Clemson's Deshaun Watson capped off an illustrious college career with a spectacular performance on Monday night in the national championship game, cementing his status as one of the nation's top quarterback prospects.
While there will be plenty of debate in the months to come about whether Watson, who intends to enter the 2017 NFL Draft, has what it takes to be a franchise QB at the next level, I believe the 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior should be able to land a starting job with an NFL team early in his career. Here's my take on his performance Monday night, and what it means for him as he prepares for the next step in his career.
Changing the narrative
In a thrilling 35-31 win over Alabama, Watson completed 36-of-56 passes for 420 yards with three touchdowns. In addition, he rushed for 43 yards on 21 attempts with another score. Now, those numbers are spectacular at first glance, but they don't fully illustrate how Watson deftly managed the game as the Tigers' field general.
The savvy playmaker showed exceptional courage and toughness, withstanding an early game pounding from the Crimson Tide defense. Most importantly, Watson displayed outstanding poise, patience and discipline in picking apart an NFL-like defense that was loaded with playmakers at every level. With that in mind, I believe this performance will force NFL scouts and coaches to reconsider how they view Watson as a quarterback prospect.
Heading into the postseason, there were plenty of concerns regarding Watson's pro potential based on his inconsistent play throughout the 2016 campaign. Despite posting numbers that were very comparable to his superb 2015 campaign (2016: 67.3 completion rate, 38:17 TD/INT ratio; 2015: 67.8 completion rate, 35:13 TD/INT ratio), evaluators questioned his deep-ball accuracy, judgment and diagnostic skills. Skeptics also wondered if he was capable of thriving in an offense that asked him to make complex reads instead of relying on the "layups" (quick routes, bubble screens and run-pass options) that are staples of the Tigers' offense.
Watson needed to perform well in the College Football Playoff to change the narrative surrounding his game and pro potential. Against Ohio State in the Dec. 31 Fiesta Bowl, Watson impressed evaluators with his athleticism and running skills. He leaned on his mobility and scrambling prowess to torment the Buckeyes' defense on the edges. Although he finished the game with a pair of turnovers, Watson made the game's biggest plays and continued to fortify his reputation as a big-game player.
Same traits as Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott
Against Alabama, Watson once again showed the critics that he has a knack for being for the best player on the biggest and brightest stage. He took down a defense that was billed as one of the best units in college football history, and he did it in a methodical fashion that reminded me of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL. Watson patiently picked apart the Crimson Tide defense with an assortment of quick-rhythm throws delivered into tight windows.
From the stick routes and slants delivered to Tigers' receivers with defenders in close proximity, to seam throws and corners thrown with exceptional timing and anticipation, Watson didn't blink when Alabama dared him to beat its defense with his arm. He delivered the best performance of his career and did so by showing the traits (accuracy, ball placement and anticipation) that were questioned in his game prior to the postseason. On his tosses to Mike Williams (back-shoulder fade), Jordan Leggett (post-corner) and Deon Cain (go route), in particular, Watson showed the timing, anticipation and accuracy that's expected from top quarterback prospects.
I believe evaluators will give him rave reviews for his distribution skills as a passer. He tossed the ball to six different receivers (four Clemson pass-catchers finished with 90-plus receiving yards) throughout the contest and he used every weapon in the lineup to attack the Crimson Tide defense.
This might not appear to be a big deal on the surface, but even skeptics who've suggested Watson is simply driving a Cadillac (QB surrounded by the best supporting cast in football) will have to acknowledge his ability to push the right buttons as the leader of the offense. Remember, these are the same traits that Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott have shown to great fanfare in the NFL, so it will endear Watson to teams willing to employ a "bus driver" at the QB1 position.
Against the Crimson Tide blitz, Watson punished the defense with laser strikes to his slot receivers on a variety of sight adjustments (slot receiver runs a slant into the area vacated by the blitzer). He amassed 181 passing yards against the blitz, which is impressive considering he did so against a ferocious defense that's routinely made quarterbacks wilt. Most importantly, Watson displayed the poise and composure that's expected of QB1s in critical situations.
The perfect NFL scenario for Watson
With that being said, I think it's also important to note Watson's performance in the clutch with the game on the line. Watson directed a game-winning drive against a stout defense, exhibiting poise and pocket passing skills when it mattered most. He made big throw after big throw to his big-time players (Williams and Leggett) late in the game, yet he didn't force the ball into coverage or risk a costly turnover.
Considering how much coaches and scouts covet quarterbacks capable of delivering in clutch moments, Watson's success on back-to-back drives late in the game will only enhance his reputation as a big-game player.
In the end, I'm not sure how much Watson's championship-game performance will alter his draft stock based on how much weight evaluators place on the "toolbox" (size, arm talent, mechanics and footwork) during the run up to the draft. He might rank behind some of the "show ponies" (see Mitch Trubisky and DeShone Kizer) in the class based on their superior physical dimensions or measurables, but coaches looking for a proven winner will covet his intangibles as a clutch performer.
While I'm not fully convinced Watson can single-handedly reverse the fortunes of a moribund franchise with his mere presence, I believe he can help a good team become great when he steps into the lineup. With another performance that showcased his talents as a winning quarterback, Watson will challenge how much evaluators value intangibles and pedigree in the quarterback evaluation.