What you need to know: There are concerns over experience (or lack thereof) with other top QBs in this year’s draft. No so with Watson, who declared for the 2017 NFL draft after making 35 starts for Clemson, 30 of which came the past two seasons—the Tigers made back-to-back ACC championship game and college football playoff appearances, losing to Alabama in the 2015 title game but knocking off the Tide in ’16. In those two games vs. Alabama, Watson threw for a combined 825 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. For his Clemson career, Watson completed 67.4% of his passes for 10,168 yards, 90 touchdowns and 32 INTs, plus rushed for nearly 2,000 yards.
Watson finished third in Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore before nabbing runner-up honors last season, behind Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. He did twice win the Davey O’Brien Award, presented to the nation’s top quarterback.
Strengths: Putting too much stock in stats or wins and losses is a dangerous way to go about drafting, especially at quarterback. Ignoring the way Watson performed on college football’s biggest stages, and how he responded with his back against the wall, would be creating just as cavernous a gap in the evaluation.
Watson had a knack for elevating his game to match the situation, as his performances against Alabama helped emphasize.
“It’s all part of the equation, and I love winners and he has that,” said new 49ers GM John Lynch, who just happens to own the No. 2 overall pick. “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. … You can just see there’s a confidence, an aura that he carries himself with that’s pretty special.”
So, what is it about Watson’s game that allowed him to produce those special moments?
For starters, he is an exceptional athlete. His 4.66-second 40 time at the combine landed him behind only Trevor Knight (4.54) and Joshua Dobbs (4.64) at the QB position; Watson scored top five in several other drills. The 1,934 career yards rushing and 26 TDs came off a combination of designed QB runs and scrambles. When games tend to get a little hectic in the fourth quarter, Watson can stress defenses further with the threat of taking off and running.
Watson can roll into an incredible rhythm as a passer, too—a trait aided by Clemson’s QB-friendly scheme. He can drive the type of quick-hit timing routes familiar to a West Coast offense, but he also shows enough presence to manipulate DBs with his eyes and footwork.
He’s not afraid to throw receivers open, either. While Mike Williams available on the outside obviously helped him in that regard, Watson took advantage of timing routes to beat coverage.
Asking him to throw on the move should not be a problem. Watson has the athleticism to roll and fire, and his knack for picking up chunks of yardage with his legs naturally draws defenders up closer to the line.
Weaknesses: The interception numbers were far too high, particularly the 17 he fired as a junior in 2016. Combined over the 2015–16 seasons, Watson threw INTs on approximately 2.8% of his passes—Eli Manning (2.7%) and Ryan Tannehill (3.1%) ranked 24th and 25th, respectively, among starting QBs last season when it came to interception rate. So, 2.8 is much too high, especially when considering the jump from facing college to pro defenses.
Not all of those miscues were on Watson—there were some tough bounces, a handful of WR mistakes and the unavoidable brilliant defensive play. Still, his decision-making can be troublesome at times, and he’ll have to grow even more comfortable at reading defenses.
“Sometimes, you just have bad luck,” Watson said. “Sometimes, the defense makes a good play. Sometimes, I make a bad throw. One, two or three, maybe it was a bad decision but it’s a learning lesson. I’ve learned from those mistakes and I’ve corrected those and [I’m] going to move on from it.”
The completion percentage was solid and Watson can power the ball into tight windows, but he’s not consistently accurate. Receivers had to adjust to his throws too often, at the expense of after-catch yardage.
While he doesn’t mind taking a hit, his NFL team no doubt will prefer he stick in the pocket a little longer than he did at Clemson. There’s not much future to be had at the NFL level, health-wise, for quarterbacks that bail and run too often.
NFL player comp: Somewhere between Marcus Mariota and Tyrod Taylor