A year from now Roger Goodell will step to the podium.
“With the first pick in the 2017 NFL draft …” the commissioner will almost shout, if he’s still commissioner and hasn’t been replaced by Steve Young or Condoleezza Rice.
The commish might be speaking from a podium in Atlanta, a city that hopes to host the 2017 NFL draft to boost interest in its new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Which would be appropriate, because the anointed player welcomed into the spotlight is likely to be from just up the road in Gainesville, Ga.
Don’t rely simply on all the 2017 mock drafts that have quarterback Deshaun Watson going No. 1 overall as a Clemson junior.
Use the eye test.
Unlike so many college quarterbacks in spread offenses who look comfortable throwing only to splendidly isolated receivers, you saw the 6-2, 210-pound Watson throw football after laser into tight coverages on the way to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist last season. Exhibit A: Four touchdown passes and 405 yards passing in a 45-40 College Football Playoff national championship loss to Alabama.
Or, as college basketball analyst Bill Walton gushed a few days later, “Wow. Did you see that quarterback on the orange team?”
The brain test works, too. Watson brings more smarts and video study hours to the quarterback table than most of the brightest prospects.
Can’t wait for the “Gruden QB Camp” episode in which Watson is asked to decipher Daboisms.
“If he makes it through the (2016) year healthy, that’s my main concern,” a longtime AFC West scout said. “If that happens, the skill is there for a very early pick, depending on needs. He needs (to get) stronger and I’m sure he will.”
So pretty much the only question is which team will land that first pick?
Watson’s top 10 most likely 2017 NFL draft destinations:
1. San Francisco. Oh, what fun, Watson in an offense run by Chip Kelly, who heavily influenced Watson’s former Clemson offensive coordinator, Chad Morris. The 49ers will probably stink again in 2017. Watson reminds a lot of analysts of Marcus Mariota, the Tennessee Titans’ first overall pick in 2015 and Kelly’s former Oregon quarterback. Unless the 49ers grab a passer in this week’s draft or make a major trade, this is a strong possibility.
2. Cleveland. If the Browns don’t pick a quarterback this year, they have two first-round picks in 2017. Robert Griffin III has one year to defy critics and various Cleveland curses.
3. Buffalo. Let’s see now, Rex Ryan already has had a handful of Clemson players on the Bills’ roster and his son Seth Ryan is a Clemson wide receiver and holder. If Tyrod Taylor keeps improving, forget it. But if Buffalo misses the playoffs because of shaky quarterback play, the Ryan family will push for Watson.
4. Chicago. How much more Jay Cutler can the Windy City take before asking one of the Cubs to take snaps?
5. Miami. The Dolphins have a new quarterback-minded coach, Adam Gase. The offensive coordinator is former Clemson play-caller Clyde Christensen, who worked with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. South Florida fans are running out of patience with Ryan Tannehill.
6. Dallas. Staubach, Aikman … Watson? Someone has to lead the Cowboys back to Super Bowl glory and it apparently isn’t going to be injury-prone Tony Romo, 36. Jerry Jones is a good candidate to lead the trade-up sweepstakes.
7. San Diego. The Chargers remain committed to Phillip Rivers but the former N.C. State star is 34 and in decline. This franchise is in a non-playoff rut, likely will have an early 2017 pick and needs star-power going into a new stadium in San Diego or a move to Los Angeles.
8. Denver. If the post-Manning patchwork doesn’t work, the Broncos might be willing to trade up from middle to late first round. Bonus tutelage from GM John Elway is great for any budding franchise player.
9. New England. If Tom Brady starts to show signs of decline playing at 39 years old in 2016 (probable), if Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t the answer (certain), if Bill Belichick wants to keep coaching the Patriots post-Brady (uncertain) … This is a trade-up possibility with Brady serving as mentor for a year or two. If Belichick wasn’t already a big Watson fan, he got a glowing report from his former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator, Nick Saban.
10. Atlanta. Matty “Ice” Ryan has a paltry 1-4 playoff record and his QBR hit a six-year low in 2015. Watson back in Georgia to usher in a new downtown stadium and maybe an NFL draft headquarters debut? If Ryan takes another step back, Atlanta might have to offer everything but Julio Jones and The Varsity to make this happen.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff