Few quarterbacks had a rookie season as beloved as the one Deshaun Watson had in 2017.
Drafted by the Texans with the 12th pick of that year’s draft, Watson had a record setting rookie year, captivating audiences and Houston sports fans in the process. He’s the first player in NFL history with 400+ passing yards, 4+ TD passes, and 50+ rushing yards in a single game, passed Kurt Warner for the most touchdowns thrown by a quarterback in his first seven career starts (19), and has the most passing touchdowns in a five-game span (18) from any rookie.
When he went down for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, it was devastating to the NFL, but it didn’t come before giving Texans fans optimism for the future. Watson finished his rookie season playing seven games while putting up 1,699 yards, 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions for a passer rating of 103.0. In a full season, Watson would’ve been on pace for 3,883 yards, 43 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
With that in mind, where is Deshaun Watson at after his rookie season? Let’s take a look while detailing his strengths, weaknesses, and the play calling around him.
One of the biggest surprises for the Texans last season was how Bill O’Brien was calling plays for Watson. O’Brien catered to a play action, read option heavy system that emphasized getting the ball out quickly and creating open receivers, and that laid the foundation for Watson to put up big numbers.
In Watson’s first two career games, he dropped back 71 times. Of those 71 drop backs, 11 of them (15.5%) contained play action and run-pass option plays (RPOs). That’s a pretty low number.
In Watson’s third career game alone (at New England), he dropped back 46 times. 18 of those drop backs (39.1%) contained play action and RPOs.
In total, Watson dropped back 280 times in his rookie season, with 87 of those drop backs (31.1%) containing play action/RPOs. So, these plays were the identity of the Texans’ passing offense, allowing them to run vertical plays at an easier rate.
It’s clear in retrospect that Bill O’Brien had a plan for his rookie quarterback. In previous seasons he called straightforward vertical passing offenses, minimizing play action and putting more of an emphasis on the quarterback making a precision throw. That can work with guys like Aaron Rodgers, but with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage, not so much.
O’Brien kept that same offense intact in Houston’s first two games of the 2017 season. After seeing what Watson could do in his first two games, he adjusted the vertical offense by implanting more play action and option plays to create a friendlier environment for the rookie.
On this play action play, for example, the Texans are facing a Cover 1. O’Brien calls for a fake run to the right, and the play action fake freezes the left corner and the high safety, allowing the receiver, Will Fuller, to run by everyone. Watson has a simple read and launches the bomb to Fuller, who catches it for a huge touchdown.
It’s important to note that the back executes the play action fake perfectly, helping Watson out with a great block that allows for the quarterback to step up in the pocket. It’s no secret that the Texans have one of the least talented offensive lines in the league, but O’Brien’s use of play action and RPOs has helped elevate that group to a degree.
It also helps that the Texans have capable vertical receivers. DeAndre Hopkins is a first-class talent, Will Fuller came into his own in his sophomore season, and Bruce Ellington became a nice pickup as the team’s third receiver.
Watson was also known to run the ball on 3rd and short, including a few designed runs such as the one above. Cam Newton is the bar for running quarterbacks, allowing the Panthers to use him in a bunch of creative ways. The Texans are beginning to scratch the surface of Watson’s potential as a runner. In his first seven games, he had 269 rushing yards, and would’ve been on pace for approximately 615 yards in a full season.
As a runner, Watson has shown off the ability to create yards on his own combined with breakaway speed. This touchdown run on 3rd and long best exemplifies Watson’s athleticism as a runner. He evades edge pressure, finds a small gap, and takes off. He manages to get a blocker in front of him, allowing him to pick up a first down and a path to the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown run.
Coming out of college, Watson polarized analysts as a passer. Some thought his arm strength was lacking, others thought he ran too much, while some thought he was one of the best prospects in recent memory. Regardless of where you stood at the time, no one can deny how refreshingly aggressive Watson is as a passer.
Rookie quarterbacks tend to play in conservative passing offenses, limiting their reads to dink-and-dunk plays while providing few shots at pushing the ball downfield. The Texans under Bill O’Brien operated more vertically, and the selection of Watson made sense considering his tendency to push the ball downfield.
When Watson is outside of the pocket, as on this play, he’s thinking to maximize the result of that play, much like Case Keenum in Minnesota last year. The awareness to find an open receiver on the other side of the field is mind blowing for a rookie quarterback, giving the Texans an improbable first down.
The Chiefs game (specifically the 4th quarter) was where I was the most impressed by Watson’s potential. Down by as many as 19 points with a little over seven minutes left to play, The Texans made the rest of the game interesting by making the final score 42-34. While the Texans never had a shot to get a game tying drive together, Watson kept responding in that fourth quarter with three touchdown passes and terrifying Chiefs fans in the process.
At Clemson, Watson was rarely known for taking snaps under center, as he was usually lined up in the shotgun formation. Bill O’Brien responded by giving the rookie a reasonable increase in snaps under center in order to allow him to become more comfortable to the change.
Coincidentally, the finest play of Watson’s professional career comes under center. It’s a play action fake with an additional end around fake. Watson notices #99 coming up the interior on a stunt and beautifully side steps him, calmly resetting himself and delivering sensational placement to Will Fuller for the 48-yard touchdown. This is easily one of my favorite throws from any quarterback in 2017.
A common theme in the NFL is seeing quarterbacks down two possessions late in the 4th quarter going the conservative route against a prevent defense, taking easy yards while being baited by the defense in order to waste more time on the clock. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for a while, which is why it was so impressive to see Watson eschew going conservative in favor of going all out to try and get his team some points late against the Chiefs.
It doesn’t matter if this play is picked off or not. With 20 seconds left down two scores, it was clear that Watson had to do something in order to keep Houston’s (slim) chances of tying the game alive. That’s exactly what he did, and his 50/50 gamble was rewarded with a reception from Steven Anderson, inches away from the end zone. All hell would’ve broke loose if Anderson caught that ball in the end zone, but Watson’s aggressiveness this late in the game, from a rookie standpoint, is admirable.
So, where did Watson fall flat in his rookie season? Well, his big weakness as a rookie was handling the pocket when his first read wasn’t open.
On this play, Watson is looking for the slant route on his left side. When he notices that receiver is covered, he drops his eyes and scrambles up the middle. He still had time in the pocket on that play, a statement echoed by NBC’s Cris Collinsworth on the broadcast, and he certainly could have gone out of the pocket to extend the play. All in all, you can’t really expect a rookie to have it all down in his second career game, but it’s a nice detail to have.
Watson also struggled with handling interior pressure, causing him to backpedal and throw off balance, which is where a lot of his rookie mistakes came from.
As you can see on this All-22 angle, Watson is locked onto the outside left receiver, and the cornerback knows it the entire way. Off balance, Watson forces a costly interception to the corner.
To this point in his career, Watson’s mechanics and footwork lack discipline in the pocket, which is a big flaw he must eliminate if he wants to take the next step as a quarterback. This play is the worst example of that. The edge pressure is completely sealed, yet Watson’s movement makes it clear that he’s uncomfortable with it anyway. Instead of using the time he’s been given in the pocket, he forces an off-balance throw to Hopkins, who is nowhere near open, and the pass ends up being picked off by Kevin Byard.
In a lesser offense, Watson’s flaws from his rookie season would’ve been greater exploited; He got lucky with dropped interceptions the pressure got to him. But because he was playing in an offense that catered heavily to play action and option, the amount of pressure Watson faced was reduced, helping mask his weaknesses against interior pressure.
So, against the Texans offense, the Titans defense would do best to eliminate Watson’s first read and keep him in the pocket, as that is where he has had his biggest struggles. Tennessee has a more talented defense this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if they are able to contain Watson.
Regardless of Deshaun Watson’s faults, he’s an exciting player. If he can combine his aggressive style of quarterback play with a more patient, disciplined style of pocket passing, then he’s going to be a headache for the rest of the AFC South. We have yet to determine how good Watson will be coming back from an ACL tear, as well as how defenses adjust to the Texans offense.
No matter what the result, that just makes the AFC South that much more interesting going into the 2018 season, and that makes Deshaun Watson’s future that much more exciting.