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Clemson's Deshaun Watson could be poised for Mariota-like rise

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Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports
Deshaun Watson will return as one of CFB's top talents for the 2016 season.

It's not whether you win or lose, but it's how you play the game.

Youth coaches frequently utter that phrase to young players around the country, and NFL scouts adhere to that philosophy when evaluating top prospects in big games.

Alabama 45, Clemson 40
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With Deshaun Watson putting on a spectacular performance (478 total yards and four scores) in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the Clemson quarterback is squarely on the radar of evaluators searching for a franchise player to track at the college level.

Measuring 6-foot-2, 205 pounds with outstanding speed, quickness and agility, Watson is a dynamic dual-threat quarterback poised to set the college football scene on fire with his magical skills. He capably picks apart opponents with pinpoint passes from inside the pocket, but he's also a deadly playmaker capable of ripping off long runs on impromptu scrambles and designed QB keepers. Watson's unique combination of athleticism and arm talent should allow him to easily transition into a pro-style offense that features several movement-based concepts on the perimeter.

In addition, Watson displays the pocket poise, football IQ and pocket-passing skills to thrive in a system that's built on West Coast Offense principles. With Watson also capable of executing the zone-read and "RPO" (run-pass option) game from the backfield, he could be the ideal new-school quarterback to build around at the next level.

Against Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game, Watson showcased his diverse game on the biggest and brightest stage. He connected on 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. Watson picked apart the Crimson Tide with an assortment of quick-rhythm throws (slants, seams and sticks) from the pocket out of empty and trips (3x1) sets. While most spread quarterbacks shine on these concepts, Watson's anticipation, accuracy and ball placement was outstanding for a sophomore quarterback appearing in just his 23rd collegiate game.


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From his footwork to his poise and judgment, Watson plays the game like a seasoned veteran from the pocket. The Tigers took advantage of his skills by featuring a ton of "catch-and-fire" throws that allow him to target a receiver on a quick pass or find an available running lane on a QB draw. This combination concept not only tested the discipline of the Crimson Tide's coverage, but the integrity of the pass rush at the line of scrimmage, as well.

On seam throws directed between the hashes, Watson shows exceptional touch and timing delivering the ball between multiple defenders. He repeatedly connected on in-breaking routes to Hunter Renfrow and Jordan Leggett with the ball released well before the receivers hit the top of their routes. With "middle-of-field" throws considered the toughest for young quarterbacks to master, Watson's pinpoint passing on these routes will pique the interests of scouts looking for a deadly playmaker from the pocket.

College Football 24/7's panel of scouts are checking out top prospects during the 2015 bowl season.

Watson was also impressive pushing the ball down the field on vertical throws on a variety of movement passes from the pocket. He repeatedly delivered "dimes" to his receivers running free along the boundary, including his 31-yard touchdown pass to Renfrow on a wheel route in the first quarter. Watson's ability to make accurate throws on the run, particularly to his right, prevented the Crimson Tide from sending heavy pressure due to the unpredictable launch points on the perimeter. With Watson also displaying dazzling skills as a "scramble-and-toss" artist on the move, the young passer has the potential to create chaos on the perimeter.

As a deep-ball thrower, Watson shows outstanding arm strength and range on vertical routes. He easily drops the ball "down the chute" on throws down the boundary, but also displays the zip and velocity to fire the ball between defenders on seam routes along the hashes. Although he misfired on a few deep balls early in the game, Watson's deep-ball anticipation and touch is something scouts will rave about when reviewing the tape in the coming weeks.

From a critical standpoint, Watson needs to continue to work on exhausting the pass progression before fleeing the pocket. He occasionally drops his eyes and looks to flee the pocket before he waits on his second and third read in the progression. Granted, Watson's athleticism and elusiveness make him a dangerous threat to score from anywhere on the field. However, the sophomore must show scouts he can deliver pinpoint passes with pass rushers in close proximity to cement his status as the top playmaker in the collegiate game.

Overall, Watson reminds me a lot of Marcus Mariota as a dual-threat quarterback. He possesses rare athleticism and movement skills, yet also has the potential to pick opponents apart from the pocket. With at least another year to refine his skills, Watson could join Mariota as a Heisman Trophy winner and top draft pick down the road.

Areas where Watson needs most improvement

Coverage recognition: To be an elite quarterback as a pro, Watson must be able to quickly diagnose coverage and target the vulnerable areas of the scheme. Although Watson shows outstanding awareness and intelligence in executing the Tigers' spread system, NFL scouts and coaches will assess whether he's capable of deciphering pre-snap disguises and post-snap movement to find open receivers.

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Accuracy on the move: As an athletic playmaker, NFL coaches will want to craft schemes to maximize his talents as a run-pass threat, but Watson has to show evaluators that he can make pinpoint tosses while rolling to either direction. Watching Watson on tape and in the CFP National Championship Game, he's more accurate and precise when moving to his right. Although it's not uncommon for quarterbacks to thrive on rollouts or bootlegs to their strong side (throwing arm), Watson could become an unstoppable weapon as a run-pass threat from the pocket.

Size and strength: Given Watson's slender frame (6-2, 205) and injury history (torn ACL in 2014), NFL scouts will closely monitor his physical development. He must bulk up to withstand the physical pounding administered by pass rushers at the next level. Thus, Watson must commit to the offseason program to enhance his strength and physical stature. While he must retain his flexibility, agility and athleticism to terrorize opponents on the edges, Watson needs to hit the 215-pound mark to convince scouts that he can withstand the pounding at the next level.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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