One of the best parts of the NFL draft process is seeing young men take advantage of their opportunities. The NFL is always looking for talented players, and they don’t always look for them in the big-name football factories. Some great football players have entered the League from the ranks of the small schools, some spending time at a junior college (JuCo) before transferring to a bigger school.
That, as it so happens, is the route taken by Austin Watkins Jr. out of UAB. Watkins is a JuCo transfer who has been impressing at each stop along his journey. He stood out on the field for the UAB Blazers, and stood out again in the week of practice before the 2021 Senior Bowl, and in the game itself.
Watkins likely wouldn’t be a primary target for the New York Giants in their search for a wide receiver. However, he could be a mid-round gem who becomes an important contributor with the right coaching.
Prospect: Austin Watkins Jr.
Games Watched: vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (2020), vs. Central Arkansas (2020), vs. South Alabama (2020)
Games Played: 25
Yards (YPC): 1,648 (16.8 per catch)
Total Touchdowns: 9
Games Played: 7
Yards (YPC): 468 (13.8 per catch)
Total Touchdowns: 3
Best: Size, play strength, ball skills, athleticism, physicality, run blocking
Worst: Release, route nuance, explosiveness
Projection: A developmental receiver with the upside to be an important contributor in 11-personnel packages.
UAB wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr. has the size, athleticism, ball skills, play strength, and physicality to play the position at the NFL level.
Watkins typically aligned as the X receiver in UAB’s offense, though he also lined up as the slot and Flanker as well. Watkins wastes little time or motion getting into his routes, accelerating quickly off the line of scrimmage. He gets up to speed quickly and appears to have solid long speed down the field. He moves well as the top of his routes for a bigger receiver, smoothly sinking his hips and cutting at the top of his stem.
Watkins runs a decent variety of routes, including slants, stick routes, vertical routes, and the occasional double-move. He has good ball skills, locating and adjusting to the pass well, and extends to attack the ball rather than let it into his chest. Watkins Jr. is a natural “hands” catcher, who is able to catch anything near him and secure the reception in traffic. He is very physical at the catch point, fighting through contact, working to gain position on defensive backs, and not allowing himself to be bullied or have the bar jarred loose. He routinely looks for extra yardage after the catch, either by fighting through tackle attempts or in run after catch situations. Watkins has enough agility to make tacklers miss and speed to turn a bit of space into chunk yardage.
Watkins is also an asset in the run game, and a very physical blocker on the perimeter. He has solid technique, generally fitting his hands well and playing with a wide base. Watkins has the play strength to control defensive backs on the edge or at the second (or third) level.
Watkins is a junior college transfer with just two years at UAB, and needs development in the finer points of playing receiver. He lacks variety in his releases, which could make it easy for NFL corners to disrupt his routes at first.
Likewise, he is a solid but unsophisticated route runner rarely pressing his stems into defensive backs, using his body language to his advantage, or changing his tempo. Because of this, his ability to separate is inconsistent and a more sophisticated, nuanced route running approach could make him a much more consistent — and productive — receiver.
Finally, Watkins is a good, but not great, athlete who lacks the speed to run away from faster corners or a great burst to be truly explosive out of his cuts.
Overall Grade: 6.3 - This prospect has the upside to be an important contributor, but must polish technical issues to unlock his potential.
Austin Watkins Jr. projects as a developmental receiver early on in his career. His exact career trajectory will depend on how well he is able to take NFL coaching and how finely he hones his craft.
He has the potential to be a regular contributor — and perhaps even a starter — in any offense which uses a high volume of 11-personnel packages.
Watkins is a smooth athlete with the ball skills to be open even when he’s covered, which should be enough to make him a dependable possession receiver. If he is able to become a technician as a receiver, he has the athletic and mental traits to potentially work his way into a starting role.
Teams will likely appreciate Watkins’ blocking on the edge. He is an aggressive, physical blocker who is willing to do the dirty work. It also helps that he is good, as well as willing. Watkins already has the technique and play strength to be an effective blocker at the NFL level, which should appeal to teams which want to run the ball, particularly to the outside.
Watkins might not have truly stand-out size or athleticism, but he has a solid blend of both. In fact, he has a similar size, build, and athletic profile as players like Hakeem Nicks, Davante Adams, or DeAndre Hopkins. That’s not to say that Watkins projects to be that caliber of professional, but that he has the tools to be good at the NFL level.