by Matt Waldman
It seems ridiculous to label a wide receiver with an 82-catch, 1,219-yard, 12-touchdown debut as “unsung,” but consider the company Sammy Watkins kept his freshman year. The Clemson wide receiver is one of only four players in the history of college football to earn First Team All-America honors as a true freshman. The other three were Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk, and Adrian Peterson.
A semester later, Watkins was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. This led to a two-game suspension and he missed two other contests with injuries. The result was an underwhelming sophomore effort of 57 catches, 708 yards, and 3 touchdowns. It’s what happens when a first-year college receiver ditches Walker, Faulk, and Peterson for the company of Vyvanse, Adderall, and Mary Jane.
By all means laud the talents of Marqise Lee, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper, Donte Moncrief and Jordan Mathews. They’ve all earned it. But Watkins at his best laps this field of potent contenders for the crown of top receiver in college football. (I purposely left one receiver off this list, because I’ll be writing about him another week.)
Watkins has done the best job of these players at integrating his physical, conceptual, and technical skill sets at the position at this stage of his career. And as polished as he is, there is room for him to get better. If Watkins were a creation of real-life Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist would have spliced the genetic material of Percy Harvin’s rugged, explosive athleticism and Brandon Lloyd’s route savvy and mind-bending body control without the migraines or mood swings.
Remember Eddie Royal's rookie season? The Virginia Tech star had a promising start with the Denver Broncos and one of the biggest reasons was his skill at beating cornerbacks in single coverage. Royal put his speed, quickness, and footwork to good use on releases and setting up breaks.
But his career hasn’t taken the trajectory that some expected after his promising rookie year. A significant reason is that he didn’t show the same skill finding openings in zones. Finding a hole in zone requires recognition of the overall coverage (not just one or two players), the offensive line’s blocking scheme, and the quarterback’s drop.
This simple-looking crossing route is a good example.
There are multiple defenders in the middle of the field who might have dropped into coverage in this shallow zone, but Watkins is reading blitz. Perhaps Watkins didn’t have the option to run a different route from the slot on this play, but the fact he anticipates this blitz is clear, because he raises his hand to the quarterback at an early stage of his route.
This seems like common sense, but not many college receivers do this on a shallow zone route. This active communication is one of the strength of Watkins’ game both on and off the field. Here’s another example of Watkins versus a zone:
He finds the void despite four five defenders in his immediate area. Where he slips behind the shallow defender is smooth and immediate. Note the catch radius, extension for the ball, and the fact that he does so without breaking stride.
Running Through the Catch
I mention Watkins’ stride because a lot of football players let their athleticism get in the way of becoming good receivers. Watch pro football for any length of time and at least once in five games you’ll listen to a color analyst with an offensive background tell the audience that the receiver dropped or missed a target on a vertical route because he didn’t run through the catch point.
It’s often instinctive for a receiver to leap for the ball after running downfield when he gauges at the last moment that he might be a step or two shy. It’s often the wrong instinct. Earlier this week, I wrote about Miami receiver Allen Hurns leaving his feet to catch the football on a variety of targets, and why it does more harm than good sometimes.
Watkins’ economy at the catch point is just as important as his athleticism. In fact, it enhances his ability to use his athleticism after he secures the ball, because receivers who are too quick to leap for a target they can catch without doing so often juggle or drop the ball and disrupt an opportunity to look downfield and find openings to exploit as efficiently as ball carriers.
Here is a beautiful route versus zone where Watkins runs through the catch point with a minimal leap.
The route tells a quick story that leaves the defenders over top in suspense. Here’s another example of Watkins setting up a safety over top with a double move:
Even I’m almost fooled that he’s going to break on a comeback. Note the position of the hips, feet, and legs before he continues up field. You'll have to watch it a few times because of the speed of the tape, but he sets up his break well.
Awareness of His Surroundings and “Fast Processor”
One of the things I love about Watkins' game is his downhill mentality. Despite the fact that he’s a 200-meter champion and competitive sprinter in the 60 and 100 meters, his first priority is to get his pads square and run with balance.
Here is a play where Watkins displays a strong downhill mentality.
Many receivers in this situation would have spotted the defender on the inside and tried a stop-start move to reverse their field. Marqise Lee is one of them. Lee's a terrific prospect, but he does this far too often. While Lee will earn big plays this way, he also loses yards.
Lee won’t have the same rate of success reversing his field in the NFL, because nobody has the same rate of success reversing field in the NFL -- the initial quickness and position of defenders will be too good for it to happen. Watkins' downhill mentality will insure that his rate of success after the catch won’t diminish as greatly from college to the NFL despite the higher quality of athletes and technicians he’ll face.
This run after the catch against Georgia last weekend is another nice display of discipline and balance. A lot of receivers leave their feet on passes thrown behind them (see the Hurns link earlier), but Watkins adjusts with his upper body. Once he turns, he's pads, knees, and elbows while moving downhill. While there's not much of a tackle by the Georgia defensive back, Watkins' ball-carrying technique further minimized the defender's chances.
Getting into this position as a runner also allowed Watkins to be the aggressor at the collision point, attack the defender, and knock the defender aside. Watkins doesn’t look like Hines Ward incarnate on many of his highlights because his speed is good enough to outrun far more angles than Ward. However, like Percy Harvin, Watkins bounces off glancing blows that drop other receivers because he runs the football with running-back technique whenever possible.
These plays are excellent demonstrations of a player with a fast processor. He’s decisive, understands how to use his body, and is willing to engage physical play. Fast-thinking, physical players win jobs in the NFL. Fast-thinking, physical players with great speed, quickness, and strength become productive starters with star potential.
It’s important to note that Watkins isn’t just willing to bang. He balances this physical nature with the intelligence of a veteran –- especially over the middle.
This is an excellent play on several levels. Watkins finds the open zone, makes a fine extension and catch of the target despite the compelling presence of multiple defenders in a tight space to distract him, and he still manages to get low and avoid contact. This is special.
The timing Watkins possesses to work over the back of his coverage, catch the ball in stride, and still maintain his balance run away from the defender is effortless.
Moss, Lloyd or Smith (on his best days) are skilled at this type of play.
Putting It All Together
I love this play because it’s a great illustration of a wide receiver integrating the physical, technical, and intellectual skills for a touchdown and has layers of complexity that are often present in plays but not accessible to the fan.
It’s a beautiful double move that requires strength and finesse, but the story behind it is even better. Listen to Watkins’ head coach and offensive coordinator describe Watkins initiating this play call based on his observation of the defense.
Consistent hands, strong recognition of his opponents’ tendencies, decisive and effective use of his hands and feet, top-tier and efficient use of athleticism -- Watkins has it all. While some may bring up his fling with controlled substances, the storyline for Watkins from high school until that moment in May of 2012 is that he never got in trouble in or out of the classroom, earned good grades, and he’s meticulous about learning his craft.
Unless something new comes to light, I’m sold that he’s a high first-round pick with as much to offer as Percy Harvin, if not more.