Deshaun Watson more than deserves to be talked about in the top tier of quarterbacks in 2019. This season, he’s second in Expected Points Added, third in EPA per attempt, and second in percentage of plays that produce positive EPA, per Sports Info Solutions. All of this has helped lead the Houston Texans to one of the league’s most explosive offenses and into the thick of the playoff race in the AFC.
In Year 3, Watson has taken a significant leap in performance. That would be impressive in its own right, but where and how Watson has taken that step should be the biggest positive sign going forward.
Before we get to what Watson has done and is currently doing, let’s take a look at how he was viewed in the past. Here are two lines from Watson’s NFL.com scouting report, in the “weaknesses” section:
“Deep-ball accuracy has been scatter-shot over his last two seasons at Clemson, with throws sailing well beyond his target.”
“Too many interceptions due to lack of vision, placement or decision-making.”
This season, Watson has been one of the league’s most effective deep passers. He’s is seventh in both EPA per attempt and positive play rate on passes that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air. Watson has done this with improved accuracy and a lower interception rate than he had during his first two NFL seasons.
Watson Deep Attempts, 2017-19
Much of this comes from taking a smarter approach to these throws down the field. As a rookie, Watson was basically chucking the ball deep and hoping for the best. With DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller on the other side, it’s not a terrible strategy for a rookie quarterback. The touchdowns came, but so did the interceptions and the completion percentage was not high.
Last year, Watson significantly lowered the rate at which he threw deep and while there were a few more highs, the interceptions still came at a similar rate. Now this year, Watson has increased the rate at which he throws deep and he’s taking higher quality throws. He has a higher on-target percentage, which has led to a higher completion percentage, and a lower interception rate. And even though his deep passes haven’t gone for touchdowns at the same rate, they’ve been more effective by EPA and they’ve been more successful on a per attempt basis.
What’s made Watson’s production on the deep ball more impressive this season is the consistency hasn’t exactly been there for his two main targets — Hopkins and Fuller.
Fuller has been on and off the field due to injury, but he still leads the team in deep targets with 17. 12 of those have been charted as catchable per SIS, but only six have turned into receptions. Fuller also has four drops, which accounts for much of the disconnect between “catchable” and “caught.“ That could be viewed as a negative — and in the moment, the drops certainly were — but it also suggests there should be an improvement in this connection going forward, whenever Fuller gets back on the field.
Meanwhile, Hopkins hasn’t nearly made the deep impact like he’s made in the past. Part of that has come from a disconnect between the receiver and quarterback on these throws. Only five of Hopkins’s 12 deep targets have been considered catchable and on those five throws, Hopkins has four catches and one drop. Again, this leaves hope there is an improvement to come throughout the remainder of the season. Watson’s deep accuracy has improved overall, so there’s little reason to think throws targeting Hopkins won’t follow the same path.
Houston’s most effective deep threat this season has been Kenny Stills, who was brought over as part of the Laremy Tunsil trade. Still has only played in seven games with two starts and has just seven deep targets but he has six receptions for 229 yards and a touchdown. Wherever Stills has been targeted this season, he’s been able to come down with the catch:
Stills came down with the late go-ahead touchdown catch against the New Orleans Saints in Week 1 and has been integrated into the deep passing game throughout the season — most effectively against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7. He has shown an ability to win one-on-one, like he did on the touchdown against the Saints and on a 41-yard reception against the Colts. But he’s also been schemed open for some big plays. His first deep target came on a well designed mirrored deep crosser concept with Hopkins that featured Keke Coutee on jet-motion.
The design of this play highlights one of the ways the Texans have allowed Watson to pick his spots down the field and still keep more overall consistency. On the play, Watson had two deep routes and two check down options. If the deep shot is there, take it. If not, take the short competition and try again. This has been the overarching stance of the Texans’ offense this season. Watson has either gone deep or incredibly short with such a small percentage of his passes going to the intermediate range.
In Watson’s first two years as a starter, 19.1% and 19.2% of his attempts went between 11 and 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. That was actually Watson’s most effective area of the field last season with a 71.1% completion rate and 0.79 EPA per attempt. But this year, those passes have been cut down to just 12.6% of attempts.
Watson target depth rates, 2017-19
Watson has still been efficient on those intermediate passes, 0.52 EPA per attempt, but the Texans are almost treating those like an analytics-friendly NBA team would treat a mid-range jumper or long-2. The Texans are either taking the layup or shooting the three. You can see this from Will Fuller’s target plot, which has almost no intermediate targets.
With that, Watson has increased the rate at which he has thrown short (58.9% of his passes have traveled between 0 and 10 yards) and he’s been more consistent there with 0.35 EPA and a 64% positive play rate, opposed to 0.22 EPA per attempt last season.
Part of this planning has also allowed Watson to get the ball out quicker. Per Next Gen Stats, Watson has averaged 2.79 seconds to throw this season, compared to 3.02 seconds last year. Houston has also seen significant improvement along its offensive line. The unit ranks ninth in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, which measures success in the first 2.5 seconds of a passing play. Last season the Texans were 16th.
Watson brings some pressure upon himself by holding the ball, but these shot or check down type throws give him a clearer progression of what to do on a given play.
This type of tradeoff has allowed Watson to take smarter shots down the field and has also limited the risk in designing those downfield routes with check down options more clearly emphasized. Watson has seen his best production on deep shots and it’s only likely to get better with healthy versions of Fuller and Stills.
Watson has already been one of the league’s most effective quarterbacks overall this season and with a clear path to more improvement, he should be able to ascend in that group for years to come.