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Clemson QB Deshaun Watson rises to the occasion at NFL Combine

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson impressed scouts Saturday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson impressed scouts Saturday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. The Associated Press

Only moments after Washington receiver John Ross set the NFL Combine — not to mention draft Twitter — ablaze with a blistering 4.22 40-yard dash (a new record), Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson calmly trotted onto the field and did what he always seems to do: rise to the occasion.

Watson, who entered the 2016 season as a top-10 pick — only to see his stock fall with a rash of interceptions and rise again with a terrific performance over Alabama in the national championship game — proceeded to impress scouts and draft analysts alike in the throwing drills Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Watson showcased improved footwork, good pace, a strong arm and improved accuracy as he continues to make a case to be the first quarterback selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.

“I thought Deshaun Watson was the big winner,” said CBS Sports draft analyst Rob Rang. “His ability to raise his level of play in the big moments just continues. His footwork, the accuracy, the arm strength. I thought he really helped himself today.”

Mayock wasn’t the only draft analyst who felt that way, as many pundits — including the NFL Network analysts who broadcast the event live — praised Watson for rising to the occasion while sharing the same field with other top quarterback prospects who have had formal interviews with the Chiefs, including North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes II, Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman and Brad Kaaya of Miami (Fla.).

“I thought Watson had better footwork and great accuracy throughout the whole day,” NFL.com’s Mike Mayock said. “I thought he was really interesting.”

Eric Galko of OptimumScouting.com agreed, noting that Watson’s athleticism — he posted strong marks in the 40-yard dash (4.66), vertical jump (31  1/2 inches) and broad jump (119 inches) — also stood out.

“I think he’s shown the best quarterback-athlete that’s draftable in this class, which I think was kind of assumed,” Galko said. “I think a lot of quarterbacks here didn’t look great in the drills, as expected, and I think he’s shown he’s the most polished guy behind only Peterman in terms of comfort in drops.

“Most importantly, speaking with teams here about how his interviews were — and that was the question mark teams had — and he did well.”

On one hand, the fact Watson stepped up in a big moment wasn’t a surprise, as he consistently proved to be a big-game player at Clemson.

But while he checked off the physical boxes at the combine by checking in at 6 feet 2  1/2 and 221 pounds, his sometimes-uneven performance as a true junior in 2016 — when he completed 67 percent of his passes for 4,593 yards and 41 touchdowns but also threw 17 interceptions — has caused some to question his ball-placement and ability to spot underneath coverage.

“They obviously are going to poke holes,” Watson said of his critics. “If I were in their shoes, I would poke holes, too. I take full responsibility in all of that.”

Watson blamed the interceptions on a combination of bad luck, bad throws and good plays by defenses, but says he’s learned from those mistakes and corrected them.

He said he has also been quizzed by teams on his ability to change protections and recognize defensive coverages.

“Every team I went to asked me those questions,” Watson said. “I handled it well, answered the questions and they were very impressed. They know that I’m not just some other quarterback that’s running a spread offense. (I’m a) guy that can operate, make good decisions and recognize what the defense is doing and be successful doing it.”

Watson said that this, plus his established track record, is what separates him from the other top quarterback prospects, none of whom won in college at the rate of Watson, who went 33-3 as a starter and guided a largely-middling Clemson team prior to his arrival to a national title in January.

“Being the face of college football for two years, handling the success, handling all the criticism and the adversity … one thing that translates from college to the NFL is winners, and I think, being a quarterback, that’s the biggest thing being recognized, winning games,” said Watson, who also went 48-8 in high school. “That’s all I’ve been doing.”

And if Watson indeed goes to one of the quarterback-needy teams in the top half of the draft, his track record will be a reason why.

But if he were to somehow slip, a team with an established starter looking for a premium talent to develop — like the Chiefs — might also find him appealing.

Watson has already said he wouldn’t mind playing for Chiefs coach Andy Reid, and even though Alex Smith is set to be the Chiefs’ starter for the fifth straight season, he added he’d embrace the opportunity to learn from a veteran early in his career.

“I wouldn’t mind that,” Watson said. “Any situation, I’ll respond to it. It would be awesome to learn from a veteran guy that’s been there before and I can just watch how he works and won’t have to be pushed in that pressure or that moment right away. I can sit there, learn, build my game, learn the offense and make myself a better player.”

Watson is at least a little bit familiar with the Chiefs’ offense. His personal quarterback coach, former UTEP quarterback Jordan Palmer, has advised him to watch tape of several NFL teams as he prepares for the draft.

“We watch film of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Steelers, Patriots, Falcons, Packers, Cowboys, the different teams that are playoff teams that are still playing,” Watson said. “I had the ability to watch film of those guys and see how they run and be a professional.”

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