If Sammy Watkins were 3 inches taller, he’d be an automatic top-five pick.
At 6-foot-0½, he’s still almost a lock. He’s widely considered the best receiver in the draft and is expected to go somewhere between St. Louis at No. 2 and Oakland at No. 5 when the selections start May 8.
At a position where height and leaping ability are paramount because they allow the receiver to bail out the quarterback on jump balls, Watkins is an anomaly. In addition to his sub-standard height, he has only 32-inch arms and a pedestrian 34-inch vertical leap.
Yet the Clemson standout, who won’t turn 21 until June, has won over the NFL decision-makers. They seem more than willing to overlook his obvious shortcoming.
“Obviously he’s big enough,” Clemson receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Jeff Scott told The Chronicle-Telegram. “He’s a different type of receiver.
“He’s very versatile. A guy like him is very valuable, a guy like Percy Harvin. He can carry out of the backfield, you can motion him into the backfield and hand it to him inside or outside of the tackle. He’s a rare body type. Sammy could’ve started for us at tailback, wideout or safety.”
In three years, Watkins caught 240 passes for 3,391 yards, a 14.1 average and 27 touchdowns. He added 52 rushes for 339 yards, a 6.5 average and a touchdown, and a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Watkins is a popular pick for the Browns at No. 4 in mock drafts. He would make a scary-good tandem with All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon, benefit whatever quarterback is in the huddle and provide insurance in case Gordon fails another drug test and is suspended for a year.
Browns general manager Ray Farmer raved about Watkins on Monday, describing the possible pairing with Gordon as a “wow.” He also dismissed the questions about his height.
“If you just watch the guy play football, he’s different than a lot of wide receivers,” Farmer said. “I get that he’s not 6-2, 6-4, 6-5, I get that. But he plays the game violently and aggressive, which is kind of a rarity for most wide receivers. You see things in him that aren’t standard. He’ll be a good player in this league.”
Something has to fill the void from the lack of size. Watkins does it with burst, speed, tenacity, intelligence and strong hands.
“The No. 1 thing that makes him an elite receiver is acceleration,” Scott said. “When he gets the ball in his hands, he can get to top speed a lot faster than most receivers. It gives him a head start with a lot of our screen game.”
The Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State in January provided plenty of examples. Watkins caught numerous bubble screens at the line of scrimmage and exploded upfield for significant gains. His muscular 211-pound frame makes him tough to tackle as he turns into a running back along the boundary.
But Watkins’ game has depth. Among his 16 catches for 227 yards against the Buckeyes, he caught touchdowns of 30 and 34 yards. They were deep completions in which he used his 4.43-second speed in the 40-yard dash to run by the secondary, then snatch the ball out of the air.
“It’s something that’s rare. He’s explosive with the ball in his hands, he’s smooth in route running,” Scott said.
“I think I can run by just about anybody,” Watkins said at the scouting combine. “That’s my objective, that’s my motive. Fly route, home run, post, that’s the kinda guy I am. I feel like I can score on just about any play on any route when I get the ball and that’s the mentality you have to have as a receiver.”
The dominance of Ohio State was a fitting end to his Clemson career. The signs that he was going to be a difference-maker were evident from the start.
In the third game of his true freshman year, he touched the ball 17 times and gained 199 yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns as Clemson stopped Auburn’s 17-game winning streak. The next week the Tigers beat Florida State and Watkins had seven catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
“Usually a typical freshman takes awhile to learn the playbook, it’s more complicated than high school,” Scott said. “It’s not just what to do, it’s how to do it. You have to become a master of details in route running, coverage recognition, all those things.
“He was just unlike any freshman we’ve had around here. He learned it so quickly. A lot of things he does naturally are uncommon. Usually young receivers make the same mistakes, footwork or release versus man coverage, route running. Sammy just did a lot of those things naturally, which is really rare.”
Scott said in Watkins’ first four games he had only two missed assignments. Most freshmen, without nearly as much playing time, have six to eight in a game.
“That’s how he was able to make such a name for himself as a freshman,” Scott said.
“He’s just a very wise guy,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said at the combine. “He’s very mature beyond his years. He’s going to be a special asset to whatever team grabs him.”
The NFL’s increasing reliance on quick passes, including the bubble screen, reduces the importance of height to a degree. But ESPN research revealed nine receivers 6-2 or shorter have been drafted in the top 10 since 2000, and the list isn’t pretty.
Peter Warrick (No. 4 in 2000) and Justin Blackmon (No. 5 in 2012) were drafted the earliest and were joined by Tavon Austin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr., Troy Williamson, Koren Robinson and Travis Taylor. Robinson has earned the lone Pro Bowl appearance.
Watkins believes he’s different and will overcome the lack of height.
“I try to be physical out there on the field as far as getting off press, blocking down the field,” he said. “To be that dominant receiver I need to have that total package.
“I think I can do just about anything on the field from wide receiver to running back to slot, I can make plays all over the field. What I love doing is dominating defenses. When I come into the NFL I think I can be that dominant receiver.”
Possibly with Cleveland.
“I feel pretty confident he’ll go definitely somewhere between one and four,” Scott said. “I don’t see him going past that. There’s interest from the Rams at No. 2, Jaguars at 3, Cleveland at 4. Strong interest there.
“I think he’s going to be a franchise wide receiver for somebody. He’s one of those rare guys that only comes around every couple of years. He’ll make an impact in the NFL sooner rather than later.”