Deshaun Watson is the best quarterback entering the 2017 NFL Draft right now. This is a good, yet confusing, thing. It’s good because he was great in college, but it’s confusing because it’s entirely possible that he has maxed out his potential. Traditionally, it is difficult to take someone with this unique skill set and toss him out into the murky world of NFL schemes.
Watson has the best understanding of the position out of his colleagues. All of the subtleties of quarterback play are here: pocket presence, anticipation, recognition, ball placement, and scrambling ability. His contemporaries may be better at one of these individual components than Watson, but overall, he’s far and away the best at being an actual quarterback instead of just a young man with an arm. The conundrum is that Watson has issues throwing the football. Which is, you know, a requirement of the position.
Of all the soft skills that Watson exudes, anticipation is what he’s best at. Clemson was great at calling plays to attack certain coverages. Watson came up to the line of scrimmage, gained an understanding of the defense, figured out the route he liked, examined the way the defense reacted, and attacked from there. When the ball came out of his hand, the receiver was consistently already out of his break. Receivers were facing defenders with the ball already coming towards them. They’d turn, and boom, the ball was in their chest.
This is NFL quarterbacking. If you throw it to someone when he’s open, chances are it’s already too late. If you are throwing to a player instead of a spot, chances are the pass is going to be inaccurate. Watson’s game is constructed from the foundation of these two sentences.
Here Alabama is playing Cover One. They have one safety deep and they’re playing man everywhere else. The linebacker is spying the quarterback by playing zone in the short middle part of the field. Pre-snap, Watson sees that his slot receiver is running a slant against a monster safety. He’s slower than the receiver and he’s playing five yards off him. Since this route is run towards Watson, it has the potential to be an easy short throw.
His receiver takes one step into his break. Watson sees the safety take one step backwards. This is the only sign he needs. The ball is on the way out.
Watson puts the pass on the outside shoulder. The receiver shields the safety from the ball with his body. Additionally, the linebacker coming to the center of the field is in perfect position to make a play on the ball, but Watson never saw him. He assumed he was in man coverage and never looks his way again. However, because he recognizes the receiver being open instantly and gets the ball out this quickly, it completely takes the linebacker out of the play.
One of the other aspects of this skill Watson excels at is his knowledge of spatial dimensions. He knows how much space he needs to make throws. He understands his arm and his receivers well. Watson knows the minimum amount of space his receiver needs to be open. This, plus quick recognition, opens up the entire field to possibilities.
Here Clemson is in a 0x0x5 package. Watson is in the shotgun all alone. Ohio State is countering with Cover Three. The difference is the strong safety takes off to the center of the field, and the free safety comes down to play the shallow zone.
Immediately, Watson sees the corner take a zone turn and take off down field. None of the short crossing routes are going to be an option. He sees a yard of space and the cornerback carrying onward. The ball is already on the way out. Watson knows his receiver is going to be wide open once he cuts his route off.
The receiver turns around with three yards of space between him and the cornerback. The ball is right on him.
Here, pre-snap it looks like Oklahoma is in man coverage with two safeties back. There’s the possibility of the linebacker blitzing. Instead, the Sooners drop into Cover Three. The right cornerback turns and runs to take the left deep third of the field. The strong safety slides over to the center of the field, and the free safety slides over to the right sideline. The receiver catching this pass is running a post route.
Watson reads the field deep to short. He watches the safety first and sees him slide over to the center of the field; Watson now has the space to throw the post.
From there Watson checks on the cornerback. He has outside leverage over the receiver, so the post is going to eventually be open inside. As Watson sees the safety slide further out of the corner of his eye, he knows exactly where he needs to place the ball.
Like the previous plays, the ball is on the way out before the receiver makes his break. Watson knows he has it. Additionally, he’s still looking downfield despite the free rusher in his face. He never takes his eyes off the coverage. The threat of a potential hit doesn’t cause him to adjust his throw, and it doesn’t cause him to prematurely take off despite his mobility.
The ball is placed perfectly between the cornerback and safety.
This anticipation and ability to read the field quickly is next level quarterbacking. Watson doesn’t need time, wide open receivers, or manufactured route combinations to complete easy passes. He does it with pre-snap intelligence, a quick release, and a knowledge of the game. He needs no time at all to move the football.
Because of this, Watson is a great short thrower. He converts third and fives with ease. He puts the ball on target, leading to yards after the catch. It leads to pass rushers never getting into a rhythm because the drops are quick and forever changing.
On longer dropbacks, he is always in control of the pocket. Like Patrick Mahomes, Watson can escape from meteor showers unscathed, but unlike Mahomes, there is a reason for the insanity. The sky isn’t falling at the mere threat of a rusher. Watson doesn’t aimlessly hang back and force himself to escape from a hole he fell into. He climbs the pocket with eyes downfield at all times. When he is forced to jump and jolt around, it’s only because there is no other option. Through the calamity, he breaks tackles and slips out of manacles, and all the while, he does it looking to complete passes downfield. He doesn’t leave the pocket to run. He leaves to throw.
This play gives an idea of the disastrous fates Watson can escape. Both the defensive tackle and defensive end get free. Both are converging onto him like some archaic execution. Watson maneuvers away from the metaphorical scythe by ducking underneath both rushers and gets away without his knee scraping the ground. The one error in his judgement is not throwing the ball away. Instead Watson is sacked for a two yard loss rather than a nine yard loss. Still, this is like having a gag in your mouth while unbuckling a straight jacket with your teeth.
With his feet, Watson can pull defenders into him and open up routes for completions. Here Watson fakes the play-action and rolls left. The linebacker peels off the running back and comes untethered after him. Since he doesn’t run wide, running into the box, the safety comes downhill too. This leaves the running back open. With two defenders fixing to obliterate him, Watson takes a step back and flips the ball to the running back. Wide open. The ball carrier turns a two yard loss into a first down.
Watson is a great thrower on the run as well. Here Alabama’s running a stunt on the interior of the line of scrimmage. The hammer gets free. Watson cuts right past him and above the defensive end to his right. He has an easy five yards available to him. But rather than take off, Watson keeps his eyes downfield. His receiver turns his post into a drag and comes back towards his quarterback. Watson whips the pass to his man, which takes Clemson past midfield.
When Watson is forced to run as a last resort, he turns desperate situations into positive gains. In this instance, Alabama is playing zone coverage. Every route is covered, and Watson is facing interior pressure. Calmly, he pump-fakes and turns the defensive tackle into a sticky summer roller coaster passenger. The defender leaps to bat the pass. Watson sidesteps him and finds a seam in the line of scrimmage. The field is open since every defender downfield is stuck in coverage. Watson saunters for a first down like nothing happened.
When situations turn horrifying, Watson doesn’t just run away from them. He will sit in the pocket and deliver great throws while explosions are set to detonate all around him. Auburn brings seven here, and Clemson only has six in to block. Watson drops back farther than he planned to create space and buys himself fractions of seconds. His eyes are always downfield. Before becoming an orange streak on the ground, he unleashes an incredible pass to the corner of the end zone, making an “OMG” throw before his receiver even finishes his break.
It doesn’t all have to stem from calamity, though. Sometimes Watson floats with the tide. He goes with the flow of the game and follows the play where it leads him. In a clustered pocket, Watson crawls up, looking for something. The alarm in his head is going off. He knows time is limited. Rather than sit around and wait and to see what happens, Watson takes off and accidentally escapes two rushers to pick up a devastating third down conversion.
Clemson’s national championship winning quarterback doesn’t pick up hundred-yard rushing games purely through scrambles. Clemson ran a variety of leads, counters, and zone reads to get Watson going in the run game. As a runner, Watson has great acceleration and vision. He bursts like a change of pace back and has incredible patience in his running style.
In his own end zone here, he reads the defensive tackle. If he sits in the hole or comes down the line of scrimmage, Watson keeps it. If he chases Watson, Watson will hand it off. The boulder rolls slightly to the left, so Watson keeps it and runs past him. From there he blasts off, cutting past a flat-footed safety, bounces to the right inside, and soars until he is caught from behind.
This keeper off a fullback lead is the type of cut running backs make. As Watson follows his lead blocker, the safety comes downhill. Watson doesn’t think. He unconsciously makes his left foot plant and bounce, an action without words, and he walks into the end zone.
Watson’s athleticism gives an offense multitudes. Rushing attacks can come from multiple players in single back sets. Shallow zone defenders have to cover with one eye on their assignment and the other on the quarterback. Rushers have to commit to bringing him down while understanding he can flip the pass at any moment. Even when he’s cornered, he’s able to wriggle away in a puff of smoke.
Right now Watson is the almost perfect quarterback. He reads the field, throws into coverage with success, anticipates his receivers being open, places the ball in the perfect spot, laughs at pressure, makes throws with defenders in his face, throws on the run, and is always in control of the pocket. Watson’s problem is actually tossing the old pigskin around.
Watson has trouble making throws to either sideline. When throwing out routes, he has to put air on the ball to get it over the defensive line. If a lineman is in any position to bat the pass, Watson is forced to raise it. This leads to open receivers watching uncatchable passes wobble out of bounds.
With a defensive end in his face, here Watson misses an easy throw where the receiver has seven yards of separation from the cornerback.
When Watson pulls his arm back to throw, the ball sits behind his ear. It’s low, and the ball comes out from right behind his shoulder. At 6’2”, it’s not like he’s playing on top of a mountain. He’s already at a disadvantage, and his release makes things worse.
Sometimes Watson doesn’t get this lucky and passes are batted into the ground or up into the air. He had the most passes in the NCAA batted down with thirteen, via Pro Football Focus. Against amateurs, this is more of a lump on a smooth landscape, but in the pros, defensive linemen will sit on his pass attempts and force these high-risers. Coverages will be used to soak up the center of the field.
The other problem Watson has is throwing passes downfield and with velocity. Watson isn’t very good at pushing the ball deep. He has trouble finding the spot between long overthrows and short hangers.
Here he rolls right. He stops his feet and gathers himself to throw while somewhat stationary. His receiver is wide open. Watson simply throws the ball too far.
Here he has an open fade down the right side of the field. Watson releases the ball when he needs to. He just underthrows it and lofts it, allowing the burnt cornerback to take a knife to himself and scrape the ball.
Or this pass that should have been intercepted.
Arm strength is an issue for Deshaun Watson. Most of his completions are nice and sweet. Passes that are perfect because of anticipation and placement, not velocity. When he doesn’t release passes at the perfect moment, it pulls defenders into the play regardless of the read. Watson’s margin of error is slimmer than double figures.
In the red zone against Oklahoma here, Watson makes the correct read. It’s Cover Two. The corner punches the slot receiver running a corner route, allowing him to run past. At this point the ball needs to be gone, or Watson is going to have to blast this pass. Instead Watson hangs onto the ball. It is released after the receiver makes his break. The safety comes over the top and nearly intercepts the pass in the end zone.
Arm strength is overrated. Quarterbacks who understand and know how to play the game can get by without carrying a Statcast-breaking four-seamer. Players like Deshaun Watson can have success because of everything else they do so well. That being said, there needs to be a bare minimum of arm strength. If a player doesn’t meet it, he’s simply unplayable.
I think Watson meets this bare minimum. When Watson plants and puts every inch of himself into a throw, he can deliver some screamers. This rollout to the right where he plants and throws his entire body into the pass is a perfect example. The ball scorches past the leaping defensive back and opens up the field for the receiver to walk into the end zone.
Or this stationary throw where Watson brings everything he has.
Or this out route Watson sticks, but doesn’t complete, because his receiver breaks short of the sideline.
I don’t think Deshaun Watson is unplayable because of these throws. He should be perfectly fine. Despite the problems throwing downfield, I think he throws intermediate routes to the center of the field and back shoulder fades well enough, that he can survive and thrive without having to consistently hit deep passes. .
That’s where Watson is right now. But the entire point of scouting for the NFL Draft is to project collegiate performance into an NFL future. That’s the confusing part of Watson for me. Is this it? He’s going to have to improve to be a successful quarterback. I have something instinctual bellowing at me that Watson has already peaked. I don’t see his arm strength improving, or him becoming better at throwing with anticipation. I don’t know where the improvement comes from.
Is this an irrational fear that stems from inexperience, or a foreboding feeling? I don’t know. I do know that Watson is already a great player and finished an incredible career at Clemson. Unease aside, he should be a successful professional player if the subtleties he plays with continue and translate directly to the next level. His arm is good enough, and he’s great at everything else that not being the best thrower of the football is an inconvenience, not a career-killer.
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