Why you should care
Because draft-night bliss comes with a challenge.
Ask any scout about Deshaun Watson’s potential as an NFL quarterback and the response will likely focus on intangibles. “He plays his best football when the lights are brightest,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock tells OZY via a conference call. “I love his leadership and the way his teammates respond to him.”
Last week, on the first night of the 2017 NFL draft, sensing that the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship MVP would be long gone by the time their 25th pick arrived, the Houston Texans traded up to select their new franchise quarterback at No. 12. Before taking his first NFL snap, Deshaun Watson had made history.
Watson is only the fifth quarterback to win the college football national championship and be drafted in the first round in the same year.
Since 1967, eight NCAA championship-winning quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Three — Jameis Winston, Tim Tebow and Matt Leinart — won titles, returned to school and failed to repeat before going pro. Watson joins former NFL MVP Cam Newton (2011), Vince Young (2006), Todd Blackledge (1983) and Jerry Tagge (1972) as the only quarterbacks to achieve first-round status months after clinching an NCAA title.
Entering last season, Watson looked like the clear top quarterback prospect.
Since his days as a Georgia high school champion, Watson has been nothing if not steady. He won Clemson’s starting job as a true freshman in 2014. Over the next two seasons, he went 28-2, dropping the 2015 national championship game to Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide before avenging the loss in a 2016 title rematch. For his career, Watson threw for 90 touchdowns and a 67.4 completion percentage. Still, scouts question his ability to lead an NFL franchise.
“What I don’t like is 17 interceptions on a national championship team,” says Mayock. “He’s going to have to deal with the whole spread quarterback conversion to a pocket NFL quarterback.” As OZY previously reported, the spread offense has changed facets of modern football. But NFL coaches still prefer traditional, pro-style quarterbacks. Problem is, pro-style offenses are increasingly rare in college, where teams feast on overmatched defenses via air-raid attacks. Watson’s high interception total can be blamed, in part, on Clemson’s offense; he threw 132 more balls (579) than North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, whom Chicago drafted second overall.
Entering last season, Watson looked like the clear top quarterback prospect. But in recent months, Trubisky and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes II gained steam. In his lone season as North Carolina’s starter, Trubisky wowed scouts with a high completion percentage and touchdowns-to-interception rate (30:6). Meanwhile, the raw physical talent of Mahomes, who, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden told OZY, is “the most intriguing player in the draft,” left NFL general managers drooling. Ultimately, Watson — whose 33 career wins are 12 more than Trubisky’s and Mahomes’ combined — was a victim of exposure, forced to watch while Trubisky was picked second, followed by Mahomes, to Kansas City, at No. 10.
In reaching his lifelong dream, Watson was left with more to prove. “Everyone wants to go high,” he told OZY minutes after being drafted. “Regardless of the situation, I was going to be motivated. Congrats to [Trubisky and Mahomes]. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Watson’s brief slide down draft boards could be a blessing in disguise. He joins a Texans club that went 9-7 last season, made the playoffs and is believed to be a quarterback away from Super Bowl contention. Watson has the pedigree to transform a team with the league’s top defense into a top performer overall. “My focus is just to learn as quick as I can,” says Watson. Still, college wins are no indicator of professional success. Of the other four NCAA title-winning first-round quarterbacks, only Newton has attained NFL stardom. The Texans’ heir apparent knows that the mission is clear: “Let’s go to work.”