A strange thing has happened to Deshaun Watson’s NFL draft status in the last 12 months. Despite posting an almost identical season as a passer and leading Clemson back to the College Football Playoff, Watson has seen his stock drop to the point where some are pondering whether he’ll end up a first-round pick when it’s all said and done.
Watson’s experience isn’t a new phenomenon. High-profile players, who have been high-profile for a couple of seasons, tend to see their stock take a dip at the end of their collegiate career because the draft media, quite frankly, gets bored. Offering the same praise over and over gets old. Naturally, the only thing left to do is find reasons to critique a player who, despite the critic’s best efforts, has a lot more good tape than bad.
Watson entered the 2016 season as the consensus top quarterback in the country. He’s done nothing to hurt his cause. The only thing that’s changed is the quarterback landscape around him. Players like UNC’s Mitch Trubisky and Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer have caught the eyes of scouts, and for good reason. But sometimes the shiny, new toys aren’t quite as effective as the reliable, proven commodity.
Watson isn’t that much different of a prospect than current Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. In fact, this time two years ago, Mariota was facing some of the same doubts by the NFL draft media as Watson seems to be.
Both Watson and Mariota have a big enough arm to make every NFL throw and have the athletic ability to make plays with their legs when all else fails. Both players are intelligent and have proven, on the field, to be capable leaders of men. Aside from a slightly smaller frame, Watson should be graded similarly to the former Oregon Duck, who went second overall in the 2015 NFL draft.
Watching Watson’s tape confirms his status as a first-round quarterback. He is a very accurate passer in the intermediate passing game and plays the position with a pass-first mentality. Don’t be fooled by his gaudy career rushing numbers; he’s not a running quarterback. He is a master of the back-shoulder throw, and if he ends up with a team that has a big-bodied target like Mike Williams, he’ll make mincemeat of NFL secondaries. His deep ball is spotty at times, but when he’s on, he can make some of the prettiest bucket throws in the class. His long ball seems to warm up as the game goes along; he’ll just have to make it a more consistent part of his arsenal.
Watson has an opportunity to silence the critics on the biggest stage in college football. When Clemson faces off against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl later tonight, he can resurrect his status as the clear top quarterback in the class and return to his rightful place at or near the top of the first round. Granted, this can cut both ways. If he has a meltdown against the Buckeyes, the number of critics will grow and the venomous twitter takes will multiply.
No matter the outcome, don’t ignore draft history. Remember the cycle of highs and lows that Mariota experienced and apply them to Watson. Most importantly, look at what Mariota has accomplished in the NFL and be careful to dismiss Watson as a legitimate franchise quarterback. If he slides out of the top-10 picks in April, we’ll revisit this draft and ask ourselves how in the world Watson fell that far.