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Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is a package of potential and pitfalls

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson had a performance for the ages in the national championship game.streeter lecka/Getty

If overcoming adversity were the main criterion for evaluating college quarterback prospects, then Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would be the no-brainer No. 1 pick in next week’s NFL Draft.

At the top of his list, of course, is the game-winning drive against Alabama in January’s national championship game. Down by 3 points, standing on his own 32-yard line with just 56 seconds left, Watson shredded Alabama’s No. 1-ranked defense and threw the winning touchdown pass with just one second remaining.

Watson nearly pulled off a miracle comeback against Alabama in the previous year’s championship game, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns in a 45-40 loss.


And those performances are nothing compared with the adversity Watson overcame as a teenager. With his mother often away from home as she underwent treatment for tongue cancer, Watson was a role model for his two siblings and held as many as three jobs, yet still stayed on top of his school responsibilities, earning good grades at Gainesville (Ga.) High and leading his football team to a state championship in 2012.

“Watson plays his best football when the lights are bright,” said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock. “And that’s an important characteristic at any position, but especially quarterback.”

But NFL talent evaluators are paid to poke holes in prospects, and Watson has a few. He’s a bit undersized for a quarterback at 6 feet 2 inches, with a smallish frame, and suffered a handful of knee and shoulder injuries in three years at Clemson. He played in an up-tempo spread offense that didn’t require him to do much behind the line of scrimmage and doesn’t translate much to the NFL.

And most alarming are the interceptions. Watson threw 30 of them over the last two seasons, including 17 in 2016.

So despite his storied college career — which included a national championship, a runner-up finish, consensus All-American honors in 2015, and a litany of awards — NFL evaluators are not completely sold on Watson’s pro potential.


“Everybody’s hot and cold on the Clemson kid,” said longtime college defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who served as an analyst for the South Carolina football coaches last year and broke down tape of all of Watson’s games. “I think he’s a hell of a player.

“But he’ll get a little erratic with some of his throws, especially the immediate or short throws. When it comes to dropping back and throwing the ball between the hashes 12-15 yards, he wasn’t real good at that.”

Watson may not be the first quarterback to come off the board. North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky is more of a prototypical pocket passer, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer is the best athlete at the position, and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes has a big arm.

“Obviously there is not a surefire guy — at least not one that has come to the head just yet,” said Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway.

Quarterbacks tend to get over-drafted, and Watson has a chance to go as high as No. 2 to the 49ers or No. 3 to the Bears, who sent a convoy of coaches and executives to Clemson’s Pro Day last month. The Browns, 49ers, Bears, Texans, Cardinals, Jets, and Bills all need a long-term solution at quarterback, and Watson will almost certainly go within the top 15 picks.


The fact that Watson twice led his team to the championship game — and had two all-time great performances on the biggest stage — certainly weighs in his favor.

“I love winners, and he has that,” said 49ers general manager John Lynch. “I spent some time around him at the Super Bowl, and there’s certain guys that just carry themselves differently and have a presence about them. I put him in that category.

“In the brief time, you can just see there’s a confidence, an aura that he carries himself with that’s pretty special.”

Watson threw for 420 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions against Alabama in the championship game, and added 43 rushing yards and another touchdown. On the game-winning drive, he was 7 of 8 passing for 68 yards.

“I can’t even count how many times we hit the guy,” said Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen, almost certain to be a top 10 pick. “We were trying to crush him. And every time he came back tougher.

“It’s just that competitiveness. Best player I’ve ever played in college. By far.”

But even though Alabama had the stingiest defense in the nation last year, loaded with several NFL prospects, Watson was still facing a college defense. And he was operating a fast-paced, gimmicky offense that didn’t require him to set protections or diagnose many coverages.

Also on Watson’s 2016 résumé is an ugly three-interception game in a win over Louisville that was closer than it should have been, and another three-interception game in a bad loss to Pittsburgh late in the season that almost cost the Tigers a shot at the national title.


“Tape, by far, is the most important,” said new 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. “You want to block out everything else. If you don’t like what you see on tape, nothing else matters.”

But the NFL Draft remains highly unscientific. Two of the best quarterbacks to come out of college over the last six years are a third-rounder (Russell Wilson) and a fourth-rounder (Dak Prescott), while most of the first-rounders not named Andrew Luck have struggled.

“The heart and head, they’re the hardest things to evaluate,” said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. “I can see his arm strength, I can see his feet, I can see him jump, but the two things he plays with, his brain and his heart, they’re very hard to evaluate.”

Watson, a Dean’s List student who graduated from Clemson in three years, has shown time and again that he can overcome adversity, lead his team to victory, and come through in the biggest moments.

“What stands out on film is how much poise he plays with,” said former NFL head coach Jon Gruden. “He never gets rattled, ever. You’d be a fool to not want this guy on your team.”

The top prospects at quarterback







Deshaun Watson*






Detractors point to his 17 interceptions last year, his college spread offense and spotty accuracy. We say: Hooey. Look at what he did to Alabama on the game's biggest stage — two years in a row.

Patrick Mahomes*

Texas Tech





Another quarterback that threw too many interceptions (25 the last two years) and played in a gimmicky offense, but he has a huge arm and the pocket presence to develop into a starter.

Mitchell Trubisky*

North Carolina





The best raw tools and mechanics of any QB in the draft, and he threw only six interceptions last year. But we're concerned by his limited body of work, starting only one season and 13 games.

DeShone Kizer*

Notre Dame





The biggest and most physically gifted QB in the draft. Was a bit inconsistent in 2016, completing just 59 percent of passes and getting benched against Stanford. Should've stayed in school another year.

Davis Webb






Another QB with good size and arm strength who can make some pretty throws downfield, but he started only one year, and in a college offense, that doesn't translate at all to the NFL.

Nate Peterman






A transfer from Tennessee, he had two quality seasons at Pitt, including a 308-yard, five-touchdown, no-interception win at Clemson in 2016. Projects as a backup but could develop into a starter.

Brad Kaaya*






A three-year starter, he at times displayed excellent touch and the ability to fit the ball into tight windows. Had a tendency to stare down the pass rush too long, and doesn't have great mobility to avoid sacks

Chad Kelly






Got kicked off the team at Clemson for maturity issues, threatened to use a gun during a Buffalo bar fight, and tore his ACL toward the end of 2016. But Jim Kelly's nephew can play, and should get drafted.

Josh Dobbs






More of a dual threat than a true pocket QB, he started 36 games and had a great second half to 2016. Has significant issues as a passer, but his intelligence and athleticism will get him drafted on the third day.

Jerod Evans*

Virginia Tech





Played just one year of college ball after transferring from Air Force and Trinity Valley Community College. Had a nice 2016 season with 27 touchdowns and five interceptions, but could've used another year of college experience.

Best of the rest: C.J. Beathard, Iowa (6-2, 219, 4.80, 7-undrafted); Trevor Knight, Texas A&M (6-1, 219, 4.54, 7-undrafted); Seth Russell, Baylor (6-2, 203, 4.68, 7-undrafted); Antonio Pipkin, Tiffin (6-0, 225, 4.68, 7-undrafted); Alek Torgersen, Pennsylvania (6-2, 220, 4.68, 7-undrafted)



Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin