers fall flat due to an inability to get open. Based on the tape I’ve watched of them, there’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll be able to grasp NFL route trees with ease.
The Tigers first game of the season came against a difficult SEC opponent against the healthy Georgia Bulldogs, but the home team was game and prevailed 38-35. Watkins played a key role in that as the team’s leading receiver (surprise, surprise) with five receptions for 111 yards and a touchdown, as his stats were largely based off of a monstrous 77- yard TD that showcased his ability to generate major YAC. This film breakdown is based off of the tape assembled by the awesome folks at Draft Breakdown, and the piece itself is meant as a quick look at one of Watkins’s games, rather than an in-depth look at what he did.
I charted Watkins with eight total targets (not including a PI call), so he had a 62.5% catch rate and averaged a hefty 13.9 yards per target. If you take out his big TD, then he averaged just 4.9 yards per target. However, big plays deserves to count, especially the one Watkins had. Plus, he drew a pass interference penalty, which has to count in his favor. The official box score tracks Watkins with six receptions for 127 yards, but they falsely credited Watkins with a 16-yard pass with 7:41 left in the third quarter when that was clearly a designed run. With 18 yards on three carries, the Tigers tried to get Watkins involved on designed runs, which is a wrinkle he can definitely add to an NFL offense.
Here are the targets I charted as far as routes go (right, left denote alignment):
- Right, screen pass for five yards
- Left, unknown route (ended in an out/comeback) for nine yards
- Right, crossing route for a 77-yard TD
- Left, skinny post route for a 15-yard pass interference
- Slot right, out route is a near-interception due to an awful throw/decision from Tajh Boyd
- Right, screen for seven yards
- Left, curl (couldn’t really see the play, but I think you get the idea of what the route looked like) for 13 yards
- Right, slant for an incomplete, as Boyd threw the ball high and didn’t give Watkins enough time for the route to develop. The ball glanced off of Watkins’s hands, but this catch would have been too difficult for him to make, so I wouldn’t consider it a drop.
- Right, screen for an incomplete, as this one was definitely a drop on a wide-open pass.
Sammy Watkins can impact the game in a variety of ways, and he made his mark against the Bulldogs in a Percy Harvin kind of way. Instead of being the dominating, true No. 1 pro-style receiver that he was in games like the Ohio State contest, Watkins was mostly targeted on shorter routes and designed runs in this one. He ran one deep route, but that was it. Clemson tried to get the ball into Watkins’s hands and make things easier for Boyd by throwing frequent screens, and No. 2 wasn’t the only wideout on the team to receive a heavy dosage of screens.
There are two plays in particular worth highlighting when looking at this game, and I’ll look at his 77-yard TD grab first. It came on a shallow route over the middle, and this catch is just a microcosm that encapsulates the impact that Watkins can have on a game. One simple route can turn into a game-changing play that goes the distance, and he trucked one defender before forcing another missed tackle later on in the play. It was a foot race at the end of the play for Watkins, who had to speed past several Bulldogs defenders before finally being tackled inside the end zone.
But maybe his most impressive play was on 3rd and four in the first quarter with 11:11 left, as Watkins caught a nine yard pass on the left sideline for the conversion. Boyd was under pressure and barely escaped before firing off a throw to his favorite target, and the likely top ten pick delivered by leaping up to expertly snatch the ball out of the air with both hands, holding onto a hit from the defender. He has great ball skills, and that play definitely showcased his ability to make plays on the ball,
When looking at that play closely, though, the most impressive work from Watkins came before the snap, as he ran an NFL-caliber route in order to get open on that play. Facing off-coverage, Watkins was wide open for most of the play, and it would have been an easy first down had Boyd been able to get the ball to his No. 1 wideout sooner. However, he was under pressure and couldn’t throw until later. Watkins initially cut inside, cut upfield, and then cut outside, and he did a great job of keeping the corner covering him off-balanced. It was a poor play-call from the other team to not press him on third-and-short, whereas it was pure excellence from Watkins to cut-on-a-dime in order to get open. Throughout his route, he kept his eyes out on Boyd, which was crucial given the pressure Boyd was under. The end result of the play was a first down that kept the drive going, which would culminate in a four-yard TD run by Boyd, who has Watkins to thank on that play that showcased high-end talent both before and during the catch.