Deshaun Watson would be remiss not to notice the rampant criticism that surrounds him on a daily basis as the 2017 NFL Draft comes around. One of the classes’ top quarterback prospects recently noted at this year’s Scouting Combine how none of the knocks on him or his other passer counterparts such as Mitch Trubisky faze him in the slightest. And that’s because he expected this wave of skepticism to come around.
“I understood it was going to come,” said Watson. "They (scouts, evaluators) are obviously going to poke holes. If I were in their shoes, I'd poke holes, too."
Watson’s expectations of those holes poked in his resume and ability point out a contrasting problem in the microscope he’s specifically under, though. The knocks laid against him and the style of quarterbacking he employs don’t seem fair, or at least, evaluated in a proper context.
A former general manager, scout, and director of pro personnel in Michael Lombardi, now of The Ringer, recently took this theory up to bat on an enlightening podcast (hit on Watson goes from 8:00-13:35). In his mind, this false prevailing sentiment surrounds a stubborn league that’s always outsmarted itself as some teams are doing again with Watson.
“I think Deshaun Watson is the best quarterback in the draft. I think Deshaun Watson has to be evaluated in a different set of circumstances than what’s been evaluated in the past,” said Lombardi of the 21-year-old.
Given that he’s an obvious option for the Chicago Bears with the third overall pick, let’s dive a little deeper and make some sense of key points that Lombardi makes throughout about Watson and how teams seemingly just can’t look in the mirror and adjust properly to select a quarterback and help him flourish in the modern era.
- “He’s a guy whose got great leadership. You want to build your team around this player. He’s got unique ability to motivate and help the team, which is what you want. He can be the poster child for your team.”
This seems to be the intangible argument that often has no basis in scouting compared to what’s actually on tape for some. But in Watson’s case, it is fair to say he has more of this proposed leadership and galvanizing ability than everyone else in this class at first glance. He has it in spades. This is a franchise quarterback quality that not every passer possesses in being able to put the team on your back while also acting as that innate leader.
For Watson, this was already one of his known strengths, but Lombardi made sure to re-emphasize this notion.
- “He’s a lot like Cam Newton in the sense that he’s never going to be a 65 percent accurate passer. He’s never going to be precision in terms of running a West Coast (offense) with rhythm throws. But what he does is make a lot of plays and those plays help you win games.”
Back in 2011, Newton was far from a lock at number one overall. Some had concerns about how he would translate his own game to the professional level given his limited college experience and or pure success only in a college style of play. Six years later along with an MVP in tow, it’s difficult not to say he’s one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.
When you take a look at his statistics, it doesn’t exactly paint the picture of a magnet guy with efficiency either. Because for Newton, he doesn’t have to be hyper-accurate considering everything he does with his legs and other attributes.
Newton has just a 86.1 career passer rating which would put him in the company of those like Jay Cutler or Trent Green. His career completion percentage is only 58.4. Just taking a look at these statistics, you’d think this was an average player under center because he doesn’t succeed under traditional means as a pocket passer.
And yet, due to a sparkling career average of 594 rushing yards to go with eight touchdowns per season, Newton does more than his passing marks suggest. He’ll make plays with his feet either by himself, or break the pocket with excellent presence and fling a dime to his receivers (if they actually catch it). It’s also because the Panthers have let Newton loose and made him comfortable in an offense that suits him.
Not by coincidence these same struggles and strengths also describe Watson. It doesn’t matter how your quarterback is helping you win games, so long as he’s leading the team and actually doing it.
- “I think the teams that are smart stop trying to evaluate Deshaun Watson through their lens and evaluate him through his own lens. Look at what he can do and then utilize his skill set into a system that can certainly help. There’s not enough quarterbacks ... there’s no quarterback that fits perfectly what you want to do.”
- “It’s about finding the system that fits perfectly for the player. It isn’t about just grading the player and thinking he’s going to fit your system. That’s where you make the most mistakes.”
What people are afraid of with Watson as a dual threat quarterback is as noted, his inconsistent accuracy, and how as an athlete he might not be able to make the same plays with his legs in the NFL.
And yet, why should that matter? Why does the league continually have to churn out statues in the pocket and craft guys who are completing over two thirds of their passes? There are other ways to succeed at this position if you look outside the box because the former is easier said than done as well. Following the same model again and again is just not realistic and that’s partly why there’s a quality quarterback shortage in professional football, because no one wants to invest in an aspect that isn’t regularly “proven.”
The teams with innovative and dynamic coaching staffs as well as scouting departments will be the ones that can make guys like Watson a success in the NFL because they will tailor their team to his strengths rather than trying to force him into things he can’t do. Too many coaches attempt to do the latter concept because they stubbornly believe it’s their way or the highway instead of taking a step back and realizing they should take more care of the player in their hands.
Not everyone is Bill Belichick where everything they touch turns to gold. Sometimes you have to cater to any kind of player at any position you draft. In the end, a good coach can build around a guy, not with him. The ones that can do that will be those who make Watson a franchise quarterback.
- “There’s four kinds of people that evaluate: Poor scouts, who can’t recognize any talent. Then there’s the picker scout who picks on just one thing the player can’t do which is what a lot of people are doing with Deshaun Watson. They’re picking on the one thing he can’t do, which is great accuracy. Then there’s the production scout, which just grades the production. Finally, there’s the projection scout, which can see the talent and project him forward. To me that’s Deshaun Watson.”
- “The problem with the National Football League is that very few people know how to evaluate quarterback and even fewer can coach them.
Again, it’s all about nitpicking and refusing to look at the greater body of work with an accomplished and polished player overall.
The league’s evaluation process as a whole is flawed and doesn’t offer much room outside of conventional thinking which is why you see Watson in these characterizations that shouldn’t matter as much with the kind of player he is. If you can note the innate ability underneath and understand what needs to be refined with him, then you make the selection because you can focus on all his results. This is a developmental quarterback - like the others - who can learn the offense and succeed if given proper patience.
Part of why so many in the league likely can’t evaluate or coach the position is because they refuse to go away from shoehorning quarterbacks and in that light they’re only hurting themselves.
- “Bill Walsh used to say this all the time ... : The guy whose a four-year starter (Note: Watson started roughly three seasons) is going to have bad games. The guy whose a one-year starter, isn’t. Don’t take the one-year starter and look ahead. Take the one-year starter and look back. Why wasn’t he playing? Why is the one-year starter just playing all of a sudden?”
This was a part of the conversation that kind of verged onto Trubisky, which has a fair point. There’s less to attack about him because there’s less of a body of work while experience seems to be the primary detriment most focus on. Yet, he didn’t officially start a game until he was 22-years-old at Chapel Hill.
Why did it take so long for him to etch his place on that roster? Why is he now all of a sudden a higher riser for some than say, Watson? How is this a safe pick and how are any criticisms levied against him not able to be used in the same vein for Trubisky?
Remember: A little over a year ago there was talk that Watson could be the number one overall pick after the 2016 season. Now, Trubisky is Aaron Rodgers. Interesting.
These are questions you have to ask when taking a look at the whole level plane for these passers.
- “I think the teams that are smart will figure out what they are with Deshaun Watson, design the offense that fits, and then they’ll really get a great player.”
Whether that “smart” team is the Bears led by general manager, Ryan Pace, remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure, though, Watson could care less about what others have to say negatively about him for now.
“It's just going to make the documenting and storytelling in five or ten years even better.”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.