Pro Day or victory lap? Watkins helps Clemson teammates ‘put on a show’
CLEMSON, S.C. — Sammy Watkins had little to gain and perhaps everything to lose at Clemson’s Pro Day.
As a result, the junior wideout’s Thursday workout — before a horde of NFL media, scouts, coaches and general managers — better resembled one last victory lap on campus than some final exam counting toward his overall draft grade.
Widely regarded as the top wideout amongst the 2014 class of receivers, Watkins eschewed the typical Pro Day fare of sprint work (40-yard dash, three-cone drill, etc.) and brawn thresholds (bench press). Instead, he focused on helping a teammate — quarterback Tajh Boyd — improve his draft stock by running an extended series of scripted pass patterns.
In his throwing session, amid ghost defenders, Boyd completed 67 of 68 passes — including 32 of 33 from eight yards or more and five successful bombs to Watkins, receiver Martavis Bryant and running back Roderick McDowell, among others.
For what it’s worth, Bryant (6-foot-5, 200 pounds) had the most adventurous day of any Clemson pass-catcher: He recorded the lone drop during Boyd’s session (on a 47-yard fly pattern), registered the most impressive diving reception of any playmaker (just minutes after the drop) and then crashed into a makeshift set of ESPN chairs along the sidelines, after catching a down-and-out toss from Boyd.
Fortunately for Bryant, who tallied 42 catches, 828 yards and seven TDs last year — highlighted by the 176-yard, one-TD effort against Georgia Tech — he escaped injury on the play, partially due to the chairs being unmanned at the time.
"I knew where the ball was gonna go (on the Martavis play)," recalled Boyd after the workout, "and I thought, ‘Ooh, he’s going to run into those chairs.’ … We’ve got money (at Clemson), but not enough to fix everything," alluding to ESPN’s set of chairs, lights and cameras.
Humor aside, it was the kind of clean outing you’d expect from Boyd, who needed this choreographed exhibition to show off a revamped throwing motion (more overhand tosses) and Watkins, who gracefully confirmed the two-year averages from his elite freshman (2011) and junior campaigns (2013) — averaging 91.5 catches, 1,342 yards and 12 touchdowns with the Tigers.
"We put on a show," beamed Watkins after the workout. He then added: "(Boyd’s) definitely better with his throwing motion; he came out and proved himself to the NFL and teams (on site). He definitely came out here and accepted the challenge and passed the test."
As if Watkins and his quarterback were reading off the same post-practice script, Boyd was similarly enthralled about the results of Thursday’s workout.
"We got a chance to spin it," said Watkins, who declined the opportunity to improve upon his NFL Scouting Combine results of 40-yard-dash time (4.84 seconds), vertical jump (30.5 inches) and 20-yard shuttle (4.23 seconds). "Getting a chance to work with (his teammates) again, getting a chance to do it (on campus), I feel that I answered a lot of questions today."
According to Boyd (official height: 6-1), the on-site scouts were also pleased with the quarterback’s progress — in terms of cleaner footwork and having better accuracy when hitting targets. The overall script included: Screens to the flat, slant patters, out routes, intermediate crosses, deep balls and deep comeback routes.
Boyd then added: "To come out here and somewhat put on a clinic, it feels good."
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"I really felt, for sure, that I was a 4.2 guy," lamented Watkins, who wasn’t crestfallen enough to run the 40 again at Clemson’s Pro Day, thinking he had little to prove in the speed category. "I’ve got a lot of (good games) on tape, and I think the NFL scouts understand that."
Watkins can also take comfort in ranking as the consensus choice to be the first receiver off the board on May 8 (in New York City), ahead of big-play talents like Mike Evans (Texas A&M), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State), Marqise Lee (USC) and LSU wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham.
Within that scope, Watkins has a somewhat expansive draft range of No. 2 (St. Louis Rams) to No. 10 overall (Detroit Lions); and that gap could be narrowed — or at least crystallized — over the next 60 days, upon partaking in private workouts at various NFL facilities.
The NFL draft, on the whole, may be a crapshoot. But there’s no disputing the success of receivers taken in the top six over the last 10 years — Larry Fitzgerald (2003), Braylon Edwards (2005), Calvin Johnson (2007), A.J. Green (2011), Julio Jones (2011) and Justin Blackmon (2012), with Blackmon serving as the group’s only tangible question mark (off-field issues).
Edwards, lest we forget, accounted for 36 TDs from 2006-10.
And the market for Watkins’ services should be robust in May — even with a large faction of veteran wideouts hitting free agency on March 11.
Bottom line: If you combined the lot of free agent receivers and rookie pass-catchers, Watkins would likely rank somewhere between 1st and 3rd — amongst a top-six listing of Eric Decker (Broncos), Hakeem Nicks (Giants), Julian Edelman (Patriots), James Jones (Packers) and rookies Watkins and Mike Evans.
The only downside for Watkins: On the pecking order of priorities, amongst the teams drafting in the top six (Houston, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Atlanta), "receiver" might lag fourth behind the need for a pass-rushing dynamo (Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack), high-end offensive tackle (Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan) and, of course, franchise quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel).
1. Junior Bashaud Breeland might have been the biggest star of Pro Day. The 6-foot, 195-pound cornerback displayed the requisite grace and speed of a top-flight cover man at the next level. He has excellent hands, as well.
2. Offensive guard Tyler Shatley, who resembles a contestant from the 1970s show, The World’s Strongest Man, put up 40 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press — two shy of North Carolina center Russell Bodine’s combine-high of 42 reps from last month.
3. According to various sources, at least 20-plus teams dispatched scouts to Clemson’s Pro Day, with executives from the Lions, Jets and Rams also holding court.