Futures: Deshaun Watson
Guest column by Seth Galina
I'm Seth Galina, and I have been coaching quarterbacks for more than a decade and playing Madden for even longer. I was born in New Orleans but raised in Montreal, Quebec. Although I do play hockey, I have been around football my whole life. I currently coach at Vieux-Montreal College.
Today I want to look at how we evaluate and project quarterbacks through the play of Clemson's Deshaun Watson. One of the narratives that comes up a lot with Watson is that he played in a "college" offense that doesn't translate to the NFL. My first concern with that narrative is that there are very few passers who don't run a quarterback-friendly college offense. You wouldn't be doing yourself a favor as head coach/offensive coordinator if you made your offense difficult for the quarterback to understand. Quarterback is already the hardest position to play in sports, so why would you burden him with extra things?
You don't need an NFL offense to beat a college defense. You need a good college offense. A college offense needs only to be as complex as the defense it faces. There's no reason for any college coach to teach his quarterback anything that he won't be seeing on Saturdays.
Very few teams run a "pro-style" system. Even the few quarterbacks who do come out of an actual pro-style system, don't automatically have success. Ryan Tannehill came out of a real pro system at Texas A&M under Mike Sherman, but that knowledge hasn't translated into anything substantial in the NFL. Drew Brees was in a prototypical "college" offense at Purdue, and he turned out OK from what I hear.
Watson will be a good NFL quarterback if he can learn how to play quarterback at an NFL level. It's as simple as that sounds. Figuring out which quarterbacks will become good pros is difficult because quarterbacking is all mental. We can project that Myles Garrett will be a good player because we know that at the position he plays, elite athletes like himself, tend to stay around in the NFL for a long time.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is not an elite athlete. Last I heard, that guy is going to the Hall of Fame.
The one physical aspect that a quarterback needs to have is good throwing mechanics. You can't have bad mechanics and play in the NFL. You don't need great mechanics, but they can't be doo-doo (I'm looking at you Patrick Mahomes). Every quarterback in the NFL can throw the ball with good, consistent mechanics these days. Even Philip Rivers -- yes, he has a crazy windup, but he does eventually get his elbow up high enough to reduce stress on his shoulder.
Watson has very solid mechanics. I like his legs. He squats a bit on his back leg to create power as he swings that leg forward. The front, standing leg shows a bit of bend when he plants it. This allows his hips to continue to get around and generate the power started from his back leg. His arm slot is very good also. He's got a nice and high elbow, and he doesn't slash very much on his follow through. All the power he creates when he starts his motion finishes through his throw, and it's very sweet to watch.
What stands out watching Watson's film is his accuracy. He tends to put the ball where he wants it to go. A lot of that comes from his mechanics, but I also believe a lot accuracy is mental. I've had kids with great mechanics not be able to hit a barn in the ocean (is that the expression?), and I've had kids with wasteful mechanics that can still hit their targets accurately. Visualizing where a moving target is going and then throwing to that spot sounds easy, but it's not.
Watson can make accurate throws when he has a window to get the ball to the receiver. He has a bit of trouble when he has to throw over intermediate defenders. There were a couple would-be interceptions that were dropped by Alabama linebackers in the championship game this past year when he tried to drop the ball in behind them.
Which brings us to Watson's downside: the crazy amount of interceptions he threw. Like any quarterback, not all of them were Deshaun's fault but 17 in one year is a heck of a lot -- second-most in the country last year.
His third of the year, which came against Troy, is interesting.
Troy had been playing a lot of this newfangled wide-safety Cover-2 defense. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown runs this a lot, and has going back to his days at Boston College, where the safeties have to get really wide because the corners aren't getting their hands on the No. 1 receiver and rerouting him to the inside. They are often trapping the flats. That's not quite what Troy is running here, but that weak safety is way outside the hashmarks. Watson makes the right read -- the cornerback is down, so Watson throws the corner route. The throw isn't that bad either, but that safety is already over there by scheme. It's worth noting that the Troy defense is wide-open a post route for a touchdown. If that weak-side slot receiver takes two steps to the corner and then cuts to the post, baby, you got a stew going.
This next one goes against what I was saying about his accuracy, but it needs to be shown.
The read is good. It's a third-level run/pass option (the same stuff that Dak Prescott runs, but ugh, college offenses booo). Watson makes the correct read on the weak safety, but throws the ball behind Mike Williams. Watson doesn't set his feet very well, and I think that's what throws the accuracy off. The pocket is clean so he has to get set and make an accurate throw. The pocket is so rarely clean that when it does happen, you have to make the most of it.
These three interceptions (one against North Carolina State, the second against Florida State, and the third against Pittsburgh) show his occasional inability to get the ball over intermediate defenders.
There are some bad throws in Watson's interception portfolio. But looking at his playoff games against Ohio State and Alabama, we see limitless potential for Watson. These are the two best defenses he faced in 2016, and they were in the two biggest games of the year.
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I used to think the "clutch" narrative that we bestowed upon some athletes was pure garbage. We unfairly call someone a choker because they miss one shot, drop one ball, or play poorly in one game. We love anecdotal evidence as a good enough reason to label someone forever. That kind of small-sample size narrative labeling will always be useless, but if there is such thing as being clutch, Deshaun Watson is certainly that. I don't know if it's something he's doing consciously, but whatever he's doing he needs to keep doing it. He was huge in all four playoff games he played as a collegian.
The semi-final and final in the 2016 playoffs are great to analyze because of the juxtaposition between the two defenses Watson faced. Ohio State played a lot of Cover-1/Cover-3 middle-of-field schemes, while Alabama played their "press quarters" stuff with a lot of Cover-1 as well. Both teams play a lot of man coverage with super athletes, which is what Watson is going to see in the NFL. Watson was incredible in these two games. If you just watched him in the playoffs, you'd believe he was easily a top-five pick. That's how good he was against two stout defenses.
Of course, his first throw against Ohio State would be an interception. It's still a very good throw and a good read. Ohio State shows a two-safety defense and then rotates down to Cover-1 on the snap. Clemson looks to be running a mirrored smash concept. Smash is good against most coverages, but against Cover-1 it creates opportunities to throw corner routes for big completions, and big completions are always fun. After looking off the safeties, Watson turns his head to check out what the cornerback (in this case, Raekwon McMillan, because Clemson's usual slot receiver Wayne Gallman split out wide) is doing. If the corner stays low to play the quick hitch route, this is an automatic throw to the corner route that should win versus man coverage. Watson puts the ball in a good spot, but Williams gets killed by Gareon Conley, and then slips, which causes the interception even though Watson was fine on that play. Don't let anyone tell you they don't run mirrored smash concepts in the NFL.
Don't let anyone tell you they don't run pair stick to the front side and slants to the back side in the NFL, either. Watson checks the stick variation out to the front side and moves the Mike backer to open up a window for the backside slant, then throws on the money.
Let's look at some more great throws Watson made against Ohio State.
Ohio State gives Watson a two-safety, press look from the outset. Clemson has a go/out concept to the bottom of the screen. Watson is going to look to the go route as his first read. If he likes it, he takes it. I'd like to see him get his eyes on the safety right away to freeze Malik Hooker for a second, but if you throw a ball this accurately to the back shoulder, you're usually going to be fine. When the corner turns toward the sideline with Williams, it's going to be very hard for him to play the back-shoulder ball. If you look at the corner on the top, you'll see that he opens towards the inside. If that technique had been used on Williams, Watson could never throw to that route, and would have worked to Jordan Leggett on the quick out cut.
This is an excellent interception by Malik Hooker. Clemson is running a little rub wheel route with a rollout by Watson. Watson is keying the cornerback to the top side. If the corner runs with the slant/pick, then Watson knows it's man coverage, and he will get the matchup he wants on the wheel route after the slot cornerback gets picked off. Watson gets what he wants and throws the ball accurately to the right receiver. The problem is Hooker, obviously. That kid is rangy and will probably go in the first 15 picks in the draft. With that said, he's helped out by the rollout. Hooker is already sprinting to the sideline once he reads the quarterback roll. There's also no other route he needs to cover but the wheel as the deep middle safety. Finally he makes a phenomenal catch and keeps his feet inbounds on the sideline. Otherwise that ball is going to land right into the receiver's hands.
A simple but effective tosser/double slant concept. Watson is reading whether the defender on top of his slot receiver allows access inside to the slant route. You can see after the slot corner blitzes, the safety comes down and to the outside of the slot. Watson has to fire the ball in accurately before the linebacker comes over, and he does. Should that safety have taken away the inside, Watson would have tried to hit the outside slant route.
Here we have a deeper slant route by Williams to the top of the screen. Before the snap, the weak safety is sitting right there in the window. During the play-action fake, Watson is looking to see if he has a window to deliver the ball to that route. You can see the safety rotate to the strong side of the field, and the play fake sucks the linebacker up enough to open a window to the slant.
Let's take a look at Watson against Alabama now. What I loved about this game was his placement of some passes on certain parts of his receivers' bodies away from Crimson Tide defenders. It's tough for receivers to get separation against members of the Alabama secondary, so Watson had to throw to "covered" receivers but away from defenders, and it was really nice to see.
Although this might seem like a bad throw, I always tell my quarterbacks that when throwing slants you can also put the ball on the back hip of the receiver. There is clear and present danger in the middle of the field where the slant route is going, so it's never a bad thing to put the ball directly on the receiver instead of in front of him.
This is the same double-slants scheme Clemson used against Ohio State. Just the Buckeyes did, the Alabama slot defender is playing outside shade. This is because the defender has help to the inside in the form of safeties and linebackers. Watson's slot receiver wins inside, and the quarterback throws an accurate pass
Step up in the pocket, throw a rope corner route in bounds. Money. When we throw corner routes to inside receivers, we are going to be checking what the cornerback over our outside receiver does first. In this case, the cornerback is playing man and is looking at the outside receiver. This gives Watson the green light to throw the corner route. Against man coverage with a single deep safety, the slot receiver who is running the corner route is going to take his route deep, because the safety is going to have a tough time getting from the middle of the field all the way to the sideline. In this case, Alabama is in Man-2. This means there is a safety sitting on top of that corner route. This tells the receiver and quarterback that the corner route is going to become a deep sail route underneath that split-field safety. That's what Watson throws for a big gain. Good arm strength shown on this toss.
Just the biggest throw in college football in 2016. It's tough to see exactly what the concept is here, but it looks like some sort of switch verticals concept. It's four verticals, except the receivers are switching assignments. It's covered really well by Alabama. The only place for Watson to put this ball is on the back shoulder. You have the corner inside and the safety over the top. With a man in his face and unable to complete his follow-through, Watson throws a bullet to keep Clemson's title hopes alive.
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There are certainly things Watson needs to work on, which will probably keep him out of the draft's top ten picks. But there is enough of a talent base that if he learns the mental side of the game and works on certain throws, he could be a fine starting quarterback in the NFL.
Seth Galina is a quarterback coach in the football hotbed of Montreal, Quebec. He writes for And The Valley Shook, Maize N Brew, and RollBamaRoll, and caught 22 passes for his flag football team this year. His twitter handle is @sethgalina, where you can find him reposting lyrics to '90s pop songs.