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2018 Fantasy Football: Deshaun Watson Shouldn’t Be The No. 1 Quarterback In Fantasy

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Here’s some advice. From a Texans fan, even.

Houston Texans v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Last week Andre Snellings, a professional football writing man at ESPN.com, wrote an article titled ‘Why Deshaun Watson Is The No. 1 QB In Fantasy’. In the article, he discussed the number of fantasy points Watson scored last year per game compared to the rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL and reiterated that, yes, Deshaun Watson was really great last year. This isn’t what’s worth discussing in detail. What is worth discussing is what to expect from Watson next year, and why no, Watson shouldn’t be the number one quarterback in fantasy next year.

Snellings gave five different ways to project what Watson is capable of doing next season:

Was Watson facing poor competition or a representative level of competition?

Did Watson’s approach correlate with team success?

as he just lucky or unusually hot compared to future expectations?

How much should his knee injury affect this season’s projections?

What would a “regression to the mean” look like for him this season?

Snellings addressed each of these five factors. Let’s take a further look at what he had to say.

  1. Was Watson facing poor competition or a representative level of competition?

How difficult was the competition? In those five games, Watson played on the road against the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks, and at home against the Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns. Four of those were playoff teams, and the two road games were in two of the most difficult places to play in the NFL. His last game, in Seattle, was against a legitimately strong defense on the road, and Watson responded with his first 400-yard passing game and four touchdowns. Overall, then, his production was against defenses representative of what he’s expected to face this season.

Here’s the problem with that analysis: None of these teams had great, or even good, defenses in 2017. The best defense Watson faced as a starter was Seattle’s, but it wasn’t the same dominant pass defense we’ve seen the past few seasons. With Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Cliff Avril missing for large chunks of the season and the Seahawks’ pass rush decisions failing to work out, the Seahawks dropped from 5th to 13th in defensive DVOA. They finished 13th in pass defense DVOA and 17th in run defense DVOA. The rest of the defenses Watson faced as a starter finished 16th (Browns), 17th (Bengals), 21st (Titans), 30th (Chiefs), and 31st (Patriots). None of these teams had a pass defense better than Seattle’s, and each team (aside from Cincinnati) finished worst than 21st in pass defense DVOA.

Watson played mediocre to bad defenses last season. I’m not smart enough to project these defenses into the future; I’ll have to wait until next month to see what the computer experts come up with. Although the Texans face the easiest projected schedule based on last year’s winning percentages, year-to-year win totals vary greatly because of the short NFL schedule, so Houston should have to face better defenses than what face value indicates. The New York Jets’ young defense should be better in 2018. Same with Tennessee’s, and the Texans have to play Jacksonville twice. The Broncos and Giants should bounce back as well.

So, yes, Watson was in fact facing a poor level of competition last year. I expect for him to play tougher defenses in 2018.

2. Did Watson’s approach correlate with team success?

Yes, Watson’s approach correlated with team success. The Texans were 3-3 in the six games that Watson started and 1-9 in the games that he didn’t. Thus, the team should want his production to be optimized, because clearly their success rides upon his.

Yes, quarterbacks are very important, and teams should want their quarterbacks to play well. Cool. Nothing more to see here.

3. Was he just lucky or unusually hot compared to future expectations?

Perhaps a bit, if you get into the details. Watson had a passing touchdown rate of 9.3 percent, while Wentz led qualified passers at 7.5 percent. Watson averaged one touchdown pass every 6.6 completions, while the league average was 14.8. The Texans owned the third-lowest drop percentage during the first half of the season, while in the second half they were 10th. And Watson demonstrated an almost preternatural connection with Will Fuller V, connecting with him on five long touchdowns in a three-week span.

However, and this is important, Watson’s success level in these types of big plays wasn’t that unusual overall, as he completed 41.4 percent of “deep” passes (15-plus air yards) while the league average was 41.3 percent. Plus, the Texans ranked 25th in percentage of plays that were designed passes in the first half of the season, and if they increase that volume this season, it could counter or possibly offset any concerns that his efficiency might regress.

Last season, Watson scored 176 fantasy points using Pro Football Reference’s Standard. Of these 173 points, 76 of them were the result of touchdowns. Watson threw 19 touchdowns and ran for two more; more importantly, he had a touchdown rate of 9.3%, as mentioned in the article. That touchdown rate and the unlikelihood it can be sustained is something I wrote about back in March. Peyton Manning and Watson are the only quarterbacks this century to hit 9.0% after throwing a minimum of 200 passes. Since 1990, Peyton Manning is the only quarterback who has had a touchdown rate of 8.0% twice in his career. The average drop from quarterbacks who had a 9.0% touchdown rate is 3.7%. The average drop from quarterbacks who had a 8.0% touchdown rate is 3.86%.

Watson throwing the ball downfield as well as the rest of the league has nothing to do with this. In fact, this goes against the author’s argument. Downfield passing is a skill. Watson did something that is nearly irreplaceable in a scant sample size, and he did it in an offense that surprised the entire league. Defenses weren’t prepared for an interesting Houston offense filled with multi-faceted run plays, a mobile quarterback, and creative play fakes. Usually defenses are able to adjust to a brand new offense by the following season. Taking all this into account, the thing that made Watson a great fantasy quarterback—throwing lots of touchdowns—probably isn’t going to happen again in 2018.

4. How much should his knee injury affect this season’s projections?

Watson’s knee injury was serious, full stop. However, since Watson has experienced a torn ACL and recovery previously while in college, and he returned even better than before, in this case there is reason for measured optimism. Seven months after the surgery, Watson is already going full speed without a knee brace in minicamp. Considering that a good chunk of returning from injury is psychological, Watson’s history should help him have the confidence he’ll need to come back at full speed.

I’m not a doctor. I don’t know. Everyone who has seen Watson throw and run around in a red jersey and decal devoid helmet has had nothing but good things to say about him. However, who knows what to expect from his knee? Like a Texans’ offense that’s supposed to be dramatically different, we really won’t know how Watson looks until week one.

More importantly, this doesn’t take into account the offensive line he’s going to play behind. I do think the Texans’ offensive line is going to be better than most expect it to be, but most are expecting it to be one of the worst units in football. I think it can be mediocre. The interior blocking should be corrected, except for occasional linebacker misses in the run game by Senio Kelemete. The tackle play is still going to be a question. Juli’en Davenport needed to get stronger this offseason; who knows if he did? If Martinas Rankin doesn’t start week one, Houston is looking at Seantrel Henderson at right tackle. Henderson hasn’t played since 2014 and was terrible when he played then. If Henderson starts, he’s probably going to be a Kendall Lamm level of disaster. Even if Watson’s knee is fine, he’s probably going to have to use it often when the year pops off.

5. What would a “regression to the mean” look like for him this season?

For those who believe luck impacted his numbers last season, let’s suppose that he regresses quite a bit in touchdown rate and number of receiver drops. Let’s say that, overall, his production across the board drops a full 20 percent as a sophomore compared to those five games as a rookie. Even in that scenario, Watson would still average more fantasy points per game than any quarterback did last season.

On the other hand, with DeAndre Hopkins and Fuller both healthy and going through a full camp with him as he gets starter reps as he enters his second NFL campaign, there’s a legitimate chance that Watson is just better this season than last. And if so, his “regression” projections could end up looking very similar as a sophomore to what he produced as a rookie.

Even if Watson is better this season than he was as as rookie, there’s no way he’s going to throw touchdown passes as often as he did last season. 20% is a conservative drop off fantasy wise for him. Because again, 50.8% of his fantasy points came from touchdowns, and he’s probably going to throw them half as often as he did last year. An increase in 300 yard passing games and a jump in rushing touchdowns is required to make up for this impending doom. These things could happen. But if you’re drafting a fantasy quarterback early, why take the risk with a player who threw a lot of touchdowns against mediocre to bad pass defense, is likely to see his touchdown rate regress, coming off a torn ACL, and playing behind a questionable offensive line when there are more stable options available?

Overall, my heart isn’t heavy with worry when it comes to Watson. I’m not all the way there yet. I don’t think he’ll be able to do what he did last year again and probably won’t for the rest of his career, but he’s still a wizard in the pocket. He can throw deep passes with touch. The arm strength is good enough. He anticipates open receivers. His mobility creates a dynamic offense. The worst part of Watson’s game last year were the big, bad decisions that ended in dropped interceptions; young quarterbacks tend to make those mistakes.

However, I’m not 100% sold on Watson yet. He did what he did in just six starts last year. That’s not a lot, and the way he predominantly had success is unsustainable according to what every quarterback who has ever played has done.

Despite everything, it’s reasonable to believe, and I do believe, that Watson will be competent enough in 2018 to run a successful offense. But NO, he shouldn’t be the number one quarterback taken in fantasy football in 2018.