Clemson’s Deshaun Watson an intriguing player to watch at the combine

The NFL Combine kicks off in Indianapolis next week. One of the most intriguing subplots will be the evaluations of Clemson great Deshaun Watson. He just capped a brilliant three-year career that was highlighted by him (again) torching the vaunted Alabama defense. I get that drafting a quarterback is always a vexing proposition. And, as I’ve said many times, there’s no such thing as a can’t-miss. The closest thing I’ve seen making the move up was Stanford’s Andrew Luck.

QBs who thrive at the college level often flounder in the NFL for a variety of reasons ranging from maturity to arm strength to fitting the scheme. And because there are so many variables involved, I’d be very reluctant to push all my chips into the center of the table spending a top-five pick on a QB. That said, I figured Watson was top-10 caliber.

Here’s what I like so much about him. First, he’s been at his best on the biggest stages. In the past two years, he threw for 825 yards and had a 7-1 TD/INT ratio in two games against the best defense in college football, and he led his team to average 41 points against the Tide. (Alabama’s other 28 opponents during the past two years managed just 12 ppg.)

Second, from all accounts, his character and work ethic are exemplary. His athleticism is a plus. His size and arm are solid. My biggest concern with him is that he threw so many INTs this past season — 17. But I still felt like he has the kind of tools, especially how he responds to pressure, that I’d bet on him.

But now, I have a better grasp on why being an all-time great in college football might not translate so well to the NFL game. We have an upcoming edition of the Audible in which we’re joined by NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL scout. His insight, as you will hear in the podcast on all things related to the draft and to college football, is superb. He explained to us why despite what he suspects are “elite traits” in character, work ethic and intelligence, he doesn’t see Watson as a top-10 talent.

“For me, I couldn’t do it for a couple of reasons: Number one, the decision-making was a little bit inconsistent,” Jeremiah explained. “Then, number two, it’s the accuracy, especially down the field, was troubling. A lot of people will point to completion percentage, but that’s not really what accuracy and ball placement is about when you’re scouting for the next level. You wanna see where it’s located and not (rely on), can Mike Williams or (Clemson tight end Jordan) Legget make some circus catch? I don’t think he’s pinpoint accurate.

“And you’ve got those 17 interceptions. When I went back and looked at those individually, 11 of the 17 were what I deemed poor reads where he’s forcing the football and it was a decision-based mistake. That to me is troubling, especially in that type of system. Coming out of a similar type of system, you can look at Marcus Mariota who only had four interceptions. Dak Prescott only threw five picks. Deshaun Watson had 17. That’s an issue for me.”

Jeremiah’s top QB in this class is Mitch Trubisky, despite the UNC quarterback having played only one full season in college as the starter. “When I watch them off this year’s tape, I thought Trubisky was the best guy in terms of working deep through progressions, making great decisions, throwing the ball accurately,” Jeremiah said.

Jeremiah’s biggest wild card at quarterback isn’t Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, it’s actually DeShone Kizer from Notre Dame. The old scout said Kizer’s 2015 film is more impressive than 2016 Trubisky or 2016 Watson but this season’s work — without a vertical threat like Will Fuller or a stud tackle like Ronnie Stanley — raised some concerns about his field vision. But Jeremiah said the 6-4, 228-pounder has the highest ceiling and even compared him to former USC star Carson Palmer.