Deshaun Watson has the biggest decision out of the way: He intends to bring his career as Clemson's quarterback to a close, as he'll apply for 2017 NFL Draft entry as an underclassman.
But the biggest decision certainly isn't the only one that's important.
The draft is three and a half months away, and between now and then, he'll face a few more forks in the road. Next up: whether to participate in the Reese's Senior Bowl. Two days before leading the Tigers to a College Football Playoff title win over Alabama on Monday night, Watson was understandably non-committal about the Senior Bowl decision. But with his season now behind him and with Senior Bowlers reporting to Mobile in less than two weeks, he must now decide if participation is the right move.
Most invitees consider the chance to make an early on-field and off-field introduction to representatives from all 32 NFL clubs a no-brainer of a decision. It's not unheard of, though, for a prospect to pass on the chance, perhaps from fear of injury or a conviction that their draft stock can't be enhanced by playing. While it might be true that the surefire first-round prospects can afford to simply focus on the NFL Scouting Combine, which follows four weeks after the Senior Bowl, scouts have a clear appreciation for prospects that compete in the game even though they might have less to gain by it than others.
"When I see a high-profile guy play at the Senior Bowl or work out (at the combine), my first thought is, 'What a stud,'" an AFC South scout told College Football 24/7.
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage expects to hear something soon from Watson, but knew from the time the invitation was extended that Clemson's season could extend to a 15th game and thus delay the decision for Watson and other Tigers.
"The distinction here for a player like Deshaun Watson is that while Monday night was the culmination of an incredible college career, but the Reese's Senior Bowl is the first step in someone's professional career. It's a different game, different variables, different coaches, it's a new step," Savage said on Thursday. "I think he could really set a positive narrative for himself because he'll come across (in interviews) extremely well, he'll throw the ball really well, he's going to handle the circumstance very well. You've got two teams (coaching) who are picking at the top of the draft, so he really could solidify their thoughts on him if he chooses to participate."
The Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears will coach at this year's Senior Bowl, and both are in need of quarterback help. The Browns hold the first and 12th overall picks of the draft, and the Bears have the No. 3 selection. If Watson decides to play, Savage has said the QB will play for the South team coached by the Browns. He would be auditioning for a club holding two of the draft's top 12 picks, while at the same time giving other clubs with interest in a quarterback a close look at him as well, albeit not as close as the Browns.
While the pro-style system introduced at the Senior Bowl might be different from what Watson has always run at Clemson, even spread quarterbacks often have few issues with the transition in Mobile because the concepts introduced are very basic. They have to be, in order to assemble a functional offense, built from newly acquainted players, in only a few days. That unfamiliarity is another consideration for quarterbacks, but not one that should be a dealbreaker where participation is concerned.
"There's an old saying that quarterbacks can only rise in an all-star game, but can't fall," the scout said. "The scouts know the receivers are new to them, and the timing might be off some. They understand it won't be perfect."
Watson is in a unique position, believed to be the only true junior ever to receive a bid to the game that, by its very name, would figure to exclude him. He studied his way into that position by earning his degree from Clemson in just three years. For several years, the Senior Bowl has opened its doors to a select number of fourth-year juniors who have already earned degrees. Watson, however, would be the first true junior to participate.
"The degree in hand is the bottom line," Savage said.
While Watson has enjoyed a decorated college career capped by a national-title coronation, his NFL draft stock isn't as secure as his place in Clemson lore. Despite impressive statistics and a winning track record (28-2 the last two years), scouts still have questions about his pro potential. In short, he's reached the top of the college football mountain, but his climb up the draft mountain isn't yet complete. And a week at the Senior Bowl could give him more solid footing for the pre-draft journey.