Through the testimony of Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, the warning has been sounded to every NFL general manager in regard to quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The two-time winner of the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, who will formally accept the 2016 version of the trophy Monday night at the Fort Worth Club, ranks among the more intriguing prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Watson, who threw the game-winning touchdown pass on the final play from scrimmage in the Tigers’ 35-31 victory over top-ranked Alabama to seal the national championship on Jan. 9, is roundly praised by NFL analysts for his ability to play his best on the big stage.
He is questioned by some because he threw 17 interceptions last year, the most of any season in his college career, before opting for early entry in the NFL Draft.
Watson, a junior, also offset those 17 interceptions with 41 touchdown passes and a career-high 4,593 passing yards while leading the Tigers (14-1) to their first national championship since 1981.
That performance, combined with Watson’s record of 28-2 as a starter over his final two seasons in college, convinced Swinney to offer some recent draft-related advice to NFL executives about his former quarterback.
“If they pass on Deshaun Watson, they’re passing on Michael Jordan,” Swinney told reporters during a Jan. 24 practice at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. “I’m just … an old funky college coach, but Deshaun Watson is the best by a long shot.”
The praise resonated because Jordan, roundly viewed as the greatest player in NBA history, fell to the third pick in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. Jordan led the Bulls to six championships, six more than the Portland Trail Blazers won with Sam Bowie, the player taken one spot ahead of Jordan in that draft (Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, the top overall pick, led the Rockets to two NBA titles and joins Jordan as a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame).
I like Watson a lot better than some of these experts who are all over the board with him. He’s had great production in big games. That means a lot to me.
Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel
Swinney’s bold talk caught Watson off-guard but he understood the purpose. In an interview with Pro Football Talk during Super Bowl week, Watson said he reminded Swinney that, “You kind of put a lot of pressure on me.”
“Nah, I put the pressure on teams because that’s how I really feel,” Watson recalled. “And I feel really confident in you.”
The unanswered question involves the confidence levels of NFL teams in the former Clemson star when the draft begins April 27 in Philadelphia. Most mock drafts have the Cleveland Browns using the first pick on Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, an Arlington Martin graduate.
Mike Mayock, draft analyst for NFL.com, lists Watson behind Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer among top available quarterbacks, adding that no quarterback is likely to be selected among the top 10 picks. Mayock said Watson “needs to convert more to a pocket quarterback” to succeed in the NFL, a time-consuming journey.
Some analysts question whether Watson will be a first-round pick. But not Gil Brandt, former vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys (1960-88). Brandt serves as a senior analyst for NFL.com as well as a contributor to multiple shows on the Sirius NFL Radio Network.
“I like Watson a lot better than some of these experts who are all over the board with him,” Brandt said. “He’s had great production in big games. That means a lot to me.”
Brandt said he’s had a gut feeling in recent weeks that Watson will be taken by the New York Giants with the No. 23 pick, if still available, and groomed as the heir apparent to Eli Manning. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. projects Watson to go to the Buffalo Bills with the 10th pick.
Football doesn’t define me. I like to show where I’m from and really inspire younger people with this platform I have.
Deshaun Watson on plans to be an active participant in charitable endeavors in his future NFL home
Watson will get his first opportunity to boost his draft stock during workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, Feb. 28-March 6 in Indianapolis. Per the NFL.com site, Watson will head to the combine with a grade of 6.39, which means he projects as an immediate starter but falls below players in five other categories, starting with “chance to become Pro Bowl-caliber player” (6.50 to 6.99) and concluding with “one-in-lifetime player” (9.00 to 10).
Regardless of where he winds up, Watson indicated he plans to be active in regard to giving back to that community. Watson saw his life change after moving as a youngster from an apartment in a government-subsidized housing project to a four-bedroom home in a quieter Gainesville, Ga., neighborhood made possible by the efforts of his mother, Deann Watson, in working with Habitat for Humanity.
“Without those stories and without what I experienced when I was younger, I wouldn’t be in this seat now,” Watson said. “I embrace it … Football doesn’t define me. I like to show where I’m from and really inspire younger people with this platform I have.”
Davey O’Brien honorees
National QB Award: Deshaun Watson, Clemson
High School Scholarship Award: Anna Connolly, Richardson Pearce
Legends Award: Jim McMahon, former NFL quarterback
Charles Ringler Founder’s Award: Scott Murray, sportscaster