Back Concerns Could Turn Tee Higgins Into Draft Steal

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Concerns Could Turn Tee Higgins Into Draft Steal

By Dave Holcomb
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Tee Higgins has a chance to join Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams as the fourth Clemson receiver taken in the first round over the last eight years.

A Clemson wide receiver has been selected in six of the last seven NFL drafts, including each of the last four. Since 2013, Clemson has produced three first-round wideouts, one of which has become one of the best receivers in the NFL -- new Arizona Cardinals wideout DeAndre Hopkins.

Tee Higgins has a chance to join Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams as the fourth Clemson receiver taken in the first round over the last eight years. But should he miss out on that accomplishment, as some expect him to, Higgins could become one of the steals at the position in the 2020 draft class.

At the end of the 2019 regular season, Higgins was pretty firmly entrenched as a first-round selection in the 2020 draft. As a junior, he wasn’t guaranteed to be leaving school, but by the time he made the decision to depart, it seemed as though his draft stock had already peaked.

NFL draft evaluators remain lukewarm on Higgins as one of the elite receivers in the 2020 class, criticizing him for his lack of physicality, ability to create separation and small route tree.

Higgins led Clemson in receiving each of the last two seasons. He caught 59 passes in 2018 and 2019 and posted 25 receiving touchdowns in the two seasons combined. Last fall, he averaged nearly 19.8 yards per reception on his way to 1,167 receiving yards, which was third-most in the ACC.

Those stats are impressive until considering a couple of factors. First, Higgins had two extra games than just about every other receiver in the conference because Clemson played in both the ACC and national championships. On a per game basis, Higgins was seventh in the ACC in receiving yards per contest.

The junior starred against Virginia in the ACC Championship, hauling in a season-high 182 receiving yards and three touchdowns, but he had just seven receptions for 85 yards and zero scores in two playoff games. Ohio State cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette, who could both be first-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, held Higgins to 33 receiving yards in the Fiesta Bowl.

Higgins played through an injury in that contest, so maybe it’s not fair to completely throw him to the woodshed, but the Ohio State coverage beat him up physically. LSU followed a similar game plan, which has given Higgins a poor physical reputation heading into the draft.

Answering the subpar outing versus Ohio State with another disappointing performance against LSU in the national championship means Higgins won’t get the benefit of the doubt of playing through an injury. He did play better against Alabama in the 2018 National Championship Game, but still, Higgins may have benefitted from playing against weaker cornerback competition in the ACC.

The Tigers dominating most of their games, especially later in the season, doesn’t help his cause either. It meant that he received less playing time to round out his game and instead rested for the next contest. Maybe that explains why he only had one or two catches in a couple games, but it’s also why he needs more development on certain routes.

Even against the “weaker competition” of the ACC, Higgins was sometimes feast or famine. In 15 games this past season, he reached more than 100 yards four times but failed to gain even 50 yards on four occasions. Again, game flow affected this, but working to be more consistent is something Higgins will have to do in order to be the next great Clemson wideout in the NFL.

Of course, the other side of that argument is the fact it can take only one play for Higgins to reach 50 yards. He averaged more than 20 yards per catch six times in a game where he had at least two receptions. In his final three games before the postseason, he scored eight touchdowns.

While he hasn’t been very physical in his career yet, standing at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, there’s no reason to suggest he can’t develop that skill in the NFL. Higgins also possesses rare athleticism and ball skills that will make him a deep route playmaker and red zone threat at the next level.

Higgins isn’t in the top tier of wide receivers in the 2020 draft class, but that doesn’t mean he can’t become a good NFL starter. With the right tutelage and quarterback, Higgins could develop into a star.

So while it might seem completely logical to watch him fall to the second round in April, his high ceiling means Higgins could become one of the steals of the draft.