Following his heroic performance in the CFP National Championship Game win over Alabama, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson could do only one thing to further enhance his draft stock: put on a corker of a performance at the 2017 scouting combine.
That's exactly what he did. Over and over during the throwing drills on Saturday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, Watson threw accurately and with great velocity to his receivers, often hitting his targets in stride on longer angular routes when his fellow draft prospects could not—at least to his level of consistency.
Yes, you will hear that Watson did so against no pressure and no defenders, which is true. But hitting a 40-yard go with a receiver you've never thrown to before is harder than it looks. It was apparent that other quarterbacks in this class struggled to match up with their targets in those instances, and Watson looked to be on a different level.
As Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told Jarrett Bell of USA Today right after the performance, Watson was "unbelievable. He had a great day. Every throw was on the money."
Though combine throwing sessions are specious at best when taken at face value, Watson's time in the stadium had many coaches and NFL executives looking back to Clemson tape to see what they might have missed. He was stellar in interviews, according to Albert Breer of The MMQB, and his throwing session was a continuation of that positive process. He looked like he always looks—like a guy with good mechanics and an economical motion who throws well to all levels and tosses an easily catchable ball. Throw in his unmistakable athleticism on the move, and it's a pretty compelling package.
That those execs missed a lot on tape in their initial look was fairly clear.
What you'll hear on the negative side about Watson is standard fodder when talking about spread-style quarterbacks over the last decade, no matter how good they were in college: They haven't taken snaps under center. They haven't run a huddle. They don't throw deep. They're not consistent in the pocket. They excel in offenses in which all they have to do is throw to their first read, and they pick on defenses that have to back off so they have easily designed receiver openings.
"The biggest question that I've heard from different coaches was if I can change a protection, run the offense and recognize defensive coverages," Watson said last week in Indianapolis. "Every team I went to asked me those questions. I handled it well, answered the questions, and they were very impressed. They know that I'm not just some other quarterback that's running a spread offense. That [I'm a] guy that can operate, make good decisions and recognize what the defense is doing and be successful doing it."
Based on my own evaluation of Watson, I believe the people who are prepared to throw him in the heap of option quarterbacks that will require massive amounts of time to adapt to the NFL are mistaken. I believe there is a pre-packaged narrative about quarterbacks like these, and when one comes out who transcends the norm, whether it's Robert Griffin III or Marcus Mariota or Watson himself, it takes some teams too much time to differentiate. Which might explain the nugget in Breer's column that teams went back to see what they might have missed after talking with him.
While you do see a guy who will need some development and an offense tailored to his attributes when watching the tape, you also see a player with franchise-caliber potential under the right circumstances.
To illustrate my case, I'll do a little myth-busting and explain why I think Deshaun Watson is indeed the best quarterback in this class, and the one who's most ready to take the NFL leap.
Myth No. 1: He's a first-read guy
We'll dispel this one quickly. Yes, he sometimes locks onto his first read, and Clemson's offense had a lot of first-read open options, but it's quite common for NFL offensive coordinators to simplify the game with first-read options to help their young quarterbacks. Mike McCoy, now back in Denver as the Broncos' offensive coordinator after a stint as the Chargers' head coach, gained a ton of respect around the league by installing a heavy first-read offense to make Tim Tebow's NFL career possible for as long as it was.
Moreover, pegging Watson as a one-read guy is simply a canard.
Watson took what his offense gave him, and was able to, at times, expand beyond that in a field-awareness sense when he had to. His mobility factors into this, because when he runs bootlegs outside the pocket, he's cutting the field in half, forcing defenders to reset their coverages on improvised receiver routes outside of structure, and putting the advantage back on his shoulders.
Myth No. 2: He throws too many interceptions to be an NFL quarterback
College interceptions are funny things. Jameis Winston threw 18 of them in 2014, his final year at Florida State, and Matt Ryan threw 19 in 2007, his final year at Boston College. Neither total was representative of the player once he hit the NFL—Winston threw 15 picks in his first NFL season, and Ryan threw 11 in his. You have to watch the interceptions and discern what problems they project for the stats to be an indicator of anything.
The Clemson loss to Pitt is one that will give his detractors some fuel. There are times when Watson's footwork regresses, and his mechanics are inconsistent, and he'll start to throw from an uneven plane with inconsistent results. To me, the most worrisome of the three picks he threw in this game was the first one. Here, he not only locked onto his backside read, but he threw late after the coverage had converged:
This late interception shows a different problem, and it's one Watson must correct over time before he'll have consistent NFL success: He is not consistent with his footwork and base. He makes "hop" throws in which he leaves his feet (which may be a function of not seeing downfield well at times), and he'll also throw flat-footed. Quarterbacks who throw from less than solid bases are prone to streaky play, because they ask their bodies to do too much in too many ways. From a physical perspective, quarterbacking is about consistency in mechanics above all.
Myth No. 3: He can't win consistently from the pocket
I hear this a lot, and while it's true that Watson struggles from the pocket at times, what I do like about his play is that he's not automatically driven to bail out of the pocket when he doesn't see what he likes. He does it at times, but it's not a default mechanism. In my mind, that makes it far easier for his NFL coaching staff to work with his pocket presence and mechanics.
Part of the reason I believe Watson struggles in the pocket at times is that he's just over 6'2", and there are plays when he doesn't see what he needs to see. And I believe that when he has trouble reading defenses, this is usually what is happening. He's not reading because he's not seeing.
Of course, this is the primary reason Russell Wilson lasted until the 75th overall pick in the 2012 draft—teams were concerned that at 5'10", he would be unable to see over the linemen blocking for him and the defenders tasked to stop his play. The Seahawks have adjusted to this potential flaw in a couple of ways: moving pockets to open up gaps to his front side and designed scrambles that allow him to get into space as quickly as possible. And when I say "designed," that's an important distinction: These scramble plays are built into the playbook. They are not random reactions to broken plays. The Redskins had these concepts ready for Robert Griffin III early in his career, and the Packers do this a ton with Aaron Rodgers.
So, Watson would need a similar construct in the playbook. What I also see with Watson is that he will regress mechanically under pressure—he'll throw before he's set, he'll extend a play when he should either run or throw the ball away, and things will go badly. Is this something that will prevent him from succeeding in the NFL? Kirk Cousins regresses mechanically under pressure a high percentage of the time, and he's about to be one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league no matter what happens with his contract situation.
But when Watson has his feet under him and his wits about him, he can zing a throw from the pocket just fine. This throw against Alabama in the second quarter of the championship game is a great example because the replay shows you what Watson saw on the play: He took a slightly errant snap, moved to his left to establish a vision lane, and hit his receiver downfield with excellent accuracy and velocity. Moreover, he read the coverage to modify his target.
This is the Watson who has many people excited about his NFL future, and there are enough plays like this to have me agreeing with them.
One thing in Watson's favor is that because of the schism in schemes between college and pro offenses, teams are more likely to be open to the idea of drafting a player at a key skill position and letting him sit the first year. Watson said at the combine that he'd have no problem with that concept.
"I wouldn't mind that. Any situation, I'll respond to it. It would be awesome to learn from a veteran guy that's been there before, and I can just watch how he works and won't have to be pushed in that pressure or that moment right away. I can learn, build my game, learn the offense and make myself a better player. If it happens, it happens, but it wouldn't be a factor for me."
This is an uncertain quarterback class—that's been the narrative all along. Every quarterback drafted in 2017 will need help with coaching, development and scheme. But when I study the tape, it's fairly easy to assert that Watson is the player with the most positive and obvious attributes at this time. Yes, he'll need a system that works for him, but you could say that about the majority of NFL quarterbacks over time.
Deshaun Watson is about to join their ranks, and in the right system, I believe he'll have the most success of any quarterback in this class. His combine performance helps that perception along to a small extent, but the tape is the real key.