By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has been considered a top NFL draft prospect ever since midway through his freshman year, when he put up six touchdowns and 435 yards in a victory over North Carolina.
After his sophomore season, when he threw for 4,104 yards and 35 touchdowns on his way to a narrow loss against Alabama in the national championship game, he entered the 2016 season as a near-lock for a top-five spot in the 2017 draft.
However, despite another season of prolific statistics as a junior, Watson looked inconsistent at times and was more turnover prone. Despite the team’s success this year, Watson had multiple bad outings, including a two-interception playoff game against Ohio State.
Clemson won that game handily, in part due to a pair of rushing touchdowns from Watson, but the turnovers didn’t put to rest the concerns NFL scouts had over his ability to translate into a dominant pro player.
Following a strong performance against Alabama in the national championship rematch Jan. 9, Watson is starting his ascension back into top-10 consideration.
Against the favored Crimson Tide, Watson led his Tigers to an improbable game-winning touchdown with only one second left on the clock. He finished the game with 420 passing yards and three passing touchdowns, with 43 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground as well. With one game, and most notably, one game-winning drive, Watson catapulted himself back into consideration as an elite draft option.
Watson—at 6 feet, 3 inches and 215 pounds—boasts good size, excellent athleticism, and an NFL-caliber arm. He has the ability to make every throw, has shown incredible leadership, and is an accomplished runner as well.
Scouts have questioned how accurate he is, but he anticipates his receivers well, which is a trait I don’t always see from college quarterbacks. He needs to work on his ability to place the ball in the best spot, but he seems to rise to the occasion in big games and all the reports out of Clemson are that he’s a tremendous guy to have in the locker room.
Sometimes, when a player is viewed as highly as Watson was going into his junior year, he can be over-scouted. While other quarterbacks burst onto the scene and benefit from new attention, a guy like Watson can sometimes be critiqued and criticized for so long that he becomes underrated as a draft prospect.
This happened with Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who slid all the way to the end of the first round in the 2014 draft, and may have been part of the reason Watson has slid down draft boards over the past five months.
After such a great game to finish the season, Watson should be able to avoid the same kind of fall that Bridgewater experienced. If he has a good combine and shows up big during his pro day, he should continue to rise in pre-draft rankings.
While some have Watson as a risky pick, or a player who needs a lot of work, I see him as a playmaker with the intangibles to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL. While it’s easier to quantify the prototype measurables you see from Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, or the raw physical upside and accuracy that North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky showed during an improbable season for the Tar Heels, the winning attitude and work ethic that you get from Watson is less of an exact science.
You can’t always point to why players like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers have that special “it” factor that makes them great quarterbacks, but you know it when you see it.
Watson has the “it” factor. With the value placed on a good quarterback in the NFL right now, don’t be surprised if Watson once again enters the conversation for the first overall pick. And if he does suffer the same slide that Bridgewater experienced just three years ago, don’t be surprised to see him emerge as a draft day steal with whatever team is lucky enough and smart enough to draft him.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.