sammy watkins2

Sammy Watkins and Eric Ebron have something in common. Not physically — one is a secondary busting wide receiver, and the other is a much bulkier (though still fast) tight end. But they could both share some rarely occupied draft space in 17 days.

Ebron is likely a top 10 pick, and last week I looked at how much of a relic even the top 20 tight end has become. Over the past 15 years, only four players at Ebron’s position have cracked that glass ceiling. They were so far ahead of their peers that a far higher draft investment was deemed not only safe, but essential.

Watkins is about to join even more exclusive company, surrounded by mostly generational talents. No biggie.

We’re at the point where Watkins escaping the top five feels downright impossible and blasphemous. Over three seasons at Clemson he finished with 240 catches for 3,391 yards – a significant chunk of both totals coming during his final collegiate season (101 receptions, 1,464 yards).

In a league where such skills are highly sought, Watkins’ speed makes him especially appealing. He ran a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine, with an impressive 1.53 10-yard split that shows short-area burst. As seen repeatedly in the cut-up below of Clemson’s game against Georgia this past season, Watkins accumulates most of his yardage through his blinding speed. He makes up for the size he lacks at 6’0″ with physicality and strength, and the speed to break away after the catch.

Soak it all in, but note the razzle dazzle at the 00:55 mark. Watkins starts in the slot and then runs a slant which leads to a reception about 11 yards downfield. He promptly morphs into punt returner/running back mode, using his lower-body strength to power through a tackle before getting the angle and running for a 77-yard touchdown.

More Watkins goodies from that game: an end-around (2:25 mark) where he flexes his speed muscle again, rushing for 16 yards. That sort of versatility has become a serious drug for NFL talent evaluators.

Mike Mayock has called him one of the best wide receivers he’s seen on tape over the past decade. That’s high praise from the league’s draft film mob boss, and the general salivating has led to Watkins being a top five pick anywhere the Internet offers mock drafts. All seven expert mocks at NFL.com have him in top five territory and as high as second overall to the Rams, as do the five over at CBS, and Rotoworld‘s Evan Silva. He’s also ignited trade talk, with the Lions at one point considering a leap up from No. 10, while the Jaguars and Rams have hosted Watkins for private workouts.

If projection becomes reality and Watkins is selected in the top five, he’ll join an exceedingly rare group of (mostly) gifted individuals.

Over the last 15 drafts, only eight wide receivers were selected in the top five. Yes, that includes busts like Peter Warrick and uber-bust Charles Rogers. But included among the others are Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, and A.J. Green. We can even toss Braylon Edwards into the latter group, as he had a few fine seasons before being derailed by injuries and idiocy.

The combined career per season averages of the primary four there (the two Johnsons, Green, and Fitzgerald) gives Watkins a mountainous hill to climb: 1199.7 receiving yards per season, with 84 receptions and 7.8 touchdowns.

Even if we get a little more generous to include receivers selected in the top 10 over the past decade, there’s only 14 in that group among the 38 total WRs in first round. Between Watkins and Mike Evans we’ll likely see two top 10 receivers this year, leading a cavernous class at the position. With Watkins leading and likely Kelvin Benjamin bringing up the rear, up to six wideouts could be employed by the end of May 8.

To justify inclusion among the aforementioned top-five wide outs, proving he belongs at the head of the deep 2014 receiver group, Watkins has his work cut out for him. The biggest challenge: disproving the criticism that his production is a product of Clemson’s offensive schemes. As Greg Bedard noted after the eight games he analyzed, 51.3 percent of Watkins’ catches came behind the line of scrimmage, where separating from defenders and winning a contested ball isn’t necessary.

That’s who he is, and how he’s best used. If the recent trend towards speed burners featured in space through multiple receiver sets continues (think Tavon Austin, or Cordarrelle Patterson), Watkins will be more than worthy of a top five draft position. But right now recent history is a mighty foe.