Over the last few months, you might have noted that I have offered cautious optimism about Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. I have stated that I would not feel comfortable with the Jets using the sixth pick on him, but I do think he would be worth a fairly early pick in the Draft.
Rather than just continuing to say something vague like that, I wanted to elaborate a bit on what I think about Watson. There are reasons I leave the bulk of player evaluation to others on this site. My history is somewhat checkered when evaluating prospects. I do watch quite a bit of college football, though, and have thoughts on future pros. Right or wrong, here are my thoughts on Watson for you to see.
I'd like to end on a positive note so we will talk about the negative stuff up front. The beginning of this piece will have some of the things I don't love about Deshaun. There are reasons I'm not wild about the idea of taking him as high as six.
Some of it has to do with the offense in which he plays. As many have noted, Clemson does not run a pro style offense.
What does that mean? There are some different components at play here.
To begin with, there is a sizable screen pass component of this offense. One major reason the screen game has become so prevalent in college is an incentive in the rules. In the college game, an ineligible receiver (offensive lineman generally) has to be three full yards downfield to be called for a penalty. Compare that with the NFL in which an illegal man downfield penalty can be called if a blocker goes more than one yard past the line of scrimmage while not blocking anybody at the time of the pass.
Why does this matter? Just think about it. If you extend how far a lineman can go before a ball is thrown, those players are more likely to be able to block somebody down the field. There are more options for designing plays.
This is true of many teams, but the rules are not the only reason screens are utilized so frequently. Sometimes it is just about them being safe plays with a good chance of gaining yardage. As we'll see below, not every screen involves the offensive line.
Screens certainly had their place in the offense Deshaun ran at Clemson.
And there were some very simple designed completions for Deshaun.
There are a lot of these plays that didn't require the quarterback to do a whole lot. They go down on the statsheet, though. That is one reason you really can't evaluate college quarterbacks on statistics.
Another thing I don't love about Deshaun is he does have a tendency to lock onto one receiver. He had some very talented pass catchers so it is easy to understand why he would do this at times. It was a bit of an issue, though.
Take this play where there are two guys covering the receiver he is focused on. He misses an open man over the middle of the field.
It presents other problems because while Deshaun's tunnel vision causes him at times to ignore open receivers...
...it also allows defenders to read his eyes and make a jump on the ball. This is the end result of the same play above. Deshaun essentially gives the defender an invitation to make a play on the ball from how he telegraphs this throw.
This is a recipe for trouble in the NFL.
Back to the system, Deshaun didn't have many tricky reads. He tended to be given half field reads in his offense in college.
There weren't a whole lot of plays where he had to read the whole field, and that is a fact of life in the NFL. Defenses also happen to be much more complicated in the pros so Deshaun doesn't have a ton of experience to fall back upon.
How tricky can the transition be? You might remember the Jets dropping Geno Smith into a pro style offense in college when he was not used to making complicated reads.
These were the routes on one play the Jets ran in Geno's rookie season.
Now from watching this play, I believe the read Geno makes is that he's got a cover one look with a single deep safety.
That means it's going to be the vertical receiver's (yellow) job to make the safety go with him deep opening up room for the receiver running the pink route to get to.
The presnap alignment suggest man to man coverage.
What happened here, however, was that the Steelers successfully disguised what they were doing.
A safety who had dropped down and appeared to be in man coverage actually dropped deep and turned this into cover two. Troy Polamalu, who is circled in orange, faked a blitz and actually dropped into coverage to take that route.
That vertical receiver ends up clearing out the wrong safety deep (yellow). Polamalu's starting point means he is there to intersect with the route and clog the throwing lane. The original safety can also drive on the route since the vertical receiver isn't taking him up the field (all orange).
There was no read of any of this stuff. Really the only place to go with this ball is Jeremy Kerley on the shorter route across the field. He has the defender behind him so a throw in front of him gives him a chance to catch it and take it up the field. Geno misses this and throws it in Polamula's direction. The play is ultimately an incompletion.
That's life in the NFL. Instead of needing to read a small area of the field and one or two defenders, you have to scan everything. Defenses are also throwing looks you've never seen before that will trick you. There is an adjustment period learning to make these more difficult reads. Geno had a lot of issues, and it is possible Deshaun will too (at least at the start).
There aren't a ton of exotic looks from college defenses, but sometimes a new look will throw off Deshaun. Take this play from the National Championship Game against Alabama.
Here you have a linebacker showing blitz but dropping. Deshaun fails to see it.
Any quarterback is going to get tricked from time to time seeing a complicated new defensive concept for the first time. Some never figure out these new wrinkles in the pro game.
So with all of that to deal with, why would anybody want Deshaun? I have my reasons.
One reason people knock Deshaun is the high quality of his receivers. There's no doubt that he had some big time receivers on his Clemson team. There also is no doubt that they bailed him out at times by making some spectacular catches on throws he made.
But I don't think Deshaun gets the credit for some of the spectacular connections that became a staple of Clemson's offense. People see the great catches but might miss out on the timing, anticipation, and placement on many of them.
Sure, praise the receiver for the catch. He deserves it. It's a great catch. Just don't lose track of what Deshaun did.
Look where the receiver is when the ball is being thrown. Deshaun is making this throw before the defender can realize what is happening.
Now look where the ball is caught. The receiver is the only one who has the chance to make a play because the ball is placed out the outside.
Passes like these were a staple of Clemson's offense, and the quarterback deserves credit for them. One of the most difficult things to judge a prospect on is whether he can throw into tight coverage because it doesn't happen that frequently for a lot of prospects. Deshaun has shown some ability to do this.
Throwing with anticipation is another must in the NFL. You can't wait for your guy to your guy to break, cut, or stop to deliver the ball. You have to be able to throw before a window opens.
Is this a pretty simple throw? Yes, but again look at the point where he's delivering the ball and where the ball is caught.
The ball is coming out as the receiver is at the 21. It is on top of him as he turns to catch it at the 18. The ball is to him before the defender can react. Greatest play ever? Hardly, but throwing on time before things develop is an important trait in the NFL. Windows close so quickly that you frequently have no chance if you wait to see it in the pros.
We talked above about the more complex reads NFL quarterbacks must make. Don't get me wrong. Reading the full field certainly is important in the pros, but there are also less complicated concepts utilized at the NFL level. They aren't all full field reads.
This is from the same game in Geno's rookie season. It is a slant flat concept. The outside guy runs a slant. The inside guy goes to the flat. The read is the circled guy. If he covers the slant (yellow), throw the flat (yellow). If he jumps to the flat (orange), throw the slant (orange).
He chases the receiver into the flat so the ball should go to the slant.
There isn't anything to stop a team from building in simple concepts like this to help out a rookie.
Contrary to what you hear about Clemson's "spread" offense, there were some applicable half field reads Deshaun got familiar with.
We have spoken over the last few weeks about the West Coast Offense roots of new Jets offensive coordinator John Morton. A common route combination in the West Coast offense is called smash. The idea is to try and create a two on one against a cornerback.
The hope is to take advantage of the circled guy. If he jumps on the outside guy running the short route, go to the deeper guy starting in the slot. If he drops to take the deeper guy, throw short. Even if the guy on the left side of the picture barely in the frame is covering the slot guy, his positioning should allow the slot receiver to get to the sideline with a passing window.
Again, I wish I had the all 22 film, but this replay angle shows how decisive Deshaun is when 15 drives on the short receiver.
Here is another time we see something like smash.
This is a strike into fairly tight coverage while being hit.
Another concept that finds its way into West Coast systems is double slant. It is what it sounds like, two slants. The idea is to stretch out the defense horizontally.
The inside receiver on this play is generally the important guy. He is typically the first read. Even if he doesn't get the ball, though, his job is important because he has to take his route far enough inside to create a nice big window for the outside guy.
Generally speaking, the inside guy is the first read as you can see on this play against Alabama.
These are fairly basic concepts, but they are utilized in the NFL.
I also did see flashes of Deshaun picking up some more advanced stuff along the way.
Here's use of play action noticing how it will suck in defenders in the middle of the field and how it meshes with the route run.
Well maybe that isn't TOO advanced. How about when Deshaun recognizes a blitz, though, and the receiver adjusts his route to take advantage?
That's impressive stuff. It's how the pros beat blitzes.
Take a look at this play. This isn't the play called in the huddle. Deshaun takes a noticeable look at the receiver at the bottom of the picture. Look at the cushion on this receiver. It is a signal that Clemson is breaking off the play and dumping the ball off. The defense is giving away free yards by playing the corner so far off, and Deshaun is going to take them.
This isn't unlike the way the Jets took advantage of coverage too soft back in 2015.
As many have noted, Deshaun also brings an added element through his ability to run.
This brings something else to scare a defense when a passing play breaks down, and Deshaun takes off on a scramble.
But another thing that impresses me about Deshaun is he's more than just a scrambler who can produce when things break down. Yes, that element helps, but he's also a natural runner.
This is a designed run for the hole in the pink square. The guard is supposed to follow the yellow path to throw the key block. The linebacker fills the pink square with the blue path.
Man blocking plays are designed to blow open a hole on a certain spot of the field, but the runner also has to make a read. If he reads that a hole isn't open, he has to look to the next hole outside. In this case that is represented by the red square, and that is what Deshaun does.
Here's a play where he simply shows patience in waiting for a cutback lane to open up and then making a decisive cut.
I bring up this last point on his running for a specific reason.
I understand that quarterback is primarily a throwing position. It will always be a throwing position. Watson's ability as a runner brings a little something extra to the table, though, and that can help.
I recently did a search of the Pro Football Reference Play Index and found that in the 2016 season teams averaged around 20 first downs in games that they won.
When we talk about a quarterback like Deshaun Watson, we probably aren't talking about a guy who has the playmaking ability on the NFL level to make full field reads and shred a defense to gain the bulk of those 20 first downs necessary to win a game. Few rookies can. Heck, few veterans can. We are talking about the Rodgers/Brady level guys when we mention players who can carry the load by picking apart a defense making full field reads.
For Watson to be in a successful situation as a rookie, the coaching staff will need to account for that. Maybe you can get a handful of those first downs running some of those half field concepts he has already shown an ability to run. That won't be enough, though. NFL defenses are very sophisticated. If you run a bunch of double slants to one side of the field, they're going to be able to figure it out eventually and know how to stop them.
Hopefully Deshaun will be a quick enough learner to be able to execute a handful of whole field reads. That can help fill the gap too.
Where will the rest come from? One reason I was hoping the Jets would keep Brandon Marshall is that he could add a few plays. If the Jets pick Deshaun, Marshall was pretty effective at running that back shoulder throw Watson made so effectively. Marshall could also add a WOW catch or two each game on a ball that should not have been caught. Maybe Bilal Powell could add a few on the ground. Maybe the Jets draft a back who can help.
Watson's ability as a runner could also come in handy. Maybe he adds two or three on designed runs.
Eventually what you hope is he picks up a few full read concepts and becomes confident enough to run them. Then once he has mastered the first few, you can work on a few extras. Once he has mastered them, you can add more and more and shift more and more of the playmaking burden onto him as time goes on.
You want to avoid what happened with Geno Smith in 2013 where the Jets put a ton of that burden onto him right off the bat.
This play should be an easy completion.
Stephen Hill is alone on that side of the field. All he has to do is get inside on a slant to that open space, and it's a completion. But Hill can't even do that so Geno has to look to the other side of the field.
Only Vladimir Ducasse has lost his assignment, and Chandler Jones has a free path to the quarterback.
It ends in a sack, and it's tough to blame Geno for this one. Hill didn't get open, and Ducasse's whiff means that for this play to work Geno is going to have to make a read and a throw on the run. This requires a great play by the quarterback to have success. You want to avoid forcing your quarterback to consistently look like a superstar. TheJets did that too frequently the last time they started a rookie in 2013.
If the Jets draft Watson and cannot surround him with better personnel, it might be wise to sit him as he learns the greater complexities of a pro offense.
So where should Watson be drafted? I kind of view drafting a quarterback like playing poker. There is never a sure thing so it's about how much you are willing to gamble. Taking a quarterback with the sixth pick would be going all in for the Jets. Given the size of the contract and the way jobs are tied to the success of a quarterback chosen with such an investment, the Jets would be almost required to treat Watson as their guy of the future and dedicate the next three years to grooming him and eventually starting him.
Given the flaws when it comes to how he will have to learn more complicated pro passing concepts, his tendency to stare down receivers, and some of the other flaws, I think there is too much risk for me to feel comfortable taking him at six.
Due to his familiarity and success with a limited set of concepts pro teams do run and some of his other attributes, I would feel comfortable with taking him in the second round. That isn't the area where you are definitely committed to a guy, but it is a big gamble because you are saying you feel there is enough of a chance for success that you would pass up the chance to take a talented second round prospect at another position. (The risk goes down with each round to passing on a third, fourth, etc. round prospect).
I would even feel comfortable if he fell into the 20's or so if the Jets started working the phones to talk about moving up.
When I doubt myself on whether that is too high for Deshaun, I think about one thing. Many people have noted his performance in the National Championship Game against Alabama. He delivered some clutch drives in a championship game.
This impressed plenty who note the need for intangibles at quarterback. You need a guy who thrives when stakes are at their highest. You need a winner.
I don't really buy any of that. Don't get me wrong. I think intangibles are really important at the quarterback position. I think you need a leader who makes everybody better and comes through in the clutch.
We have just seen time and again that an ability to do so in college is not a remotely good indicator of whether a player can do so in the pros from Vince Young to Tim Tebow to others.
It was something else about that game that stuck out for me. Yes, Watson delivered in big spots, but it wasn't the fact it was a big game. It was that he took a POUNDING and kept getting up and delivering.
This was just a small sampling of some of the hits Deshaun took in that game.
Quarterbacks don't like getting hit. Defenses love hitting quarterbacks. You can rattle them by hitting them. It doesn't matter whether he's in the pocket or running the ball. Delivering a bunch of big hits on a quarterback can change the game. It can make him tentative. It can throw off his timing by making his main goal to avoid another big hit.
One of the things that makes Tom Brady so great is how he can shake things off. Brady hasn't always had great offensive lines. He's had some pretty awful offensive lines in his career. Even though this year's offensive line was pretty good, think about the Super Bowl. Remember how often he got hit early in that game? He didn't go into his shell and get rattled though?
I also think about our old friend Mark Sanchez. For all of his faults, he was capable of playing some really effective football. So much seemed to depend on how things started for him. Maybe his team staked him to an early lead with a nonoffensive touchdown. If he went out and hit his first few passes, he might start feeling it. If things got off to a great start, you had a real chance of getting a great game. But if they didn't, watch out. If he missed a few guys, somebody dropped a pass, and the pass rush started nailing him, you started to see things snowball. His shoulders would start slumping. Big mistakes started to pile up.
Watson's college championship may or may not be a sign of things to come of his ability as a clutch winner. I will say this.
When a guy takes a pounding like he took, and delivers like this with the game on the line, it has to be a positive.