If you follow the career path of Sammy Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick in May's draft, it was up-down-up.
Watkins had a transcendent freshman season at Clemson as a receiver, returner and runner, followed by a step back as a sophomore, and then another standout year as a junior.
That same pattern has been followed by Alabama's Amari Cooper.
A fast riser in the recruiting rankings coming out of noted football factory Miami Northwestern, Cooper burst on the scene in 2012 with 59 receptions (most on the Crimson Tide) for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman. That was followed by a step back statistically: 45 catches, 736 yards and only four touchdowns, as he was hindered by foot and toe injuries for much of the season.
Cooper had his best game of the season in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, catching six passes for 178 yards, including a 99-yard touchdown. He also added a 28-yard run in the game. A month of rest allowed Cooper to break out again in the Sugar Bowl with nine catches for 121 yards to set the stage for what has been an amazing start to the 2014 campaign.
Through four games, Cooper already is close to matching his 2013 season totals with 43 catches and 655 yards and, in the case of his five touchdowns, already surpassing it. His head-to-head battle with Florida's Vernon Hargreaves, one of the best corners in the country, showed how explosive Cooper can be. Although Heargraves didn't cover Cooper on every play — the Crimson Tide moved him around some — Cooper beat Hargreaves for a touchdown and, for the most part, won that matchup.
So is Cooper an NFL prospect of the same caliber as recent top-10 wideouts such as Watkins, Mike Evans, Justin Blackmon, A.J. Green and — the comparison a lot of 'Bama fans are starting to make to — Julio Jones.
"I think he's that level player," an AFC talent evaluator said. "He has some qualities of those guys you mentioned, but he's not the horse Julio is; he just doesn't have that thoroughbred quality to him. But I like him. Smooth, long glider who can go up and pluck it."
Cooper stands 6-feet-1 and plays around 210 pounds, which compares most closely to Watkins.
"That's the closest comparison, at least among the recent guys," the evaluator said. "['Bama doesn't] use him quite as creatively as Clemon did with Sammy, but they can do some of the same things."
The Buffalo Bills traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up four slots to draft Watkins. It's no guarantee that some team will want to match that level of risk to get its hands on Cooper, but as things stand right now he appears to be a top-10, or even a top-5, NFL draft prospect for next spring.
• Arkansas has been one of the surprise teams in college football, but it's little surprise how it is doing it: with the power run game approach that head coach Brett Bielema brought with him from Wisconsin.
Last season was a lost one for the Hogs, but their identity has started to take shape. And again — no stunner — but it's a massive offensive line that's possibly the biggest in college football (and, at 326 pounds per man, would be one of the biggest in the NFL, too) that's paving the way for a great run game. Bielema has admitted that the talent up front does not stack up to those of some of his vintage Wisconsin teams. But there are a few next-level players, including Brey Cook (the only senior starter), who checks in at 6-7 and 322 and could be a right tackle or a guard in the NFL as a mid-round prospect.
• Have you seen Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson play? If not, check out the diverse skills he brings. The 6-1, 228-pound junior projects to be a seek-and-flow weakside linebacker in the pros, and even though he has eligibility left there has been talk of him testing the NFL draft waters this coming spring.
He's the second-leading tackler for the Huskies with 28 in four games, and Thompson has scored three touchdowns this season — one off an interception, one off a fumble recovery and one as a running back. Yes, they use him on offense — eat your heart out, Myles Jack — in the backfield, and could even expand his offensive role.
Why? On six carries, he has 82 yards (13.7 yards per carry), including a 57-yard romp.
NFL scouts prefer to see Thompson stick to defense, but his athleticism and versatility show just what a special athlete Thompson is.
• Oregon's Ifo Ekpre-Olomu returned to school this season for a chance to win a national championship and solidify his status as the top cover corner in college football. So is he? Perhaps, but Ekpre-Olomu was beaten a few times deep by Washington State receiver Dom Williams, and Ekpre-Olomu's size (he's listed as 5-10 but might be closer to 5-9, and 185 pounds) could work against him in some schemes.
Still, one look at his acrobatic interception against Michigan State will have NFL teams thinking that Ekpre-Olomu might be a better version of the San Diego Chargers' Jason Verrett, who was the 25th overall pick this year.
Top 5 wide receivers
Every week we’ll run a top-five list related to the 2015 NFL draft.
1. Cooper, Alabama — Has raised the bar and has the requisite physical skills to be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL.
2. Sammie Coates, Auburn — Freakish combination of speed and strength but could use a little polish to his game.
3. Dorial Green-Beckham, Oklahoma (ex-Missouri) — Rare size and radius and legitimate No. 1 ability, but major character questions loom.
4. Devin Funchess, Michigan — Tight end-sized wideout could be a mismatch on the next level capable of playing multiple spots.
5. Rashad Greene, Florida State — Not the most physically impressive receiver, but clutch performer with deceptive speed who just gets open.
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