Some players win you over right away. Deshaun Watson is one of those guys.
A winner in college. A winner in the pros. A hard worker, an athletic talent, a glorious improviser, a social conscience, an infectious smile. If you don’t like Deshaun Watson, you don’t like ice cream.
But can Watson continue to succeed despite the infrastructure around him? Can Watson continue to thrive in a Bill O’Brien-run organization?
Watson skippered the Texans into the playoffs the last two years. And the second trip had some highlights — a thrilling comeback over Buffalo, and a brief scare thrown at the Chiefs. This should be a team on the move, one of the NFL’s up-and-coming contenders.
Of course, for many reasons, those playoff moments feel like years ago. And the Texans have done a bunch of curious things since.
DeAndre Hopkins, one of the NFL’s premier wideouts? He was shuffled off to Arizona in a shocking trade. Running back David Johnson was one of the return pieces — a player who peaked in 2016.
Will Fuller is around to be the nominal No. 1 target. He’s been an injury mess throughout his career, missing 23 regular-season games in four years. Although he’s made plenty of big plays, he’s yet to top 700 yards in a season. Fuller had three touchdowns in 11 games last year.
Perhaps new arrival Brandin Cooks can spark the offense. Cooks was practically given away by the Rams; Los Angeles is eating almost $22 million in dead money, a new record. Cooks’ sixth season was his worst in the NFL, and it’s interesting that three of the NFL’s presumably smart organizations — the Saints, Patriots, and Rams — couldn’t get rid of the receiver quickly enough. He’s one of those strange players who always seems to look better from a distance than he does up close.
The Texans threw a puzzling three-year, $30 million deal at free-agent slot receiver Randall Cobb; nobody is quite sure who they were outbidding. Cobb had a Pro Bowl season in 2014 (91-1287-12), but it’s been mostly a fade since. He did have something of a comeback in Dallas last year, 55 catches for 828 yards. He’s only scored 13 touchdowns in the last four seasons.
Tight end Darren Fells somehow scored seven times on 34 catches last year, a stunning career season at age 33. That’s probably the magic of Watson talking. Kenny Stills was pedestrian over 13 games (40-561-4), though he joined the Texans right before the start of the season. Maybe he can take a step forward in his second Houston campaign.
The Texans also acquired Duke Johnson last summer, but they never figured out how to best utilize him. Now, he’s ostensibly behind David Johnson on the depth chart.
Although the Houston offensive line has a stud in left tackle Laremy Tunsil — a star the team has to re-sign — the overall unit is a negative. Houston ranked 21st in adjusted line yards last year — a proxy for run blocking — and 27th in pass blocking last year, per Football Outsiders.
Watson’s resourcefulness around the goal line has paid plenty of bills — he’s run in 12 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Only Josh Allen (17) has more during that span. But given that Watson is a modest 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, how many hits do the Texans want him to absorb? He’s also had a negative sack rate for all three of his NFL seasons, a mashup of several things. It’s a comment about his willingness to extend plays, his makeshift offensive line, and occasional lapses of poor judgment.
When you mix this all together and pour it out, I have to accept a fade on a player I otherwise adore.
Watson is the type of player you can build a team around, but I don’t trust the Texans with a hammer and nail. O’Brien didn’t just run Hopkins off the team, but he did it in exchange for a mediocre return — the equivalent of an NBA team jacking up a 45-footer while it still has 19 seconds on the shot clock. And unfortunately, O’Brien is no Steph Curry.
Watson’s rushing can be a cheat code, but at his size, I’m worried that it could lessen at any time. And if he still continues to run as much as he has, and extend plays as brazenly as he has, injury risk comes standard. Remember, Watson’s dynamic rookie year was cut short after seven games.
Watson’s been the No. 4 fantasy quarterback the last two years, matching his uniform number. I haven’t ranked him that much lower on my first pass at rankings — he’s currently my No. 7 guy — but that slot might be misleading. I can’t bet on O’Brien next year, not at the expected cost. I think 2020 is the year Watson finally gets taken down by the pieces around him.
As much as we need to scout players in a vacuum, football is the ultimate game of context and environment. It’s almost impossible to overcome a mediocre supporting cast and cracks in organizational structure. My chips won’t be on Watson when draft season kicks in.