Two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson is arguably the most polarizing prospect in the 2017 draft class. Despite a dynamic game, a national championship trophy and 32 career wins (in 35 starts), skeptics wonder if Watson has the goods to be a transcendent star at the next level.
The doubters wonder if the Tigers' standout is capable of assimilating to a traditional pro-style system after directing a spread offense that some suggest made him a glorified joystick for an offensive coordinator directing the action like a video-game player. Not to mention, there are plenty of observers who believe Watson has been surrounded by one of the best supporting casts in college football, which diminishes his value a bit as a franchise quarterback. Fair or not, there are some evaluators who view Watson as an Uber driver pushing a Cadillac around town.
On the flip side, it's hard to knock Watson's winning pedigree and his penchant for delivering spectacular performances in big games. He has been the best player on the field in a pair of national-title games and shined in all four of the Tigers' playoff contests over the past two seasons. Considering how some coaches and executives value winning over other traits, Watson will force decision makers to determine whether production or potential is most important in the quarterback evaluation. With that in mind, let's take a closer look at Watson and his polarizing game.
What I'm hearing
"Watson's confidence and competitiveness reminds me a lot of Jameis Winston and Dak Prescott. He loves the bright lights and a big stage. He plays better when things are on the line. At the end of the day, that stuff matters. ... We all want to win and the franchise quarterback needs to believe that he can get it done. Watson believes he is that guy." -- AFC college scouting director
"There's no doubt in my mind that Watson is a big-game player, but I wish he was more consistent. He has enough arm talent and athleticism to be a starter, but he will need to master the game from the pocket to be a legit guy. ... I don't know if he can turn around a downtrodden franchise, but he certainly could function on a team with weapons and a solid supporting cast." -- AFC vice president of player personnel
"The kid is a winner. He has the arm strength and all of the tools to be an effective pocket passer but he needs to be reprogrammed after being used as a dual-threat QB at Clemson. Sure, it worked out for him and the team because they won the national title, but it sets him back it a bit as an NFL quarterback. ... I couldn't (pick him) in the first round because I think he needs some time and the right situation. If he is surrounded by a strong running game and solid supporting cast, he can win at a high level. I just don't think he is a 'plug-and-play' quarterback." -- AFC scout
"He got off to a bit of a slow start (in 2016) but he turned it around down the stretch. It's hard to knock his winning ways and what he has done in big games. He is a talented kid and he's athletic enough to make plays with his feet. He needs to be more consistent from the pocket, though. If he can clean up his game, he could be a solid quarterback in the right system." -- AFC personnel executive
What I'm seeing
Watson is the ultimate competitor at the position with exceptional swagger and a dynamic game. He is a mobile playmaker who's adept at making plays with his arm or feet inside and outside of the pocket. Although he isn't quite Michael Vick 2.0, Watson is a glider who's capable of escaping pressure and executing quarterback runs (quarterback draws, sweeps, counters and read-option plays) on the perimeter. He lacks the burst to take it the distance, but he's capable of moving the chains when he elects to use his athleticism and running skills.
As a passer, Watson is a quick-rhythm thrower adept at hitting his playmakers on catch-it-and-rip-it throws (slants, hitches, quick outs and bubble screens) to the perimeter. He also excels throwing down the seams, skinny posts and back-shoulder fade routes off quick play-action or rhythm drops, particularly from spread or empty formations where he has clear sight lines from the pocket. When he's on his game, Watson can pick apart a defense with a surgeon's precision as a rhythm thrower from inside or outside of the pocket. On bootlegs and sprint passes, Watson is better working to his right when tossing sail routes, comebacks and flats.
From a critical standpoint, Watson struggles with turnovers and ball placement on intermediate/deep throws. He has tossed 30 interceptions over the past two seasons on an assortment of misreads and inaccurate throws. Watson has occasionally been fooled by pre-snap disguises and late-moving coverage in key contests. In addition, he has forced balls into traffic, leading to interceptions when the ball has been thrown off the mark. In terms of his accuracy, Watson's deep throws leave something to be desired, particularly on go routes along the boundary. The Tigers' standout frequently overthrows his primary receiver instead of dropping the ball in the bucket over their inside shoulder. In a league where it's hard to manufacture big plays, Watson's deep-ball accuracy is a concern.
Overall, Watson is a big-game player with all of the intangibles that you covet in a franchise quarterback. He knows how to win big games and his confidence sets him apart from other quarterbacks in this draft. Although he will need to clean up his game and refine his mechanics (footwork) from the pocket, Watson has enough tools to develop into a solid starter in a system that plays to his strengths as a playmaker.
NFL comp: Marcus Mariota
Watson reminds me a lot of Mariota, the former Heisman Trophy winner, when I look at his playing style, winning pedigree and self-assuredness. Although he's not as explosive or dynamic as Mariota as a runner, they are very similar rhythm passers. They're mobile playmakers that need to play in systems that cater to their playing strengths as long-time spread QBs adept at throwing quicks, run-pass options and movement passes.
Where he should be picked
Watson is a borderline first-round talent with the potential to develop into a long-time starter. Although I could see a team falling in love with his athleticism, intangibles and winning pedigree, Watson is probably destined to come off the board within the top 50 selections, probably between picks 25 and 45.
If I could pick a few teams that would perfectly match his talents, I would cite the Chiefs, Bills, Giants and Cardinals as strong fits. The Chiefs, in particular, would be an ideal situation due to the presence of a proven QB developer (Andy Reid) and a veteran QB (Alex Smith) that would allow Watson to redshirt until he is ready for a bigger role. Considering how the strategy worked for Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers, Watson would certainly benefit from joining a team with a long-term developmental plan in place.