Amid the city slickers sauntered in the only honest man at the NFL draft. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney plopped himself down at a glass table in the lobby, clad in a purple Nike Clemson polo, tan jeans and his perpetual aw shucks smile. Swinney played the role of simple Southern soothsayer, unapologetically calling out the teams foolish enough to not take his star quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
“They’re going to regret it,” Swinney predicted, matter-of-factly. “I feel sorry for the teams that pass on him.”
On a night that will be remembered as a pivot point for the NFL draft becoming more like the NBA draft, Swinney’s Southern wisdom proved prophetic. Going for the NBA-esque potential over production and scouting projections over resume compilations, the Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs traded up for a pair of unproven quarterbacks.
Watson waited patiently in the Green Room, his 32–3 career record, national title and impeccable reputation on ice. He watched North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky go at No. 2 to the Bears. Trubisky had nearly one-third the career starts (13) as Watson had wins. And not only did Chicago trade up for Trubisky, they gave up the biggest ransom seen in North America since the Louisiana Purchase—two third-round picks and a fourth-round pick to move up a single spot, the football equivalent of hoodwinking 827,000 square miles from the French for $15 million.
Then, Kansas City took Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes at No. 10, fresh off a 5–7 season at Texas Tech. If before the season someone had told me that Trubisky and Mahomes would be the No. 2 and No. 10 overall picks, I’d have assumed it was the CFL draft.
“They’re going to look back in two or three years,” Swinney said, “and they’re going to be like, ‘Holy cow, we had a chance to get [Watson], and we didn’t take him.’”
To be clear, Watson is by no means a perfect prospect. He threw a handful of bad interceptions last year. He relied mostly on half-field reads, and there are always concerns about transitioning from a spread offense to a pro-style one. But overlooking Watson’s production, track record and raw ability seem like jarring oversights, as the front offices in Chicago and Kansas City are gambling on their own perceived genius over common sense.
“The proof was in the writing, and no one believed it,” said SMU coach Chad Morris, who recruited Watson to Clemson. “Everyone still wanted to downgrade him. When he walks into an organization, he immediately makes that organization better. I really think that kind of scares people, too. Is this kid too good to be true?”
Watson smiled big when asked about not being the first quarterback taken. He struck a much different tone than when, prior to the draft, he told ESPN he’d take it as a “slap in the face” if Trubisky went ahead of him. On Thursday, he only acknowledged that he’s tight with both quarterbacks and then clammed up: “That’s all I have to say about that.”
Hanging out in the lobby of the players and coaches hotel the past two days, a uniform portrait of Watson as a high-end NFL quarterback emerged from college coaches. Stanford coach David Shaw categorized Watson behind Andrew Luck and Jameis Winston among the best quarterbacks to turn pro in recent years. Shaw recalled doing a study for Jon Gruden while he was Oakland’s quarterback coach prior to the 2001 Draft. Gruden wanted him to compile the fourth-quarter statistics of the top prospects. An undersized kid from Purdue had by far the best of those numbers, and Drew Brees ended up putting forth a pretty solid career. “When you watch in the biggest games in the fourth quarter, there’s no comparison,” Shaw says of Watson. “He’s the best quarterback in the nation and maybe the best quarterback in the draft in the last couple years.”
The praise was relentless and effusive from there. UCLA’s Jim Mora brought up John Wooden’s theory of competitive greatness, being at your best when your best is needed. Nick Saban has been quoted saying that Watson’s dynamism is similar to Cam Newton, and that was before Watson torched Alabama for 21 fourth-quarter points in the national title game. Urban Meyer called Watson a “game changer” by phone on Thursday, complimenting his quick release and ability to “make something out of nothing.”
The difficult thing to quantify is how Watson’s character will translate. Growing up, Watson lived in a home provided by Habitat for Humanity. His mother endured cancer and lost part of her tongue in surgery. He grew up without a father in his life, which left his high school coach, Bruce Miller, to give him a birds and the bees talk. Watson didn’t just overcome adversity, he thrived through it. He became a two-time Heisman finalist, the face of a university and the first member of his family to graduate college. (Knowing he’d be a three-and-done, Watson took on extra courses to graduate in three years.)
“This kid has battled adversity his whole life,” Morris said. “It’s an absolute no-brainer.”
Of all the teams with immediate quarterback needs who passed on Watson on Thursday night —Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco, Jacksonville and the Jets—the most compelling franchise is the Browns. Cleveland not only passed on Watson at No. 1, it opted to trade its No. 12 pick rather than take him there. For a star-crossed franchise choosing between Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler at quarterback, the potential of twice passing on a potential franchise QB like Watson looms with delicious doomsday potential. You can already hear the losers’ lament: “We not only passed on Watson ... we passed on him twice.”
Months ago, Swinney predicted that passing on Watson would be like passing on Michael Jordan. And the only honest man in Philadelphia stood by his word on Thursday. There hasn’t even been a snap of mini-camp, and Swinney has already offered his condolences to Browns fans. Outside of the front offices of a handful of NFL teams, there aren’t a lot of folks who disagree with him.
Deshaun Watson is a 'winner,' but he's Tom Savage's backup for now
HOUSTON -- All offseason -- after the Houston Texans traded Brock Osweiler to the Cleveland Browns -- the front office and coaching staff have said they believe in Tom Savage to be the team’s starting quarterback.
But in a huge move in the first round of the NFL draft, the Texans traded two first-round picks (No. 25 in 2017 and their 2018 pick) to get Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, the guy that general manager Rick Smith clearly thinks is Houston's quarterback of the future and the end of their quarterback carousel.
But not yet. After the pick, Smith and head coach Bill O’Brien reiterated that Savage is still their starting quarterback. “I don’t know if people believe us, but we’re comfortable with Tom Savage as our quarterback,” Smith said with a laugh.
“As a rookie quarterback it's a big jump,” O’Brien added. “Tom is our starter and Deshaun will come in and he's going to work hard and we're going to teach him and feed him a lot of information and he'll work at it.”
But Watson didn’t just fall into their laps at No. 25. Smith said after he saw the Kansas City Chiefs trade up to select Texas Tech quarterback, he made the call to Cleveland to complete the trade. This is the first time since 2012 that three quarterbacks were picked within the first 12 picks, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
According to the organization, Savage will be given a chance to succeed. But given the high price the Texans gave up to draft Watson, he will have the chance for the starting job, and we may see Savage on a short leash if he struggles.
In less than two months, Savage has gone from the guy who the Texans said was their answer at quarterback to now being in what could be a tough position battle. With one year remaining on his rookie contract, this is his chance to be an NFL starter, something that has been just out of his reach due to other quarterbacks and injuries.
During his conference call on Thursday night, Watson said he was prepared to do whatever it is the Texans ask him to do.
"All I need to do is put my head down, don't say anything, learn from all the veteran guys, learn from Tom Savage, learn from Brandon Weeden and just play my role," Watson said. "Whatever role that is, play it well and help the team win."
The phrase Smith and O’Brien repeated after drafting Watson is that he is a winner, something that is very important to the organization. O'Brien cited Watson's poise and impressive memory as characteristics that impressed them about the rookie. Watson, who was was 32-3 in as a starter at Clemson, threw for 4,593 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2016 to lead the Tigers to the national title last season
"One of the things that stood out to me was how well he played in clutch moments, in big games, in games that really meant everything — national championship games, big ACC games, the guy came through," O'Brien said. "When the chips were down he was able to lead his team to victory. And I think that says a lot about a quarterback. In the end, one of the things that we always look at is is the guy a winner and this guy is a winner ... I don't think anyone can argue with that."
HOUSTON TEXANS' FIRST NFL DRAFT PICK DESHAUN WATSON WEARS SPIKED LOUBOUTIN SHOES
Former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is already enjoying the life of an NFL player after the Houston Texans picked him in the first round of the draft.
Watson is getting a lot of attention, not only from Texans fans, but others who spotted his spiky new pair of shoes Thursday night.
During a press conference with the media, Watson showed off his new designer brand shoes, which ESPN reported were Christian Louboutins called Dandy Pik Pak flat smoking slippers.
The cost? Nearly $2,000.
Watson told reporters that he had always wanted a pair of Louboutins and thought draft day was the perfect occasion to buy himself a pair.
The Texans traded their first-round pick this year and next year to select Watson at No. 12.
"It's amazing," Watson told ESPN. "I tell myself not to cry but can't hold it back. Now I'm finally being introduced into the National Football League. It's a blessing, but I worked for it."
Watson broke down into tears as he read a letter from his mom after he was drafted.
"I'm so proud of the person and the man you became," Watson read. "You made it."