Sammy Watkins has teased NFL fanbases via social media over the last five months.
On his Instagram page, he’s featured various artists depicting him on their team of choice – his likeness in St. Louis Rams (pick No. 2 overall), Cleveland Browns (No. 4) and Oakland Raiders’ gear (No. 5) among more.
For his three seasons in Clemson, NFL personnel have watched the south Florida superstar and imagined the same, getting their first crack at making Watkins their franchise player in Thursday’s NFL draft first round in New York City (8 p.m.).
He is widely projected as a top-five pick, going as high as No. 2. Watkins has hinted on Twitter to a number of teams talking trading up into that area, including the Detroit Lions (currently pick No. 10). In that two-through-five range, Watkins could make anywhere from $11.9-13.8 million for a signing bonus.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says his former record-breaking receiver is the Michael Jordan of the draft – a "can’t-miss" teams will rue the day they passed on him.
“They see him and see him making all of these plays,” Swinney said, “but they don’t see how he practices. They don’t see how he grinds in the offseason. He’s special in those areas. He’s not a guy you’re going to be wondering about. Those are things that separate the best of the best."
“I just think that this guy is going to have that type of impact on any team he goes to because he’s going to absorb the playbook – no issues there. He’s going to be the guy in year one…he’s as good as there is in that league.”
The aspects beyond his five-star skills aren’t lost on NFL evaluators.
“The Watkins kid is explosive,” NFL network analyst Mike Mayock said. “He’s a great route-runner. Great hands – tremendous run-after-catch. More than anything, he’s a competitor. In addition to all of the natural gifts he has, he’s got an edge about him every game he plays and I love that.”
“The biggest thing that he’s done is he has done it consistently well for every team he’s worked out for,” former Super Bowl winning coach and ESPN color commentator Jon Gruden said. “I think what sets Sammy apart is his sincerity and passion for the game. Everyone that I’ve talked to have come away very impressed with Watkins’ passion to be great and to put forth a tremendous work ethic.”
Watkins is one of a Clemson-first three early entries in this year’s draft – joined by former T.L. Hanna receiver Martavis Bryant and cornerback Bashaud Breeland, an Allendale native.
Both Breeland and Bryant’s pro decisions appeared borderline at the time, but they are both expected to go by Friday’s day two (second and third rounds).
Mayock says the lanky speedster Bryant has “first round talent,” coming off a breakout junior campaign (828 receiving yards/7 touchdowns).
“You talk about a guy with ability,” he said. “Runs in the 4.3s. Jumps out of the gym. He’s really an explosive talent. He’s only a one-year production guy, which scares people, but his physical skillset is so awe-inspiring he’s probably going to go in (the second round).”
Versatile lineman Brandon Thomas, a Spartanburg native, is expected to go early on day three (Saturday), dropping from a potential top-50 selection after suffering a torn ACL in a workout with the New Orleans Saints in April.
Rounding out Clemson’s likely draftees is Tajh Boyd, who’s seen his draft stock plummet over the last seven months – from the first round to pegged as low as seventh/undrafted by CBSSports.com this week.
Somehow, he did so with a third consecutive season of over 3,800 passing yards (3,851) and year-to-year improvements in completion percentage (68.5), yards per attempt (9.32), passer rating (168.7) and interceptions thrown (11). Per ESPN, only Fresno State’s Derek Carr has had a wider margin in touchdowns-to-interceptions than Boyd at the FBS level over the last three seasons (67).
So, you can’t exactly blame his former head coach for scratching his head at the slide. Swinney believes Boyd won’t fall quite as hard as some estimates, and whoever lands him will be getting a steal.
“I think he’s another one of those guys who’s going to be a high-value pick for somebody,” Swinney said. “He’s going to be a middle-round guy, but whoever gets him is going to get a big winner and a guy with a big heart and he loves to work at the game. He loves to work to become a better player and he takes coaching.
“I’m excited about Tajh and his opportunity and watching him further develop on the next level.”
If at least four Tigers are drafted this weekend, Clemson will become the first ACC school since Florida State (1992-2001) to hit that mark six years in a row.
If Watkins is drafted in the top-three selections, he will become Clemson's top-selected player all-time. Gaines Adams and Banks McFadden are tied for the highest spot currently (4th).
Other Clemson Draft Notes of Interest (via Clemson communications)
Over the last five drafts, or since Dabo Swinney became head coach, Clemson has had 23 players drafted, tied with North Carolina for the most in the ACC. Florida State is third with 22 and Miami (FL) is fourth with 21 over that time period.
When Sammy Watkins is taken in the first round on Thursday evening it will give Clemson a wide receiver taken in the first round in consecutive drafts. DeAndre Hopkins was taken in the first round last year by Houston with the 27th selection. It will mark the first time in history Clemson has had players at the same position taken in the first round in consecutive drafts.
Continuing along that theme, Clemson will become the first ACC school to have a wide receiver taken in the first round in consecutive drafts and will be the first school nationally to have to it since Ohio State in 2006 and 2007.
Watkins will be the fourth Clemson player to attend the draft in New York City as a guest of the NFL. The others are Chester McGlockton (1992), Gaines Adams (2007) and C.J. Spiller (2010).
Sammy Watkins will be drafted Thursday night at the age of 20 years, 10 months and 23 days. He will be the second youngest Clemson player drafted in the first round. The only one younger on his draft day was Watkins former teammate DeAndre Hopkins, who was 20 years, 10 months and 13 days when he was selected last year.
When Watkins is chosen in the first round on Thursday he will be the 24th NFL first round selection in Clemson history. (NFL records do not consider Harvey White a first-round draft choice in 1960 as it was an AFL selection). Watkins will be the fifth Clemson wide receiver in the first round, joining Jerry Butler (1979), Perry Tuttle (1982), Rod Gardner (2001) and DeAndre Hopkins (2013).
Watkins will be the second Clemson underclassman taken in the first round since 1997 when Anthony Simmons was the number-15 selection by the Seattle Seahawks. Hopkins broke a streak of 11 consecutive Clemson underclassmen who were not first round draft choices.