TAMPA — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson played one of the most dynamic postseason games in the championship era of college football last year. He bludgeoned Alabama for 405 passing yards, rushed for 73 more and ultimately forced Nick Saban to risk an onside kick in the fourth quarter of the national title game rather than give Watson the ball back.
Despite the 45–40 Clemson defeat, Watson established himself as the most tantalizing quarterback prospect in college football. If he’d been eligible to go to the NFL draft last year, scouts say there’s a chance he’d have been taken ahead of No. 1 pick Jared Goff and No. 2 pick Carson Wentz. At the very least, he’d likely have been selected in the top 10 of the first round.
As Clemson prepares for its rematch with Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship on Monday night, Watson remains the most talented player on the field and the linchpin for Clemson’s chances to pull an upset. Despite leading Clemson (13–1) back to the title game and being 31–3 as a starting quarterback, Watson’s NFL stock has slipped in the eyes of some this season. Along with a chance to deliver Clemson its first national title in 35 years and cement his legacy, Monday’s title game offers Watson one last opportunity to showcase himself in front of a skeptical scouting community.
“Obviously he’s an incredible athlete and has good size,” said a veteran NFL scout. “He showed what he’s capable of doing against Alabama last year. That was his best game of the season. But I just don’t see him as the pocket passer like a lot of people prefer in our league.”
Watson has thrown 17 interceptions this season. To put that in perspective, only four teams in college football threw more interceptions than him this year. The Clemson coaching staff has been sensitive to criticism of Watson, however. It points out that he’s already attempted 31 more throws in one fewer game. (He threw 13 interceptions in 15 games last year.) “I’m anxious to have those guys watch the film,” Clemson quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter said. “Those interceptions, some are on him. But not nearly the number that you see.”
The increased passing load comes, in part, from an offense that’s been designed to manage Watson’s health. It’s not a coincidence that Watson’s heaviest loads in the quarterback run game have come against elite opponents on the biggest stages—Louisville (14 runs), Ohio State (15), Virginia Tech (17) and Florida State (17). He also ran just five times, the low in an ACC game, in Clemson’s loss to Pittsburgh. Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott laughed when asked what the plan was for Watson running the ball against Alabama. “Everything is on the table,” he said. “No question about it.”
What does this season mean to Watson’s NFL prospects? Opinions are varied. This is a bad year for quarterback prospects, as there’s a theoretical chance that none could go in the first round. (Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky are considered the other top prospects.) Watson isn’t expected to go at least until the end of the first round, which would mean a team likes him enough that it’d want to stash him behind an established player and develop him.
Opponents and scouts got varying views of Watson’s future this season. One ACC coach who faced both players projected Watson as a better prospect than Jameis Winston. He said Watson’s high interception total this year reminded him of the 18 picks that Winston threw in 2014. “I think there’s something to be said for being a quarterback who knows he’s a millionaire if he stays healthy,” the coach said. “I think that plays a role in a kid’s psyche, [that] if he runs and blows out his knee that’s $9 million out of his pocket.”
The coach did add that he considers Watson an exponentially better quarterback prospect than Louisville QB Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy. “Watson has a chance to be at least as good as Winston,” he said. “We played he and Lamar Jackson, and Jackson has no shot at playing quarterback in the NFL. None. He can’t make the throws and can’t read coverages. He’s not going to have a chance. Watson stands tall in the pocket and whips the ball around like Ben Roethlisberger.”
There’s also plenty who are skeptical of Watson being a high-end NFL quarterback. Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, who qualified his comments by saying he hasn’t studied Watson intensely, says he doesn’t see him projecting like the best West Coast quarterbacks he faced. “I don’t see a great passer like I did in Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Marcus Mariota or Aaron Rodgers. I’m not sure he’s as good as Cam Newton. Those are some good quarterbacks, and my mind tells me I don’t see a great passer like those guys.”
Another NFL scout who studied Watson intently this season added: “He doesn’t have NFL accuracy. The timing throws, Bang 8 (skinny post) or a comeback throw, he doesn’t do any of that.”
Watson still has one year of eligibility left, but there’s no chance of him returning to Clemson. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has spoken openly about Watson leaving and he participated in Senior Day ceremonies. He’s indicative of the new era of elite recruits who attend college expecting to only stay three years. He even enrolled early and accelerated his academics so he could graduate in three years. For Watson, Monday night is more about securing the final piece of his Clemson legacy than impressing anyone in the NFL.
“It would top everything off,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for it for 35 years. It’s something I’ve always wanted.”
Regardless of the result, Watson will go through the NFL ringer much the same way other quarterbacks from spread offensive systems have. Monday night offers the last on-field chance to shape the NFL perspective. “Deshaun throws it a lot better than Cam Newton,” said a college coach who played both. “He’s been around so long and has been turnover prone this year, but I think he’s really special. I really do. He may not be as good on paper as last year, but that’s a high standard.”