I spoke to an NFL scout last week who said he would likely give Clemson true freshman WR Sammy Watkins a first-round grade if Watkins were eligible for the 2012 draft. That's praise I rarely hear for a true freshman.
It got me thinking about some of the best freshman I've seen on tape this year, so I've decided to take a week off from focusing on 2012-eligible prospects to highlight some potential down-the-line NFL stars.
This is certainly not an all-encompassing list. It includes only the freshmen who have stood out most on the tapes I've studied this fall, both for college football prep and while evaluating eligible prospects for next year's draft. Let me know via Twitter (@McShay13) if I am missing the boat on some deserving candidates, and if there's overwhelming response for one or two players I will study their tape and respond with a draft blog post next week.
For now, here are the freshman who have caught my eye thus far:
1. Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Watkins is a silky-smooth receiver with good size (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and outstanding natural athleticism. He appears to have good top-end speed and can get over the top of man-to-man coverage, and Watkins also shows the ability to pluck on the run and get up the field with little wasted motion.
He also has the body control to adjust to the football thrown away from his frame and does a nice job tracking the ball vertically. Finally, with his frame Watkins is tougher and more physical after the catch than most freshman receivers.
Overall, Watkins has 54 catches for 819 yards and nine touchdowns through eight games, and he's averaging 28.9 yards on 15 kickoff returns with one return touchdown. NFL comparison: Greg Jennings, Packers
2. South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney was the most heralded recruit in the 2011 class, and he already looks like a grown man in pads. He's a well-proportioned 6-6 and 254 pounds with great movement skills for his size, and Clowney closes quickly and hits like a truck.
He ranks third in the SEC with five total sacks, and while he's still learning to use his hands and play with consistent gap discipline, Clowney has top-10 pick written all over him. If he dedicates himself in all areas (practice, weight room, film room, training table), Clowney can become a special player. NFL comparison: Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants
3. Georgia RB Isaiah Crowell
I first noticed Crowell when watching film of Georgia's game against South Carolina, a game that saw Clowney pick up two sacks and Crowell rush for 118 yards on 16 carries.
Crowell has been nicked up this season and will benefit greatly from a full offseason of strength training and conditioning prior to his sophomore season. There's no questioning his toughness, though. Crowell runs hard for his size, and he also shows natural instincts, burst and lateral agility as a runner.
His ability to accelerate off of cuts really stands out on tape, and Crowell should play a bigger role as a receiver going forward as he becomes more reliable in pass protection and is able to remain on the field on third down. NFL comparison: LeSean McCoy, Eagles
4. Texas CB Quandre Diggs
Diggs -- the brother for former Texas CB and current San Diego Chargers player Quentin Jammer -- stepped in as a starter after the Longhorns lost their top three corners from last year (Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown and Chykie Brown) to the NFL. He has had some expected ups and downs against the likes of Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles, but Diggs' natural talent is undeniable.
He's well-built at 5-11 and 200 pounds, and while he needs some polish on his technique and footwork Diggs is a smooth mover for his size and shows a nose for the ball. He also has shown some flashes of game-breaking ability in the return game NFL comparison: Aaron Williams, Bills
5. LSU WR Odell Beckham
Beckham is not yet a complete receiver, but he plays bigger than his listed size (5-11, 183) and is not afraid to go over the middle. He has the speed to get down the field and is an effective runner after the catch.
Beckham's route-running skills are still developing, and he has to get stronger to avoid being muscled out of routes, but as it stands right now he still has the potential to become a very good No. 2 or No. 3 receiver in the NFL, the kind of guy who can stretch the field and make some plays out of the slot. NFL comparison: Mike Thomas, Jaguars