TAMPA — Buccaneers cornerback Alterraun Verner can’t remember a college football Saturday last year when he didn’t hear of the exploits of Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
You see, Verner was playing for the Tennessee Titans then and teammate Coty Sensabaugh, a fellow corner and rabid Clemson alum, spent almost every Saturday afternoon and evening raving about Watkins.
“That’s all he talked about,’’ Verner said.
Sensabaugh wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stop talking about Watkins. NFL scouts couldn’t say enough about him, either. Even now, he might be the most lionized draft prospect outside of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
“The reason is that he’s special,’’ NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said of the 6-foot-1, 211-pound Watkins, who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in February.
“He’s explosive and he’s a great route runner with great hands and run-after-the-catch ability. But more than anything he’s a competitor. In addition to all the natural gifts he has, he’s got an edge about him. That’s what puts him at the top of his class.
And what a class it is.
If you’re still wondering how the Bucs could have further winnowed an already-thin position group by trading an accomplished receiver such as Mike Williams, look no further than this year’s class of wideouts.
Watkins is the tip of an iceberg of pass-catching talent that runs so deep, the fastest receiver prospect ever timed in the 40-yard dash at the combine has become lost in the shuffle.
That’s what’s happened to Kent State receiver Dri Archer, who ran a 4.16-second 40, according to one of the official handheld combine clocks, but is ranked 99th overall by NFLDraftscout.com.
“It’s the best wide receiver draft I’ve seen in years,’’ Mayock said. “You can drop down into the third round or even the fifth round and talk about guys that I think will be productive NFL players.’’
That’s good news for the Bucs. Their decision to move Williams to the Bills for a sixth-round pick in this year’s draft left them with Vincent Jackson, 31, as their only legitimate starting-caliber receiver.
The bad news is that Watkins, who set nearly a dozen pass-catching records during his three years at Clemson, almost certainly will be gone by the time Tampa Bay is scheduled to make its first selection at No. 7 overall.
The Bucs aren’t fretting, though, because there is another receiver ranked among the 10 best players in this year’s draft who could prove to be an even better fit for coach Lovie Smith’s team than Watkins.
Texas A&M’s Mike Evans is good enough right now, some scouts say, to give the Bucs an immediate replacement for Williams as well as a replacement for Jackson when father time catches up with him.
“He’s a big X receiver that is a prototype split end — much like Tampa already has in Jackson,’’ former Bucs coach and current ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst Jon Gruden said of the 6-5, 231-pound Evans.
“He doesn’t go in motion and he doesn’t work out of the slot. He’s a guy that is a dynamic force when the ball is in the air, and he’s a threat to run it after the catch. And when he wants to, he can be a dominant blocker. He’s really very similar to Vincent Jackson, and I don’t know if you want two of those on the same team, but I don’t know that you don’t either. It all depends on what (coordinator) Jeff Tedford has in store.’’
The Bucs are trying to keep the wraps on Tedford’s offense until the start of the season, but it is a scheme designed to quickly get the ball into the hands of its playmakers.
That means the Bucs might wind up running a lot of bubble screens and slants, so there could be a need for receivers who excel in those areas, as well. For a team that might want to trade down, there are some of those in the first round as well.
“A guy like Marqise Lee for example is a completely different receiver than Mike Evans,’’ Mayock said of the USC product who is ranked 27th overall in this year’s draft class. “He’s a guy who brings different things to the table for you.
“He can play inside or outside and he’s a dangerous kickoff return guy. Evans is more of today’s flavor in the NFL — one of those 6-5, 230-pound guys that makes those back-shoulder catches and works outside the numbers.’’
At 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, Kelvin Benjamin is another one of those current-flavor receivers. He’s projected to go in the second round of a draft top heavy at the position.
In fact, it’s so heavy that Mayock thinks as many six wide receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr. of LSU and Brandin Cooks of Oregon State, will be selected in the first round.
That number is projected to nearly double through the second round and possibly reach 50 before the draft ends. So, clearly, there is plenty of talent for a receiver-needy team such as Tampa Bay to choose from this year.
“There is definitely a lot of quality at the top of the draft at receiver this year,’’ Mayock said. “But there is also plenty of depth throughout at that position. I can’t think of a better year for that group than this one.’’