CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Alabama coach Nick Saban said in July that Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson was “the most significantly dominant player that we’ve played against since Cam Newton in 2010.’’
Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s national championship loss to the Crimson Tide. He also rushed 20 times for 73 yards.
Newton threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 39 yards and a touchdown to rally Auburn from a 24-0 halftime deficit to a 28-27 win over Alabama in 2010.
Watson has been compared to Newton, who just finished his sixth season with the Carolina Panthers, over the past few years because both are dominant, dual-threat quarterbacks.
You’ll likely hear more comparisons leading into Monday night’s national championship rematch against Alabama.
For hypothetical purposes, let’s consider what would happen if Newton and Watson were in the same draft.
Who would go first?
We already know Newton went No. 1 to the Panthers in 2011 after leading Auburn to an undefeated season and national title. That decision was cemented for the Panthers when Stanford’s Andrew Luck opted to stay in school one more year.
But what if Watson had been in the mix? Disregard the fact Newton went on to become the NFL Rookie of the Year in 2011 and NFL MVP in 2015.
That was the question posed to ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr.
“Plenty of people had questions on Cam Newton, but the key difference between him and DeShaun Watson is with Cam none of those [questions] were physical,’’ Kiper said. “Cam was and is a 6-[foot]-5, 260-pound quarterback who could take punishment, had a huge arm and had handled SEC defenses.
“If there were knocks on him, they were often unfair questions about his work ethic, how well he could master an NFL offense coming out of that Auburn system, and so on. Again, none of that is physical.’’
The question of how well Newton could handle an NFL offense persisted during his first few years. Even the Carolina coaching staff was reminded he was raw — he played only one year of big-time college football.
“With Watson, he doesn’t just face the usual questions about transitioning to the NFL — same as Cam — but he also doesn’t have that ridiculous physical skill set,’’ Kiper said.
Watson is 6-3, 210. He runs around defenders instead of over them as Newton did in college and still does in the NFL at times.
“[Watson] has plenty of tape, but this year was a small step back, whereas Cam had the one amazing year,’’ Kiper said of Watson, who wasn’t as dominant this season as last. “And then when you put the two side by side, you see one guy who might be the best pure athlete on a field with 22 guys out there, and then a guy who is a good athlete but is maybe 6-1 and 210.’’
Newton’s one year of Division I football was amazing. He threw for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,473 yards and 21 touchdowns in leading Auburn to a perfect record.
He also won the Heisman Trophy by an overwhelming margin over Luck, whom many pundits considered the better pro prospect.
Watson has a bigger body of work at Clemson. He led the Tigers to an undefeated regular season in 2015 and was within a whisker of winning a national title, losing 45-40 to Alabama.
He has taken Clemson back to the title game this season with only one loss, finishing second in the Heisman voting. He has thrown for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns and rushed for 581 yards and eight touchdowns.
If you’re keeping count, Newton had a combined 51 passing and rushing touchdowns in his final college season. Watson has 46.
This season in the NFL, Newton took a step back from his MVP season, throwing only 19 touchdown passes after having a career-best 35 in 2015. He also completed a career-low 52.9 percent of his passes.
But this hypothetical is based on what Newton and Watson did in their final year of college and how that would translate in the draft.
In Kiper’s evaluation, Newton would get the nod primarily based on physical stature.
“Not everybody loved Cam, but he’s the kind of physical freak you bet on, considering he completely dominated college football in almost every possible way for a season,’’ he said. “Watson is a really good college player, but these are much different players.”