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While most of the attention goes to their skill-position stars, one of the "big" reasons for Clemson's emergence as one of the true powerhouse programs in the country lies with its strength along the defensive line - a unit that has produced nine Top 100 draft picks since the 2007 draft, an average of nearly one per year over the past decade. Watkins is a strong bet to maintain this momentum for Dabo Swinney's program.
Despite signing with Clemson as a highly regarded recruit, Watkins had to bide his time before emerging as a full-time starter as a junior in 2015, earning All-ACC honors from the media and coaches alike with 34 tackles, including 7.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks. He built upon these numbers as a senior, emerging as one of the more feared interior pass rushers in the country with a team-high 7.5 sacks over the regular season, to go along with 65 tackles, including nine for loss. His development is all the more impressive given that he missed all but the first three games of the 2013 season due to injuries suffered in a horrific one-car accident that took the life of the man driving, Watkins' cousin.
Watkins showed perseverance in battling back from the physical and emotional pain of the accident and has steadily improved as a player. He will earn plenty of interest, showing the initial quickness and agility to make him a disruptive presence, as well as the broad shoulders and ballast to hold up in the running game.
STRENGTHS: Watkins has a solidly-built frame for the position with well-distributed mass and room to add more muscle, including in his lower half. He fires off the snap with the movement skills to cross the face of blockers and redirect his momentum in tight spaces to close on the ball carrier. Watkins has broad shoulders and is quite strong, he is able to generate a significant push when he locks out and drives his legs. He isn't an easy player to move in the run game, showing the ballast to hold up even to double teams when he keeps his technique. He showed improved awareness and lateral pursuit as a senior.
WEAKNESSES: Despite five seasons of college football, Watkins is not yet the sum of his parts. He needs extensive mechanical refinement, playing too high and bending at the waist rather than the knees, leaving him off-balance and too often getting pushed off the ball. He struggles to counter the upper body movements of blockers, allowing his hands to wander, which opens his chest and helps single blockers tie him up. For all of his production sacking the quarterback, Watkins shows a limited pass rush repertoire, relying too much upon his feet and power to overwhelm blockers. He was asked to drop into coverage on occasional zone blitzes by Clemson but lacks ideal balance and agility, looking robotic in this role, even among defensive tackles.
IN OUR VIEW: Watkins is not the consistently disruptive force that his statistics indicate but he shows enough quickness and power to play a variety of roles, projecting as a top 100 selection.
COMPARES TO: Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers - Watson has the quickness to potentially handle three-technique duties in the 4-3 but his barrel-chested frame and strength could intrigue 3-4 proponents, as well. He isn't likely to emerge as the star at the next level that his flashy statistics suggest but should prove a quality addition with starting potential.