PHILADELPHIA — On Thursday afternoon, the Logan Hotel in downtown Philadelphia buzzed with the over-gelled opportunists who tend to beehive around top prospects. Lingering in the lobby of the player’s hotel at the NFL draft, there were more ripped jeans than an H&M outlet, more fast talkers than a three-card monte convention and enough $800 sneakers to fill Fashion Week.
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.