Deshaun Watson was not be the first quarterback taken at the NFL draft on Thursday night. Mitchell Trubisky was, going second overall to a trading-up Bears team.
If Watson now goes on to be the class’ best QB, there’ll be a lot of I-told-you-sos from some of the people who know him best: his teammates and head coach for the last three years at Clemson.
Almost every player who’s ever entered the draft has drawn praise from his teammates and coaches. But the praise reserved for Watson by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and some of the QB’s teammates over the years has been particularly effusive. To these people, it’s unfathomable that Watson might not be the first QB off the board.
“He’s definitely the best quarterback in the draft,” former Clemson defensive lineman Carlos Watkins told SB Nation before the draft. “That’s my opinion.”
“I think so, honestly,” his tight end, Jordan Leggett, told SB Nation when asked if Watson should be the first QB taken. “I don’t know why people don’t have him going first, but that’d just be a bad business move on whichever team takes another quarterback before him, honestly.”
“I believe so,” added running back Wayne Gallman. “That’s my quarterback, so I’m gonna always root for him to go the highest he could possibly go. I think he has the work and the film to prove that.”
Swinney went higher.
“If they pass on Deshaun Watson, they’re passing on Michael Jordan, I’m just telling you,” he told reporters in January, fresh off the Watson-engineered win over Bama.
The case for Watson is based in some part on intangible traits.
Watson was a brilliant college football player, and college fans will be confused if he isn’t the first QB pick. He put a chink into Alabama’s armor in the Playoff national title game two Januarys in a row, and he beat the Tide to win it all with a last-minute scoring drive this year. He did all of this with a smile on his face, after arriving at Clemson as four-star recruit in the class of 2014.
It’s understandable that NFL evaluators don’t focus on these things. But people who lived through the Clemson years with Watson absolutely do.
“You’ve just gotta look at how he played, honestly,” Leggett said. “I mean, you can’t ask a kid — I mean, 20 years old — to go out there and lead his team down with two minutes left in the national championship game, going against one of the best teams in the nation. It’s kind of hard to do, to ask of somebody like that, and he did it with poise and kept the offense calm.
“He’s just a different type of person, honestly. He’s gonna play in the NFL for a long time.”
When Watson’s teammates rave about him, poise is the common denominator.
“He has what it takes to be that great quarterback on the next level,” Watkins says. “Just from my time playing with him, he never gets frustrated, always stays composed, never gets rattled. He seems to play better under pressure. That’s what you like as a quarterback.”
Watson was a quiet face of Clemson for the last two seasons. Nobody who knows him describes him as vocal, but because of how he’s played, he hasn’t had to be.
“He’s not the most vocal guy,” Leggett says. “He just definitely leads by example, does right on and off the field. It’s just a guy you kind of look up to, and you try to just follow his footsteps.”
Watkins, Gallman, and Leggett were made available to SB Nation by Panini America, a sports card company each has worked with before the draft.