Apples to Oranges: What is Deshaun Watson’s NFL ceiling?

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Orange confetti had barely settled on the playing surface of Raymond James Stadium before the debates over Deshaun Watson’s pro potential had begun.

The Clemson quarterback had just led his team to a national championship title – including the game-winning drive, delivered with 2:01 remaining in the fourth quarter.

The win puts a cherry on top of Watson’s decorated, college career. Under his National Championship appearances, one title, two ACC titles, and over 10,000 passing yards. He has already announced he will forgo his last year of NCAA eligibility and declare for the NFL draft.

The question on most people’s minds is: will the dual-threat quarterback’s skills translate to the NFL? Or, will he eventually be remembered as yet another example of a good college quarterback, who couldn’t cut it at the game’s highest level?

Here is the stat-line from Watson’s final season at Clemson:

Passing: 333-491(67%), 4,593 YDS, 41 TD, 17 INT
Rushing: 164-624 (3.8 YPC), 9 TD

Society is obsessed with comparisons, and there has been no shortage of “the next ____” labels when it comes to the twenty-one-year-old Watson. As a mobile-quarterback, the analogies will inevitably shift to guys like Marcus Mariota or Dak Prescott.

There have been numerous read-option or dual-threat quarterbacks who have played on NFL teams.  History has seen extreme variations on results, which can make comparing these guys like apples and oranges.

But, just for fun, let’s see how Watson’s prospect status compares to those of a few other great, college quarterbacks (height and weight figures taken from their combine numbers). For the record, Watson is listed at 6-2, 210lbs.

Tajh Boyd 6-1, 222lbs

Passing: 283-413 (68.5%), 3851 YDS, 34 TD, 11 INT
Rushing: 154-400 (2.6 YPC), 10 TD

What’s a better place to start than the man whom Watson apprenticed under? Boyd was Clemson’s starter from 2010-2013, when the ascension to CFP-title contenders began.

Boyd is essentially a poor man’s Watson. The latter is superior when it comes to the size, rushing vision and throwing mechanic departments.

Also, Boyd’s life at Clemson was certainly boosted by getting to throw to future NFL-standouts Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.

Edge: Watson

Vince Young 6-5, 232lbs

Passing: 212-325 (65.2%), 3036 YDS, 26 TD, 10 INT
Rushing: 155-1050 (6.8 YPC), 12 TD

A key participants in what is roundly-considered the greatest college game of all-time. Young’s draft stock subsequently received a big boost – which he was able to parlay into the third overall selection of the 2006 NFL draft.

Young was blessed with size, elusiveness in the open field, and an uncanny ability to throw outside the pocket. Unfortunately, his skills didn’t translate against better defenses at the pro level.

By comparison, Watson has a better pocket presence, able to step up and deliver throws against the rush. Also, he has a cleaner throwing motion than Young’s slingshot mechanics.

Edge: Watson

Marcus Mariota 6-3, 222lbs

Passing: 304-445 (68.3%), 4454 YDS, 42 TD, 4 INT
Rushing: 135-770 (5.7 YPC) 15

For three years, Mariota starred for the Ducks, leaving Oregon with a Heisman Trophy as well as a smorgasbord of school and Pac-12 offensive records.

While he put up video game numbers, scouts had questions about his game, including pocket presence (or lack thereof), deep ball accuracy, and willingness to process through reads.

Accuracy on deep throws is an issue that has plagued Watson, as well. He has the arm to deliver beautiful strikes, but also tends to let balls sail – often into the open arms of defenders.

Mariota was good in college at limiting interceptions, but hasn’t been quite as good in the NFL, finishing the 2016 season with a 2.0% INT rate.

Mariota has shown a willingness to put in the work needed to improve. A workout fanatic, he has improved on his strength – a concern going into the draft. Watson, who is the same height but a slighter build, will have to put in that same work if he wants to withstand the rigors of the NFL season.

Edge: Mariota is better, but not insurmountably

Dak Prescott 6-2, 226lbs

Passing: 316-477 (66.2%), 3793 YDS, 29 TD, 5 INT
Rushing: 160-588 (3.7 YPC), 10 TD

Landing in a situation like Dallas’ (stacked offensive-line, all-world running back) is a rookie quarterback’s dream.

Indeed, behind a loaded, Cowboys offense, the Mississippi State-product shattered all expectations. In fact, Prescott has been so efficient, that people forget that his NFL fortunes were once much-cloudier.

Entering draft season, Prescott was labeled as a third to fourth round talent. Scouts had questions about his awareness and footwork in the pocket and his decision-making, along with the usual, mobile-quarterbacks-transitioning-to-the-NFL concerns.

On the ground, Prescott is an opportunistic runner, who is especially dangerous in the red zone. Teams should be able to utilize Watson, with his similar size and running ability, in similar goal-line packages.

Prescott is a better passer at this stage than Watson, with good ball-placement – especially on short-to-intermediate routes. The latter’s development in that area will determine whether he can be a full-time player in the NFL.

Edge: Prescott

Round one of the NFL draft isn’t until Thursday, April 27th. A lot can happen between now and then, but Watson will be one of the highest-ranked quarterbacks in the draft.

Despite his third-round grade, it wouldn’t be the least bit shocking to hear his name called Thursday night. History has shown that teams will pull the trigger on the game’s paramount position early, if they think they have the guy that can turn the franchise’s fortunes around (see Manziel, Johnny).

Development-wise, I see Watson as being somewhere in between Tyrod Taylor and Dak Prescott. The ideal situation is somewhere he doesn’t have to start right away. There, he will have time to build his core strength, practice taking snaps under center and work on his accuracy.

With his combination of athletic gifts and intangibles, I believe Watson will be a good, NFL back-up with starter potential.

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