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HOUSTON – Nearly eleven months ago as a New England Patriot, Johnson Bademosi had a front-row seat for one of the earliest moments that foreshadowed where Deshaun Watson seemed to be going in the NFL. It happened in Week 3 of the 2017 season, in Watson’s second pro start, on the road in New England, no less.
With almost any other rookie quarterback playing under those circumstances, the Patriots would feast. But Bademosi – who signed with the Texans as a free agent this offseason – remembers Watson giving the Patriots everything they could handle. So much so, Tom Brady had to lead a game-winning drive in the final minutes to preserve a 36-33 win.
The way it looked on the outside, Watson’s 342 yards from scrimmage and two touchdown passes against the Patriots felt like something special. Maybe the first sign that Watson was exactly what he was billed to be as a college superstar from Clemson.
“He played very, very, very well,” Bademosi recalled.
And now? With Bademosi watching the prelude to Watson’s NFL encore?
“You see someone every day, you really get a sense of what they’re actually capable of,” he said last week. “And he’s even better than advertised.”
Isolated, it sounds like the typical quarterback praise served up from inside a roster. After all, most NFL players will find some reason to love their guy. But the praise for Watson is seemingly cutting a wider swath through defensive backs with each passing week. San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, who heaped praise on Watson last season, left joint practices last week with the Texans calling Watson “incredible.” Even Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey – who flambéd a litany of quarterbacks in a recent GQ interview – spared the gasoline for Watson, instead reaching for something sweeter.
“He’ll be the league MVP in a couple years,” Ramsey told GQ of Watson. “One hundred percent. There’s not even a debate about that. Him and [Philadelphia Eagles quarterback] Carson Wentz, for every year starting now until five to 10 years, it’s gonna be them two. They’re that good.”
That’s high praise coming from a player who is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. It’s also an interesting comparison considering what Watson has done this preseason. If you’re digging for someone to replicate what Wentz did in 2017 (light it up as a second-year quarterback, possibly to MVP levels), and also a team that could stun everyone like the Eagles last season, well believe it or not, the Texans have some of the similar elements.
Starting with Watson, who looked sharp and poised in Saturday’s preseason win over the 49ers. Not only did he complete five of eight passes for 73 yards and a touchdown, his three incompletions all hit the hands of receivers. Perhaps most encouraging is that he appeared to be confident stepping into passes on the surgically repaired ACL in his right knee, which he tore in practice less than 10 months ago. The last step in his progress now appears to be scrambling and taking hits, things that likely won’t be allowed to happen until the regular season begins.
What has been apparent in practices and limited preseason reps is that Watson is right back into the tempo that made him so dangerous in his six starts in 2017. He’s moving, processing and getting the ball out of the pocket quickly – almost to the point that he has picked up right where he has left off last season. While it’s hard to know if one series against the 49ers is an accurate depiction of what is ahead, Watson maximized the fractional opportunity.
“We wanted to start fast [against San Franscisco],” Houston head coach Bill O’Brien said. “I thought he did a nice job of that. He went down the field. I guess he was 5-for-8 [passing], but I think he had three drops on the drive. So, I thought he did some nice things. We were able to play at a pretty good tempo and get in the end zone.”
“We have different paces,” Watson added. “We can slow it down, play fast or regular tempo. You know that was just a pace that [O’Brien] was getting the plays in, so I was getting the plays to the receivers and the offensive line and we were just lining up and going. So, it really wasn’t a pace-deal where we were trying to force anything. We were just getting the play in, lining up and playing football.”
One thing that hasn’t changed since last season is that Houston’s offense is going to rest largely on Watson. Regardless of improvement at the skill positions, it’s ultimately going to ride on Watson staying healthy and the ability of the offensive line to protect him. The latter part of that equation will be aided by Watson’s confidence in his knee and his ability to get the ball out quickly, or improvise when he can’t.
What he can’t control – and what might be the difference between a good season and a great one – is whether the defense can live up to a considerable level of talent. If healthy (a huge if) the Texans could have four All-Pros on the defensive side of the ledger, from end J.J. Watt to outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus to free safety Tyrann Mathieu. And lest anyone forget, both Clowney and Mathieu are playing 2018 looking for long-term deals, which typically promises peak performance in the NFL.
If that defensive balance is healthy and real, it makes the Texans more formidable than most might think, particularly if Watson is healthy and ready to make a Wentz-like leap forward. Neither is unthinkable, quietly making Houston one of the 2018 surprise candidates. Possibly even on the level of last season’s Eagles. That’s going to draw some scoffing, of course. Particularly with the rest of the AFC South seemingly on the upswing – from the elite level Jacksonville Jaguars defense to the quickly improving Tennessee Titans to an Indianapolis Colts team that should be rejuvenated by the return of Andrew Luck.
From that vantage, it’s worth remembering that entering the 2017 season the NFC East looked stacked against the Eagles, too. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants were coming off 13-3 and 11-5 seasons, respectively, while the Washington Redskins were 8-7-1 and had Kirk Cousins playing for his mega deal. All the while, the Eagles were seen as an improving team with a budding young quarterback in Wentz. Five months later, they stunned everyone with a Super Bowl win.
The Texans catching that kind of lightning in a bottle isn’t unthinkable. Particularly with a coaching staff and front office that finally appears to be in sync, with O’Brien effectively winning his power struggle with former general manager Rick Smith. Now that Smith has been replaced with O’Brien confidant Brian Gaine, management is geared toward finding players that the head coach prefers stylistically – not merely finding talent that the head coach can win with.
A large part of this will begin and end with the strides Watson takes. The small window thus far says he isn’t far from last season’s peak. And the view from the inside – as Bademosi might say – is that Watson has been even better than advertised. If that’s an indication of where the Texans are headed, the rest of 2018 could be following right behind him for this franchise.
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