Marla Ridenour: Clemson QB Watson worth risk with Browns’ No. 1 pick


By Marla Ridenour - Akron Beacon Journal



I believe Clemson’sDeshaun Watson is worth the risk with the Browns’ first overall pick.

I didn’t feel this way during the first quarter of Monday night’s national championship game against Alabama. The two-time Heisman Trophy finalist looked tentative, intimidated by the Crimson Tide’s hard-hitting defense, essentially an NFL defense considering its collection of draft prospects.

I heard ESPN’sKirk Herbstreit repeatedly call Watson the best quarterback in college football and thought, “He’s a turnover machine,” because Watson had already lost one fumble. I couldn’t look past his erratic tendencies. I said to myself, “If he’s the best, I don’t want the Browns to take any of them. Go after the Patriots’Jimmy Garoppolo.”

All I could focus on was Watson’s 17 interceptions this season.

Then Watson worked his magic, rallying the Tigers from a 14-0 deficit. He showed poise and resilience to pull himself out of his funk. His 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left gave the Tigers a 35-31 victory.

By then I had come around. I decided I could live with a gunslinger who plays his best in the fourth quarter. He did the same against Louisville and Florida State in 2016. Clemson went 7-1 this season in games decided by seven points or less. Watson finished his career with a 32-3 record.

So what if Watson possesses a little bit of Brett Favre, who threw 508 career touchdown passes and 336 interceptions? Favre is still in the Hall of Fame, won a Super Bowl, was a three-time Most Valuable Player. It’s possible that Watson will take fewer chances throwing over the middle as he matures in the league.

The Browns might find themselves the only team not to play in a Super Bowl (they’re one of four now) if they don’t get a franchise quarterback. They’ve stockpiled picks in the 2017 draft. It’s time to stop trading down and listening to analytics and hedging their bets and look at more than just numbers.

Forget that ESPN’sMel Kiper Jr. on Tuesday morning still has Watson as the third best quarterback in this draft and a Day Two selection.

PICK HIM, ANYWAYYYY.

It won’t be the first time this franchise overdrafted someone. Heck, it’s probably the second-most consistent thing it does behind firing people.

Instead of giving the New England Patriots’Bill Belichick some coveted draft picks for Garoppolo, a quarterback Belichick has deemed expendable but will hold for a king’s ransom, use them to trade up from No. 12 for Clemson receiver Mike Williams. It’s even possible that Williams, who missed the 2015 season with a neck injury and might be a disappointment in the 40-yard dash, could fall in the Browns’ laps at 12.

For even as Watson won me over in College Football Playoff games against Ohio State and Clemson, I realized the Browns have no receivers as good as Williams, who is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds and can leap over anyone.

Imagine the comfort level for Watson if the Browns brought in his go-to receiver Williams as well. That would be part of doing everything in their power to help their quarterback succeed, another fatal flaw.

If Watson accepts the invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, with the Browns’ staff coaching his South team later this month, they might never get better insight into a quarterback prospect. Coach Hue Jackson might come away with some of the same impressions of Watson as I did during pre-Fiesta Bowl interviews.

In my eyes, what sets Watson apart from other quarterbacks who have failed as Browns starters is his dedication. He graduated in three years, taking 19 hours in the fall of 2015 during the Tigers’ run to the championship game. That requires a commitment that will nearly match what is necessary in the NFL.

He’s smart, like a coach on the field, and a great leader. He’s got a chip on his shoulder because he didn’t win the Heisman. He can run, but he doesn’t look to escape the pocket on every snap. He showed great balance tight-roping the sideline for a touchdown against Alabama. Listed as 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he’s nearly as big as Garoppolo, a three-year veteran who is 6-2, 225 pounds. In person, Watson looked much stronger in the upper body than I expected.

NFL teams don’t overreact to one game, so the Browns can surely talk themselves out of picking Watson in the next three months. They need look no further than his 32 career interceptions (against 90 touchdown passes, with 26 more rushing). That would be like former Browns coach Chris Palmer saying Donovan McNabb was the first quarterback they eliminated in 1999 because Palmer knew people at Syracuse. (Perhaps those people were feeding the Browns bad information because they didn’t want McNabb, a future six-time Pro Bowler with the Philadelphia Eagles, to go to an expansion team?)

To ignore Watson’s intangibles and his knack for fourth-quarter glory would only continue the sins of the Browns’ woebegone organization. Come April 27, as Butch Davis would say, it’s time to show some guts and take a chance on Watson.

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By Marla Ridenour

Akron Beacon Journal