The 2021 wide receiver class is incredibly impressive, but even in its wide-ranging depth, certain players go unnoticed by a majority of onlookers. UAB wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr. is one NFL Draft prospect who’s been overlooked to this point. It’s time to give Watkins the recognition he deserves as an enticing playmaker with legitimate NFL potential.
Austin Watkins Jr. NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Wide Receiver
- School: UAB
- Current Year: Redshirt Senior
- Height: 6’1 1/2″
- Weight: 209 pounds
- Wingspan: 76″
- Arm: 31″
- Hand: 9 1/2″
Tony Pauline’s Austin Watkins Jr. Scouting Report
Positives: Nice-sized receiver with reliable hands and next-level ability. Plays with balance and displays outstanding focus and concentration. Ran exceptional routes to separate from opponents during Senior Bowl practices. Extends his hands and catches the ball away from his frame. Locates the pass in the air, adjusts to the errant throw, and makes the over-the-shoulder reception at full speed.
Competes to come away with the reception in battles, extends his hands to offer the quarterback a target, and consistently makes the catch away from his frame. Possesses soft and consistent hands as well as eye/hand coordination. Gives effort blocking.
Negatives: Plays to one speed, lacks a burst, and isn’t a vertical threat. Inconsistent running routes throughout his college career.
Analysis: Watkins was a consistent receiver at UAB and displayed progress in his game each year. He’s not a vertical threat but would be a solid fourth wideout in a timing offense.
Austin Watkins Jr. Player Profile
Football is in Austin Watkins’ family. The UAB wide receiver is the little cousin of current Kansas City Chiefs wideout and former first-round pick Sammy Watkins. Austin’s cousin gives him a high bar to compare himself to, and the younger Watkins has spent years trying to reach that point.
Watkins’ journey started in high school, as most journeys often do. But Watkins’ journey didn’t proceed with normalcy. Playing out of Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Florida, Watkins didn’t attract the interest his cousin did. Watkins was unranked, and saw no opportunities available at the FBS or FCS level. Watkins ultimately had to go the junior college route and signed up with the Dodge City Conquistadors in Kansas.
Austin Watkins’ journey to becoming a UAB wide receiver
If you’re waiting for the breakout, you need to read on a little more. Watkins didn’t stand out at the JUCO level. At least, not right away. In his first year, he only logged 376 yards and one score. In his second season, playing in nine games, he caught 24 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns. It was a step in the right direction, but not the type of dominance expected with the Watkins name.
Nevertheless, Watkins’ work as a sophomore was enough to get him some interest as a JUCO transfer. Rising the ranks as a true junior, Watkins had offers from smaller schools like Akron, Bowling Green, Southern Miss, and Marshall. However, he’d ultimately choose a spot closer to home — Birmingham, Alabama, where the Blazers started to gain more steam.
Even after making the jump to the FBS level, Watkins didn’t emerge right away. He caught seven passes in four games in 2018 before redshirting. He then spent the 2019 offseason preparing for a more involved season in the Blazers’ offense. A long wait preceded it, but Watkins’ breakout finally came in 2019.
Watkins’ long-awaited breakout at UAB
In 2019, Watkins played in all 14 games for UAB, amassing 57 catches, 1,092 yards, and 6 touchdowns, averaging 19.2 yards per catch. He became just the third receiver in UAB history to surpass the 1,000-yard mark, joining an exclusive group that included four-time Pro Bowler Roddy White. He also earned second-team All-C-USA honors for his production.
In 2020, Watkins retained his role as the team’s top target in the passing game. In spite of a passing offense hampered by inconsistent quarterback play, Watkins again led the team in receiving, despite missing two games. Watkins picked up 466 yards and three scores on 33 catches. He also averaged almost five catches and over 65 yards per game.
After earning first-team All-Conference honors for his play in his final season, Watkins declared for the 2021 NFL Draft and accepted an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl. With his natural talent now proven on the CFB stage, it’s time to take it even further.
Analyzing Austin Watkins’ NFL Draft profile
If you’ve read enough of my profiles by now, you know that I try to stick to measured language, avoiding hyperbolic tropes. Keeping that in mind, this next sentence should carry more weight. Austin Watkins is a big-time sleeper and needs way more buzz.
Hailing from UAB, Watkins doesn’t get as much screen time as more prestigious receivers, but he has a ton of talent, regardless.
Standing around 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, Watkins has good size for the receiver position, and he supplements that size with many other impressive traits. He has good explosiveness off the line and solid long speed. He’s twitchy, elusive, and aggressive after the catch. But even beyond that, Watkins brings toughness and intricate detail — qualities that not all athletic receivers carry with them.
The qualities beyond Watkins’ athleticism
Watkins is an extremely nuanced, savvy route runner. His feet are crisp, and his breaks at the top of his stems are very abrupt. Watkins also does a good job deceiving defensive back with dead-leg moves and head fakes at his stem. He might not quite have elite natural change-of-direction skills, but he trends toward that with his awareness of how to get open in the short and intermediate ranges.
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All this, and Watkins’ strongest trait might be his reliability at the catch point. The UAB wide receiver has the focus to corral low passes, and downfield, he has the contortion ability and ball tracking capacity to haul in bombs. Watkins also has fairly strong hands. There are times where he experiences contact at the catch point, but he has a reliable success rate when wrenching the ball away with his grip strength.
Watkins also plays with an attitude, and he thrives on besting defensive backs on the gridiron.
Are there any issues with Watkins’ game?
As good as Watkins seems, he isn’t perfect. Many of his potential issues have to do with his prospective ceiling. The UAB receiver still has a fairly high ceiling, and he’s surprisingly well-rounded. However, I’m not sure if he has an elite trait.
His suddenness is superb for his size, but he doesn’t have great contact balance to compound his elusiveness. His contested catch ability is also close, but will he have the same success against NFL defensive backs? Watkins also has exceptional explosiveness, but his 4.56 speed doesn’t get him separation downfield often enough, hence his frequency of winning through contact.
The competition level is worth elaborating on. In the C-USA, Watkins didn’t often play against NFL talent at cornerback. He also didn’t experience consistent resistance at the line in press coverage. He has the physical mentality to suggest he can win there, but Watkins will have to prove he can make the leap with his traits. Until then, there’s going to be some uncertainty as to how much of a playmaker he can be in the NFL.
Austin Watkins’ best fits in the 2021 NFL Draft
Despite the uncertainty surrounding his profile, Austin Watkins is one of the more exciting prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s not always mentioned as part of the stellar receiving group, but he should be. Watkins has a good combination of size and athleticism. He’s also a route running adept who knows how to get open in the short and intermediate ranges. He’s less consistent with separation deep down the field, but he has the vertical ability and contested-catch prowess to compensate.
Evaluations of the UAB wide receiver will vary across the board, but I see him as an excellent early-to-mid Day 3 pick. The depth of the receiver class might prevent him from challenging for a spot in Round 3, especially with the questions surrounding Watkins’ impending leap to the professional level.
Nevertheless, in Round 4 or Round 5, Watkins has the starting upside to warrant a selection. For NFL teams looking for more depth and rotational ability at receiver, Watkins is a player who can contribute right away, and potentially start down the road.
Teams that might mesh with Watkins’ ability
Watkins’ well-rounded skill set also gives him a lot of flexibility when it comes to team fit. That said, given that he’s not a run-after-catch savant — even though he can still make plays in that department — he fits best in an offense where he can utilize his route running ability, while also threatening deep with his speed and toughness at the catch point.
Watkins can be an alpha on the boundary with a little more seasoning. Teams like the Detroit Lions, Washington Football Team, New England Patriots, and Houston Texans are among those who could be in the market for a player like Watkins at a lighter price.
Watkins didn’t test particularly well at his pro day, but he displayed good strength. That strength was compounded at the Senior Bowl, where Watkins left as a legitimate riser, and showed off his contested catch ability. After the Senior Bowl, scouts might revisit Watkins’ tape and find themselves moving him up the ladder. Climbing the ladder is something the UAB wide receiver hasn’t had a problem doing himself.
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