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Jesse Pantuosco

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The Wonder of Watson

Saturday, November 3, 2018


A grueling recovery from a torn ACL, a papier-mache offensive line, an 0-3 start to the season, hot-take artists throwing shade from all angles (I’m not talking about Skip Bayless … I mean ME), the Draft Guide cover jinx—what do these various obstacles all have in common? None of them have fazed Deshaun Watson in the slightest.

 

If you’ve ever seen the movie Pineapple Express, there’s a character named Red (played by Danny McBride) who seems to survive just about everything. Savage beatings, multiple gun-shot wounds, violent car crashes—yet somehow, he always comes out the other side. This is Watson in a nutshell. Whatever the world throws at him, be it outside criticism or something more earth-shattering like an injury to one of his top wide receivers (looking at you, Will Fuller), it’s a safe bet Watson will overcome it.

 

Despite his impressive traits—the cannon arm, his signature elusiveness, his penchant for delivering with the game on the line—the 23-year-old out of Clemson was no sure thing when the year began. We didn’t know how his surgically-repaired knee would hold up, nor did we have any level of confidence in his offensive line (a unit consisting mostly of scrap-heap free agents and draft dart throws) to keep him from falling on his face. I’ve seen Olympic opening ceremonies with fewer red flags than Watson. And being the risk-averse wet blanket that I undoubtedly am, I injected myself in the narrative, begging on hands and knees for fantasy owners to avoid being lured by the siren song of Watson’s immense physical gifts.

 

This wasn’t about me ignoring what Watson accomplished as a rookie. Trust me, I was as mesmerized as anyone by the first-round pick’s stunning ascendance. There’s usually a learning curve that comes with playing quarterback in the National Football League, but Watson chose to forego the usual grace period. There was no “easing in,” no discussion of “maybe he’ll be good in a few years.” Our ambitious protagonist had no time to waste. Development be damned—immediate superstardom was Watson’s only option. And boy did he sizzle, stirring the senses with his laser arm, his effortless chemistry with DeAndre Hopkins and legs made for scrambling.

 

Watson had the upstart Texans thinking playoffs—until it all came to a grinding halt in Week 9. Coming off a four-touchdown, 402-yard masterpiece in Seattle (the Legion of Boom was already crumbling at that point, but Watson’s heroics may have been the final nail in their coffin), Watson went down with a non-contact knee injury at practice. Hours later it was confirmed he had suffered a torn ACL. Watson’s year was over and so was Houston’s. The Texans disintegrated without their star signal-caller, managing one win in their final nine games. With Tom Savage and later T.J. Yates running the show, the Texans’ offense transformed from a thrilling juggernaut to an automatic channel-change.

 

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It obviously didn’t help that the Texans’ once-dominant defense spent the bulk of last year without two of their top pass-rushers, lab experiment J.J. Watt and the aptly named Whitney Mercilus. All in all, the Texans’ second half was an eye-gouging, unrelenting nightmare, the kind of cover-your-face horror show that could easily get a coach fired and almost did. Nine months ago, the ice beneath Bill O’Brien’s feet was so thin, you could see through it.

 

I’m no medical expert but I’ve seen enough sports to know that ACLs aren’t to be trifled with. Watson cleared all the necessary hurdles in his rehab, but I still had pause. Spending an early-round pick on a quarterback has never been my MO and I knew I wouldn’t be taking the plunge when Watson’s ADP soared into the early fourth round. For me, that was too steep a price for a player so ripe with uncertainty. So instead I let others roll the dice while investing in mid-range quarterbacks who weren’t coming off career-threatening knee injuries. I don’t have any qualms with what I did strategically—waiting at quarterback will always be my preferred draft method. But sometimes when you play it by the book, you miss out on the fireworks.

 

Healthy and playing with a chip on his shoulder, the former 12th overall pick has packed quite a wallop this season. Even when the Texans opened the year with three straight losses, Watson was still lighting it up, plastering the Titans for 310 yards on 22-of-32 passing (no need for a calculator—that’s a 68.8 completion percentage) in Week 2 before bettering that with a 385-yard blow-up against the Giants the following week. Watson’s greatest asset, at least in the fantasy realm has always been his legs. Coming off surgery and playing behind a brittle offensive line, it was fair to question how much scrambling we’d see from Watson this year. So naturally he’s been Houdini in cleats, cruising to 230 rushing yards—fifth among signal-callers—at the season’s halfway mark.

 

I don’t mean to be preachy but I hope you guys are getting the message. Pretend it’s a Simpsons chalkboard gag—I will not doubt Deshaun Watson. Write it until your hand cramps. Whatever it takes for you to remember at all times, whether you’re in the shower or stuck in freeway traffic that Derrick Deshaun Watson (bet you didn’t know that was his real name) is the truth.

 

Now before we build a castle for Watson and anoint him king of the gridiron, let’s press pause for a second. In the new NFL, where being in a quarterback’s general vicinity is grounds for immediate imprisonment (they took Clay Matthews away in handcuffs after this one), Watson is not alone in his dominance. Even cats like Mitchell Trubisky and Brock Osweiler have balled out this year.

 

This isn’t the smash-mouth, helmet-hunting brand of football you and I grew up with. We now occupy a world where Nick Mullens, who I assume was waiting tables at TGI Friday’s at this time a week ago, can step in at a moment’s notice and turn the Raiders (a punching bag disguised as an NFL franchise) into a piñata at Cousin Timmy’s birthday party. Maybe that waters down Watson’s accomplishments but if you’re in the fortunate position of owning this touchdown-guzzling world-beater in fantasy, WHO CARES?

 

It’s true that scoring is on the rise league-wise but Watson is still doing it better than most. He enters Week 9 as fantasy’s eighth-ranked quarterback ahead of traditional heavyweights like Tom Brady, Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford. Tuck-and-run quarterbacks can get a bad rap, but if the first eight games of 2018 have taught us anything it’s that Watson can sling it with the best of them. He’s been a top 10-quarterback in pass attempt distance (third), air yards (sixth) and yards per attempt (seventh) and has also improved his accuracy by bumping his completion percentage up to 64.4 percent, a noticeable upgrade from last year’s 61.8.

 

Watson followed up a string of four straight 300-yard passing games with a mini-lull in Weeks 6 and 7 before putting the knife in Miami’s back with a savage onslaught in last week’s Thursday night massacre. He carved up the Dolphins for five touchdown throws, two of them to professional soul-eater DeAndre Hopkins (look at this nonsense), while finishing the night with just four incompletions. You read that right—Watson, who couldn’t even board a flight to Jacksonville two weeks ago (he took a bus there instead)—hurled more touchdown passes than incompletions. That’s next-level dominance from a quarterback who may already be the best in franchise history (apologies to Matt Schaub).

 

Of course, winning is the only currency that matters in the NFL and thanks to Watson’s brilliance, the Texans are doing quite a bit of that. They’ll take a five-game winning streak (a run preceded by a nine-game winless drought spanning parts of two seasons) into Sunday’s game in the Mile High City. That matchup carries great significance to the Texans’ newest wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas, who, up until Tuesday’s trade deadline, had been a lifelong Bronco.

 

It’s fitting that Demaryius will be making his Houston debut at his old Denver stomping grounds, the site of 33 of his 60 career regular season touchdowns. This isn’t the Thomas of old—the 30-year-old is on pace for just 804 receiving yards, which would be his fewest since 2011 when he was catching balls from current Mets minor leaguer Tim Tebow. But the Texans needed a deep threat to replace injured speedster Will Fuller and on short notice, Thomas was probably the best they could have hoped for.

 

Learning a new offense midseason is always a tricky proposition as we’ve seen with Patriots newcomer Josh Gordon, who continues his ongoing quest to impress the notoriously hard-to-please Tom Brady (though his recent results have been promising). But the possibility of a Houston renaissance for Thomas can’t be overlooked. Watson is an obvious upgrade on Keenum who, despite last year’s postseason heroics with Minnesota, has been among the league’s least successful starters.

 

It also seemed like the Broncos were eager to push Thomas out the door (his departure will immediately open up playing time for prized second-round rookie Courtland Sutton), which won’t be the case in Houston. Someone will have to absorb Fuller’s 6.4 targets per game and who better than Thomas, a five-time 1,000-yard receiver with a nose for pay-dirt (tenth among active players in receiving touchdowns)? More will also be asked of Keke Coutee in Fuller’s absence as well, though the talented 21-year-old shouldn’t come into much conflict with Thomas, a perimeter receiver who doesn’t see much slot usage (32.5 percent of his snaps).

 

Watson hasn’t benefited from the same volume as other quarterbacks—he ranks just 14th in the league in pass attempts. His limited passing (and rushing) workload the past few weeks was likely a concerted effort to limit his exposure coming off a painful chest injury, but now that he’s trending toward full health, it’s time for the training wheels to come off. Not much was expected of Houston coming off last year’s disappointing finish, but now the surging Texans are suddenly leading their division. The AFC South was supposed to be a two-horse race between the Jaguars and Titans with Houston and Indy bringing up the rear. But with Marcus Mariota’s star fading in Tennessee and the Jags reeling from injuries and off-field upheaval, the AFC South is again up for grabs. Even the Colts, winners of two straight, have a puncher’s chance of taking home a division crown this year. The rest of the AFC South better bring its boxing gloves because if there’s one thing we know about Deshaun Watson, it’s that he won’t go down without a fight. 

 

What’s the fantasy rub?

 

I probably wouldn’t target Watson in DFS this week—going on the road to face Von Miller is never something you hope for, especially when your bottom-rung offensive line has yielded 26 sacks (tied for fifth-most) in only eight games. But for season-long purposes, there’s no reason not to start Watson this week. Healthier than he’s been in weeks and coming off arguably the game of his career, the former college national champ should have no trouble threading dimes to his partner in crime Hopkins, who will take a three-game touchdown streak into Sunday’s festivities.

 

I know there has been concern about Lamar Miller’s growing role and what it means for Watson, but I think the second-year signal-caller only stands to benefit from a more balanced attack. Watson might not see as much volume as he did early on, but if Miller’s emergence on the ground generates more scoring opportunities for Houston, fantasy owners won’t have much to gripe about. It’s also worth noting that Coutee (hamstring) and tight end Ryan Griffin (illness), who were both absent last week, are on track to return for Sunday’s rocky-mountain showdown, adding another two weapons to Watson’s arsenal. Not much will be expected of Demaryius in his Texans debut after only a few days of playbook-cramming but his knowledge of the Broncos’ inner workings obviously can’t hurt. It’s not a dream matchup by any stretch, but if Watson is on your roster … well, you know what to do. 



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco


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