Finding the Fit: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
In a quarterback-driven league, it’s amazing the Houston Texans have been able to have the success they’ve had over the past few years. Head coach Bill O’Brien, who was and is heralded as a quarterback savant, was hired prior to the 2014 season after serving two years in the college ranks as Penn State’s head coach. O’Brien has not had a legitimate starting quarterback since joining Houston: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage. At best, there are a couple of spot starters in that group.
Somehow, though, O’Brien has managed to keep the Texans above .500 in each of his three seasons. The Texans have notched a 9-7 record in all three seasons under O’Brien, two of which resulted in playoff berths. 2016 was the first time the Texans won a playoff game since 2012. In each year under O’Brien, the Texans have slightly improved upon their previous accomplishments, but the team has been handicapped by mediocre quarterback play.
The Texans originally attempted to fix their quarterback situation by signing Osweiler in free agency before the 2016 season to a four-year, $72 million contract, $37 million of which was guaranteed. Oddly enough, O’Brien never got a chance to meet with Osweiler prior to the signing, so O’Brien had once again been stuck with a quarterback he didn’t appear to want. Management was trying to step in and give O’Brien what they thought he needed. Osweiler ultimately bombed for the Texans and was traded to the Cleveland Browns this off-season in a salary-dumping move.
This off-season had to be O’Brien’s off-season. The Texans spent plenty of resources on offensive skill positions throughout O’Brien’s tenure in Houston, but their only attempt at a real quarterback felt like a decision O’Brien didn’t have much say in. The 2017 NFL Draft felt like O’Brien had finally been given the stage.
Trading up from their original 25th spot in the first round, the Texans secured the 12th overall pick from the Browns in exchange for the 25th overall pick and a 2018 first-round pick. Once the trade was announced, it was clear who the Texans were moving up for. Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes were already off the board, and there was no indication DeShone Kizer would go as high as 12th overall in the draft. The pick, to no surprise, was Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, a college football legend.
Watson is firmly imprinted in college football history as one of the most prolific players of this generation. Throughout his two healthy seasons at Clemson, Watson lead the team to two national championship games, earned himself two Heisman trophy considerations, broke numerous school records, and dominated in a way that was as fun to watch as anyone who had ever done it before him. His accomplishments are on par with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, a duo that stormed college football in unison and went back-to-back at the top of the 2015 NFL Draft.
After years of cycling through a myriad of mediocre-or-worse quarterbacks, O’Brien has his quarterback. The selection of Watson is what the Texans needed to be able to propel themselves from a perennial wild card team to a confident division title winner.
O’Brien is set on employing a run-oriented offense and uses the passing game as an intermediate-to-deep attack. The passing concepts in O’Brien’s offense are largely progression-based, meaning the quarterback is going one, two, three through his progressions, as opposed to cutting the field in half and reading a half-field concept. O’Brien’s offense is strenuous for quarterbacks and the Texans have never had a quarterback who can truly handle the responsibilities in a way that made the team better. He slowly toned it down as the year went on because it became obvious Osweiler couldn’t do what he wanted, but he still tried to stick to his roots.
The Texans offense relies on vertical stems. O’Brien wants to stretch the field vertically and open up the 8-15 yard area for his quarterback. ‘Dig’ routes, ‘post’ routes, and crossers, in conjunction with vertical routes, are common in O’Brien’s offense. These long-developing route combinations require a quarterback who can remain calm in the pocket, be aware of post-snap coverage shifts, and throw with enough velocity from a condensed pocket.
Here is an example of using vertical stems to create space in the intermediate area. The Jacksonville Jaguars roll to a one-high look at the snap and play ‘robber’ coverage. The ‘robber’, the safety who dropped down at the snap, sees every receiver getting vertical to about 10-yards. He can’t comfortably commit to anything without the possibility of allowing someone to get open over the top of him. As a result, the ‘robber’ is frozen over the middle of the field logo and the tight end gets a 1-on-1 matchup with a linebacker.
The tight end stretches vertically in unison with both receivers on his side of the field. At about the 10-yard point, the outside receiver stops for a curl route and the slot receiver carries vertically down the seam. With the slot receiver clearing the area between the hash and the numbers, the tight end has to beat his man 1-on-1. The tight end breaks off his route with a bit of a push and works into the open space right around the first down marker. The quarterback hangs in the pocket and delivers a strike into the open space, resulting in a new set of downs for the Texans.
O’Brien will also attack the flats area underneath vertical stems. Versus Cover-3, where a linebacker or a safety off the ball is normally responsible for the flats area, or versus man coverage, this is an easy way to grab a few yards. Quick outs, shoots, and drag routes from the opposite side of the field are good for attacking a vacated flats area.
The Tennessee Titans defense is showing an aggressive one-high blitz look before the snap, but quickly roll into a two-high man coverage look at the snap. With one of the linebackers sneaking up over the center, there is no immediate coverage threat on the Texans tight end. The tight end has great leverage on the linebacker and is able to easily find room in the flats after the two receivers on that side took vertical stems.
Watson was the best quick out thrower in this draft class. His timing, velocity, and careful placement make it easy for him to find those easy yards in the flats. The Texans liked to attack the flats with quick outs like the one above, along with isolation curl/hitch routes. Watson is used to throwing those isolation curl/hitch routes to Mike Williams while the two were at Clemson, so translating that skill to the Texans, where he will have DeAndre Hopkins, should be no problem.
The Texans, partly out of necessity, also like to feed their tight ends. Once O’Brien realized Osweiler couldn’t do what he wanted him to do, the offense became tight end-centric. The Texans’ top three tight ends totaled 115 receptions in 2016, most of which were short passes. Stick routes, short drags, quick outs, and shoots to the flats made up most of Houston’s tight end usage. With a running game that was not efficient and a quarterback who couldn’t consistently win down-the-field, the Texans were forced to run their offense through short passes to tight ends.
Whether or not the Texans lean on that same philosophy with Watson is to be seen, but at least the Texans have shown they can adjust their offense to their quarterback. Houston’s offense with Watson at the helm will likely fall somewhere in the middle between the conservative approach Osweiler required and the aggressive, downfield approach O’Brien wants.
Skill position talent is not an issue for the Texans. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most physically dominant pass catchers in the NFL and can be relied upon in the same ways Watson relied on Mike Williams at Clemson. 2016 first round Wide receiver Will Fuller proved to be a stellar WR2 opposite Hopkins. Fuller has frustrating drops from time-to-time, but he makes tougher catches than is given credit for and is a dangerous deep threat.
Braxton Miller and Jaelen Strong are next in line at wide receiver. Miller is a stunning athlete still new to the wide receiver position. Miller played just one year at wide receiver in college before entering the NFL as a rookie last season. Despite his raw route running ability and need for fine tuning, Miller flashed his athleticism and big play capabilities in promising fashion. Strong, however, is shaping up to be a career WR3 or WR4. He has a good frame and adequate strength for a slot receiver, but his lack of athleticism and sloppy routes keep him from getting open. That being said, he’s fine in his role.
Houston’s tight end group is quietly talented and versatile. There is no star in the group, but each of them have their own role and can be counted on to execute. C.J. Fiedorowicz leads the pack as the most versatile and dynamic one of the group. In addition to his blocking ability, Fiedorowicz is a multi-faceted receiving tight end. He has the physical ability and attitude to be a reliable quick game target, while also possessing enough speed and feel for space to be a threat in the intermediate range. He’s not a game changing tight end, but he can do everything the Texans need from a TE1.
Ryan Griffin is a duller tight end than Fiedorowicz, and is primarily a quick game pass catcher. Calling routes beyond about eight yards is putting Griffin out of his element and asking him to do something he can’t really do. Like Fiedorowicz, though, Griffin is also a valuable blocker. The final tight end, Stephen Anderson, is almost a wide receiver. He is a tall, lanky pass catching tight end who wins in space and down the field. The Texans didn’t get to use him too much last season, but he flashed the ability to be a tricky athletic mismatch.
The Texans have weapons in the backfield, too. Lamar Miller was one of the biggest free agent signings during the 2016 off-season. Although the 2016 season was a lackluster performance for Miller, the issue was less about him and more about the stagnant state of the offense. The Texans were one of the highest run-percentage teams in the NFL last year and that did not compliment Houston’s sub-par offensive line. With a quarterback who can open up the passing game and be a rushing threat himself, Miller’s workload will be less stressful and he should be able to look more like the guy Houston paid for.
Alfred Blue plays second fiddle to Miller. Blue is not as explosive or versatile in the passing game as Miller, but he is a prototypical zone runner who trusts his reads and gets downhill. He’s a powerful runner who can fight for extra yards at the point of contact. As a backup, Blue is a nice cog in Houston’s offense. The Texans also drafted D’Onta Foreman to contend with Blue for touches and be the “thunder” to Miller’s “lightning.” Foreman is a nasty downhill runner who will transition well to Houston’s offense. The Texans will likely give Foreman more and more touches as the season goes on and transition him into their true RB2.
Unfortunately, Houston’s offensive line is a bit of a question mark. Left tackle Duane Brown has regressed as a pass protector in the past couple of seasons, while right tackle Derek Newton hovers around league average at his respective position. Both are fine starting level players, but they aren’t all-star bookends. More troublesome than the tackles, both guards are poor pass protectors. Left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo has developed into a nice run blocker, but he still gets worked in the pass game. Likewise, right guard Jeff Allen is a replacement level player who the Texans need to consider upgrading over. The biggest question mark is at center. Greg Mancz started there last season, while rookie Nick Martin was out with an injury. Martin, a 2016 second-round pick, will be inserted back into his starting spot, hopefully adding more cohesion to the offensive line.
The offensive line is not a disaster, and it could certainly be worse. Relying on two average tackles and a center who is returning from injury is not a comfortable spot to be in, though. The template is there for a solid offensive line, but each player along the offensive line has a reason to be cautious of them. Shoring up the offensive line in the near future needs to be Houston’s next move.
The Player Himself
As the draft cycle rolled along, Deshaun Watson’s evaluation was made more difficult than it had to be. Watson was the presumptive QB1 (and in contention to be the first overall player drafted) heading into the 2016 season. As a sophomore in 2015, Watson was a mobile threat who acted as a sort of “point guard” for Clemson’s offense. He was important to the offense, no doubt, but he was more of a facilitator than a creator. His film was good-not-great, but when paired with his Heisman-worthy statistics and national championship performance against Alabama, it was fair to prop up Watson as a high draft pick and top overall signal caller.
Watson transformed his game in 2016. After getting off to a rough start through the first few games of the season, Watson exploded from the North Carolina State game and on. He had more control of the offense than ever before and, for the first time, it felt like Watson was elevating the offense instead of enabling it. Watson’s newfound command and presence on the field felt intangible during the season, but when it finally culminated in a National Championship victory over Alabama, you could feel it. Watson was the best player on the field and he knew it.
More often than not, the quarterback who gets propped up prior to his final season ends up disappointing. That’s not to say they always flop, but every year there is a quarterback who gets sold as the next Andrew Luck, only to end up more like the next Andy Dalton or Blake Bortles. Watson didn’t flop, though. Watson improved his understanding and control of his offense, his mechanics became more consistent, and his overall game was more dynamic and confident. Watson ended up being better than the guy he was sold as prior to his final season.
Despite his improvements and further accomplishments, Watson was torn down. Concerns about his intelligence, “pro-readiness”, and velocity slowly popped up throughout the draft process. As Watson kept playing well and winning games, his stock continued to be tarnished. Watson has his flaws, but for him to have gone from the presumptive QB1 to being possibly the QB4 in the class, despite being a better player than he was a year before, didn’t make sense.
Draft stock be damned, Watson is a good quarterback. He checks all of the boxes in terms of leadership, experience, being a winner, etc., but Watson’s profile extends beyond his character and accomplishments. Watson had an excellent understanding of his offense, he is an accurate passer, his mobility forces defenses to account for an 11th player, and he has proven he can make plays in critical moments.
Watson’s accuracy is fascinating. At just 21 years of age, Watson showed an advanced understanding of how to be accurate relative to defenders. He understood that routes can’t be thrown the same way every time. Sometimes the defense is going to close the window tighter than usual, thus the placement of the throw has to be different if Watson still wanted to hit that throw.
If Watson leaves either of these passes at chest-level, there is a chance a defender could attack the receiver’s chest and disrupt the catch point. Instead of throwing the passes in a traditional spot, Watson keeps both passes low. Leaving the passes low, in these situations, means that only the receiver is going to get a chance to get his hands on the ball. The aesthetic outcome of the play ends up looking like a tough catch, and it is, but Watson is placing the ball in the only spot than can work and is trusting his receivers to hold up their end of the bargain. Watson’s timing, confidence, and placement are all on display in these two throws.
While it is largely agreed upon that Watson is an accurate passer, questions surfaced about his velocity after he threw a pitiful 49 MPH on the radar gun at the NFL Combine. That number is indisputably gross, but Watson’s velocity wasn’t a concern on film. Arm strength was never one of Watson’s calling cards, but it wasn’t talked about as a problem for him until the Combine rolled around.
The concerns about Watson’s arm strength don’t add up when considering how well he throws on the move. Throwing on the move requires more core strength and natural arm talent than being able to throw with a firm base in the pocket. A quarterback has to be able to bring his arm around and control his torso at the same time to ensure the ball comes out smoothly. Weak-armed quarterbacks normally have to stop to throw or lunge as they throw in an attempt to push the ball forward. Watson does neither of those things on this play and delivers a 30-yard strike with ease.
Throwing a corner route is not easy. Corner routes require a delicate blend of timing, placement, and velocity. Leaving the ball slightly inside or not putting enough juice on the pass for it to get there quickly can result in an interception. Watson, on the biggest stage that college football has to offer, drilled this corner route to dig Clemson out from deep in their own territory. If that isn’t an NFL-level arm, then the standards need to be reevaluated.
In addition to his ample arm talent and impressive placement, Watson is a cunning and confident field general. He is always aware of the situation at hand, and knows how to apply that information to what he can or can not get away with. Watson is a master of taking “calculated risks” by throwing down the field or trusting his guys, but he’s seldom reckless at times when he knows he can’t be.
These two plays were back-to-back. The first play was on second down and the following play was on third down. In the first play, Watson knows he has a first down to his left if he wants it, but he also knew he had an extra down to work with. Watson stepped up in the pocket and launched a deep pass down the sideline. The pass ended up trailing a bit wide and out of bounds, but the idea of going for a big play with an extra down to work with was not a bad one. Watson was confident he could convert on the next play.
Lo and behold, Watson did convert on the next play. He ran a stick/draw combination that gave him the power to throw a quick pass or run it up the middle. As Clemson motioned a player to the boundary, a Georgia Tech defender followed, leaving only five defenders in the box versus Clemson’s five offensive linemen. Watson knew he had a “hat on a hat” in the run game and decided to pick up the first down with his feet. Watson scurried past the first down marker with ease and grabbed a fresh set of downs for Clemson.
Of course, it isn’t all sunshine and roses with Watson. He can be hyper-aggressive in the same way Jameis Winston was in college and is now in the NFL. For Winston, his aggression has its perks, but serves as a double-edged sword that can dig him into a hole early in games. Watson has the same element to his game, but like Winston did at Florida State, Watson was always able to rally back at Clemson.
Additionally, Watson doesn’t have an impressive frame. Watson remained healthy last season, but he battled injuries all throughout high school and was sidelined for most of his freshman season at Clemson due to an ACL injury. It may have been a string of bad luck, but with a slight frame and a history of injuries, it’s fair to be wary of how often Watson is going to be able to play 16 games. Watson generally does a good job of protecting himself, but the NFL is a different beast and Watson may need to take an extra step in trying to preserve himself.
Deshaun Watson stepped off the plane in Houston as the best quarterback in the city. There should be no doubt that Watson is the starter from the jump. Watson’s calling cards are his intelligence, poise, and leadership, all of which should make his transition to the NFL as smooth as possible.
The Texans went all-in on Watson. They are betting on him to be their transition from a fringe playoff team to a legitimate contender. Watson may not be able to complete Houston’s ascension as a rookie, but assuming the Texans continue to build the team as well as they have recently, Watson will be ready to turn the Texans into a legitimate AFC threat in the near future.