Jaylen Watkins, you may have heard, is brother to wide receiver Sammy Watkins. He's also a former high school quarterback; in his senior year, he recorded 13 passing touchdowns, 10 rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns. He was second-team all-state in track but chose to play football at Florida over Alabama. No. 14 in your programs, No. 1 in our hearts.
The word versatility does not do Jaylen Watkins justice.
Coming into his freshman year at the University of Florida, Watkins was a dual-threat quarterback who played snaps at wide receiver on top of playing both sides of the ball as a stand-out cornerback — Scout pegged him as its No. 4 overall corner in the 2010 class. Although corner became his primary position, his natural ability to take on multiple positions didn’t stop serving him well at the high school level.
Watkins’ freshman year was quiet. He appeared in all but three games in 2010, but usually as a special teams player. His highlight was recording three tackles in the Outback Bowl against Penn State.
In 2011, Watkins made progress as a corner, appearing in all 13 games while starting eight of them. He was used more as a nickel corner in press situations, and in his first career start, he recorded six tackles. But while tackles are an important part of playing the cornerback position, pass breakups and interceptions get players noticed. This was Watkins’s problem — at least, until his junior season.
When 2012 rolled around, Watkins was tasked with more responsibilities; as a junior, Watkins started 11 games, the most in his career. He ended the year with three interceptions and eight pass breakups, returned his first career interception back for a touchdown against Kentucky, and was even named college football’s top defensive back for Week 4.
But going into his senior season, Watkins wasn’t the Florida corner being talked about by NFL scouts — that conversation was dominated by Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. But that talk wouldn’t last too long. In 2013, Watkins made his best NFL statement to date without recording a single interception.
The injuries for Florida’s defense in 2013 were unfortunate, yes, but they came to benefit Watkins the most. After Florida tried out two new starting safeties to begin the season, Watkins made the switch from cornerback to defensive back midway through the year – his role was that of a do-everything player at any and all positions where he was needed, from outside corner to nickel corner, and free safety to strong safety.
Watkins finished with a career best in tackles and tackles for loss in 2013, and was one shy of the mark for pass breakups he set a season before. But Watkins's journey as a football college football player ended like it began, as the top plug-and-play athlete on the team; this was, perhaps, more important than any statistical bar he could've cleared.
And the NFL (finally) noticed in a big way.
Sometimes, too much versatility at the college level can be a bad thing for a potential pro career. For example, Trey Burton is good at everything on offense, but he never truly developed NFL-caliber skills at any of those positions. For Watkins, however, his versatility is valuable — and it isn’t just in his athletic ability, but in his knowledge of how to correctly play multiple positions.
Watkins’ strength is in his zone and press play; his length allows for him to do both. In soft coverage, he has quick recognition of screen plays or passes behind the line of scrimmage. In drop-back coverage, his length forces throws to arc higher than usual, because of his strong anticipation skills. Watkins also has great hands, and he showed them off at Florida’s Pro Day, catching almost every pass in defensive drills.
What separates Watkins and the starting lineup at the NFL level is his weight. He’s right around 187 pounds right now, and, even for a longer corner, an NFL starter really needs to be around 200 pounds to have a fair chance at tackling consistently.
I thought straight-line speed might be an issue for him, but his 4.41 40-yard dash time at the Combine certainly put that worry to rest. And given his 22 reps on the bench press with 30-inch arm length, it seems bulking up is all he needs to do to improve physically.
He could, however, sharpen his man coverage skills. Watkins thrives off anticipation in zone, but he’ll have to match up one-on-one at times, and to be a starting corner, he’ll have to win more of those battles.
I’ve heard a lot of positive buzz around Watkins, and a second-round selection could be in reach. Teams like the Packers or Lions, who have secondary needs as a whole, would probably love to add Watkins to their team to address the main need and allows them a choice pick later in the draft between safety and corner if they so chose.
The Eagles and Lions have met with him for private workouts, but the teams are wide open for Watkins. He’s a hot commodity going into draft weekend.