Deshaun Watson Is Bound for Earth - Footballguys

A tour through the 2018 fantasy outlook for the Texans' Deshaun Watson

When a prospect enters the NFL and immediately starts threatening (sometimes shattering) records, it’s certainly fair to wonder how he projects going forward. Pinning down 2018 expectations for Deshaun Watson, across such a wide range of potential outcomes, is no easy task. His rookie production was strong enough that we can’t just start our evaluation from scratch; we know Watson is NFL-capable. But how much of that short-lived rookie greatness can we project to carry over?

Based upon the sheer explosiveness of his rookie numbers, it’s hard to know just how much mean regression to expect. But fantasy owners can’t responsibly look for the same level of productivity. Watson was dynamic as a rookie, but to the point that his numbers are hard to trust going forward. Given his high draft cost – and the bloated middle of the quarterback board – Watson’s top-tier average draft position can’t be easily justified.

A (Very) Brief History of Time

Watson’s 2017 wasn’t merely the best fantasy season ever seen from a rookie quarterback. It was one of the better overall seasons we’ve witnessed of late.

Among all rookies since 1998 to throw a minimum of 200 passes, Watson’s debut checked in:

  • Second in passer rating (103.0)
  • Fourth in adjusted yards per attempt (8.4)
  • Fifth in yards per game (242.7)
  • First in touchdown rate (9.3%)
  • First by a mile in fantasy points per game (24.6) – made even more impressive by the fact that he sat out the first half of Week One

Going beyond the rookie pool, we note that Watson managed:

  • The NFL’s eighth-most adjusted net yards per attempt (7.2) among qualifiers (at least 150 attempts)
  • An exceptional touchdown rate (9.3%) that registered higher than the career-best marks of Tom Brady (8.7%), Kurt Warner (8.2%), or Ben Roethlisberger (7.9%)
  • 38.4 rushing yards per game, 23rd-most from a quarterback over the past 20 years

Ultimately, this sizzling production made Watson the No. 2 fantasy quarterback from Weeks 1-8. In fact, he registered an eye-popping 0.77 fantasy points per dropback, the second-highest mark of all 350 qualifying quarterback seasons over the last 10 years. This measure skews majorly toward running quarterbacks, but it’s noteworthy that neither Cam Newton, nor Michael Vick, nor anyone ever touched 0.77 points per dropback over that span. And Watson did it fresh out of the gates.

Watson, the Prospect

Watson entered the NFL on the heels of a ballyhooed Clemson career, but it wasn’t a flawless one. His effectiveness dipped noticeably in his junior (final) year, which isn’t a great sign. Among the first-round class of 2017 (Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, and Patrick Mahomes II II), Watson posted by far the worst adjusted yardage per attempt (8.03), itself a sharp decline from his previous year. He also finished behind fellow prospects DeShone Kizer, Nathan Peterman, and Jerod Evans.  But fantasy owners shouldn’t blindly assume that Watson’s NFL draft status – nor his amazing rookie efficiency – were expected phases of a long-term pattern. He was a shaky first-round prospect, and his rookie play was fairly uncharacteristic.

There were some concerns with his rookie game, too, embedded within that magical fantasy run. Watson was (relatively) plagued by interceptions: according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Interceptions metric, which includes dropped interceptions, Watson posted the seventh-worst rate among qualifiers. That’s not a particularly concerning rate, but it’s high, and it’s not surprising. Watson was picked off at a moderate rate as a full-timer at Clemson, after all – he lacks signature decisiveness and velocity on his throws. In fact, his tested velocity at last year’s combine (45.0 MPH in each direction) was abnormally poor, the lowest in the 10-year history of velocity testing. Watson doesn't have elite arm talent.

Running to Daylight

As with Vick and Newton before him, no discussion of Watson’s fantasy value would be complete without analyzing his rushing ability. A productive college runner (26 touchdowns over 38 games) and a generally strong tester at the combine (class-best in the 40-yard dash, the 3-cone drill, and all jumps), Watson piled up rushing fantasy points as a rookie. Excluding Week One, in which he only played a half, Watson ultimately added 6.2 standard weekly points to his line. He wasn't touchdown dependent, either. Over 6.5 games, Watson took only two rushes from inside the 10-yard line, while the Texans leaned heavily on Lamar Miller near the goal line. Houston boasts a talented, diverse backfield, but the lightning-quick Watson will always be a dangerous goal-line option. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him double that usage in 2018, and it’s fair to project 4-to-6 rushing touchdowns over a full 16-game season. Rushing production like Watson’s is typically equivalent to roughly 1,200 passing yards and 6-to-9 touchdowns; that can’t be overlooked.

Whirlpool Talk

Watson’s 2018 outlook hinges on the health of his knee. He suffered a complete ACL tear during a midweek practice on November 3rd and didn’t play again. ACL tears aren’t career-enders anymore, provided surgery and rehabilitation efforts go smoothly. And by all accounts, Watson is recovering well. He participated in individual drills at OTAs without a brace, just seven months after the injury. All signs point toward participation in training camp, which would quell lingering fears. 

It also needs to be noted that Watson’s previous ACL tear, to his left knee in 2014, doesn’t look like an issue at all. That injury was exceptionally minor as ACL tears go: Watson never missed a game due to it, utilizing a brace to prevent discomfort and further damage.

What to Expect When You’re Projecting

Where to rank Watson this year? It’s safe to expect some regression after such a dizzying – but small – sample of play. Any shrewd fantasy player can see the effects of that impossible-to-duplicate stretch in Watson’s receivers. To illustrate how unusually productive that run was, compare the career yardages per target, touchdown rates, and per-target fantasy numbers for his top three producers, both with and without him under center and compared against the 2016-17 league.

Wide Receiver
Yards/Targets
Touchdown Rate
Rec FF Points/Target
no Watson
w/Watson
+/- NFL Avg
no Watson
w/Watson
+/- NFL Avg
no Watson
w/Watson
+/- NFL Avg
DeAndre Hopkins
7.98
7.97
102%
7.9%
15.6%
203%
1.62
1.94
117%
Will Fuller
6.49
12.68
163%
3.2%
53.8%
699%
1.27
3.77
227%
5.62
9.24
154%
3.0%
11.1%
271%
1.47
2.35
152%

It’s hard to pick out the most staggering number there, between Hopkins doubling his career touchdown rate and the volatile Fuller boosting his fantasy scoring by 227%. Of course, it’s highly possible – even likely – that 2017 Watson was merely good enough to boost those guys on merit. But approaching 2018 as though that seven-game stretch is his real ceiling feels shortsighted. 

Consider, for example, that Watson threw 27 passes from his opponent’s red zone, and a whopping 13 of them (48.1%) resulted in touchdowns. That’s not merely a great rate, it’s an absurd one. 2017’s league average was less than half that, at 21.7%, and only one other passer (Carson Wentz) even sniffed 40%. It's irresponsible to project a similar rate going forward – and Watson threw 17 of his 19 rookie scores from the red zone. If that rate normalizes down to, say, 30%, Watson’s touchdown projection would drop from a 45 to around 23-25 over a full season. While that dip seems radical, it’s a layered expectation that considers factors beyond just Watson. The peripherals are always essential, but even more so when we only have a 204-attempt sample size.

Final Thoughts

Watson doesn't need a textbook arm, nor upper-tier passing skills, to post strong fantasy totals. Scaling down his 2017 production would still leave owners with a quality QB1, and despite his flaws, it’s foolhardy to forecast disaster. He has two dynamic outside receivers, and the Texans have added an explosive slot option in rookie Keke Coutee, as well as new pieces along the offensive line. With his running ability factored in, there is more than one avenue by which Watson can excel in 2018 fantasy.

Unfortunately, drafting Watson requires a high cost. Finishing as a low-end QB1 (i.e., QB10-QB12 range) wouldn't justify the price, and there are too many reasons to expect regression to consider him a top-tier draft choice. Given the oversized second and third tiers of startable fantasy quarterbacks available, Watson doesn't look like a strong option in the top 60-65 picks of drafts. It's strategically sound to target similar quarterbacks several rounds later – once the more usable flex players are picked-through. To put it another way: a typical fantasy draft looks better with players like Dion Lewis or Brandin Cooks in Round Five than with Watson and the slim pickings left elsewhere in the middle rounds.

2018 Staff Projections

Projector
Games
PaComp
PaAtt
PaYards
PaTDs
INTs
RuYds
RuTDs
FumLost
Fan Pts
QB Rank
Justin Howe
16
305
513
3718
26
17
502
4
6
338.5
QB5
David Dodds
15
309
494
3665
25
15
447
4
5
335.9
QB5
Maurile Tremblay
16
350
581
4280
25
19
281
2
1
331.8
QB4
Bob Henry
16
320
515
3850
30
16
440
4
4
364.5
QB2
Jason Wood
13
283
464
3450
24
17
420
3
5
311.5
QB12

Other Viewpoints

Based on last year’s showing, ESPN.com’s Andre Snellings isn’t hedging his excitement, anointing him fantasy’s top quarterback target for 2018:

Even if there is no guarantee that he repeats that level of dominance as a sophomore, there is more beneficial upside to your fantasy team in taking that chance than there is downside if you swing and miss. Because if Watson isn't as impressive this season, or if he gets injured again, we've already established that quarterback is a deep position and more than likely you'd be able to get a quarterback whose production isn't far off the best. But if you swing and connect, if Watson's production last season is who he really is, and he can replicate it this season, you would have a quarterback who is significantly better than everyone else.

Over in the Footballguys Shark Pool, user Ramz preaches caution on Watson, for multiple reasons:

If you are buying in on the ACL being okay and his rushing numbers staying where they were, the juice might be worth the squeeze, but that would be one of the best quarterback seasons of all time… Considering opportunity cost, depth of the position, and the fact he is coming off an ACL injury, I will have zero shares of Watson this year. The fact that [Marcus] Mariota and [Alex] Smith are basically free should be enough to push anyone off of Watson at full sticker price.

Elsewhere in the Shark Pool, tombonneau advises caution with Watson’s ACL recovery, and that glowing offseason reports may not tell the whole tale:

I'm confused why people think a mobile quarterback is going to just pick up in September right where he left off after a midseason ACL injury? I feel like the general attitude is he is coming off a broken ankle or something and not a serious knee injury. People are so excited to watch him they think that if they all just collectively ignore this simple truth then it won't matter.