When the Buffalo Bills traded up from pick No. 9 to No. 4 to draft Sammy Watkins, not many people were surprised to see Watkins as the first wide receiver off the board in the 2014 NFL Draft. For what it's worth, many draft experts saw Watkins as the best wide receiver post in a draft that was loaded at the position. On the second day of the draft, the Eagles also decided to trade up for a wide receiver. Philadelphia landed Vanderbilt pass catcher Jordan Matthews in the second round at pick No. 42. While a difference of 38 picks separated Watkins and Matthews on draft night, some are suggesting their talent levels aren't that far apart.
These suggestions aren't some form of hot take hindsight "made you click this" column, either. They're actually from the fine folks over at Rotoviz, who back up their seemingly blasphemous statement with relevant data. I strongly suggest you read the entire column, authored by Jon Moore, here. It also wouldn't hurt to take a look at the column where Matthews is favored over other top WR prospect Mike Evans. (And in unrelated linkage, check out why Giants draft pick Odell Beckham Jr. could be overvalued.)
Moore starts off with a physical comparison of Matthews and Watkins. He compares the numbers side by side in a table but I'm fond of the Mockdraftable graphics, so here's a look at the comparison in spider graph form. (Click here to enlarge image.)
Areas where Jordan Matthews tested higher:
3) Arm length
4) Hand size
5) Bench press
6) 20 yard shuttle
7) Vertical jump
Areas where Sammy Watkins tested higher:
1) 40 yard dash
2) Broad jump
1) 3 cone drill
1) 10 yard dash (Watkins tested, Matthews didn't)
2) 60 yard shuttle (Matthews tested, Watkins didn't)
Of course, there's more to being a good football player than just being athletic. Production is another key component and there's no questioning Matthews' production. He holds the all-time SEC records in receptions and receiving yards. Mind you he did this on a team where he was the only offensive weapon and constantly faced extra attention.
Moore compared Watkins and Matthews statistically through the lens of eight common opponents between 2011 and 2013. The results:
On the field, Matthews and Watkins were nearly identical in those eight games. Where Matthews shines through is that he accounted for nearly 20% more of his team’s passing offense than Watkins did. The way I interpret this is that Matthews produced the same raw stats as Watkins while shouldering much more of the burden. Pretty impressive. Maybe you could point to Watkins having a higher YPR and say that’s where his athleticism shows up. To the contrary I would say that by commanding 53% of his team’s passing yards Matthews’ attracted more attention from the defense and had less room to work. Not sure if there’s anything to be learned there. To Watkins’ credit, he was nearly a year younger than Matthews while playing these eight games, which is a testament to his ability.
One area where Matthews has struggled is with drops. Take a look at Matthews' drop rate compared to other top wide receiver prospects, including Watkins:
Moore doesn't necessarily go as far to say that Matthews is better than Watkins, but he does suggest the difference isn't as far as some would make it appear.
NFL projection is relevant here as well. Watkins is entering a situation in Buffalo where he's expected to be the top option for a second year quarterback in E.J. Manuel who struggled in his rookie season. Meanwhile, Matthews is entering a situation where he won't have to carry the team like he did at Vanderbilt.
It will be interesting to look back over time and see how Moore's assertion holds up. Perhaps the Eagles really did get one of the best wide receivers prospects at pick No. 42.