It might have gotten lost a bit with the team getting off to a slow start and Bill O’Brien being fired, but Deshaun Watson is having an MVP-level year.
In his rookie season, he set the world ablaze after struggling for the first two weeks. In that stretch before he got injured, he attempted and completed the second-most passes of 20-plus yards, and was fourth in the NFL in Independent Quarterback Rating (IQR)—an SIS stat that adjusts Passer Rating to account for factors that don’t relate to throwing ability, like drops and throwaways. On the ground, he produced a positive EPA on 59% of his attempts.
This season, in twice the playing time of his rookie explosion, Watson has been superb despite some adverse conditions around him. He’s first in yards per attempt, third in IQR, first in Positive% through the air, and in sum sits second in the Total Points rankings behind Patrick Mahomes.
You might have thought that the trading of DeAndre Hopkins would have sunk Watson’s upside. In 2019, Watson accumulated 45 Passing Points Earned when throwing to Hopkins, third-best in the NFL. Well, in 2020, only Mahomes and Russell Wilson have more success with their top targets than Watson does when targeting Will Fuller.
Passing Points Earned Leaders by Target, 2020
|Quarterback||Target||Passing Points Earned|
|Patrick Mahomes||Travis Kelce||43|
|Russell Wilson||Tyler Lockett||40|
|Patrick Mahomes||Tyreek Hill||40|
|Russell Wilson||DK Metcalf||39|
|Deshaun Watson||Will Fuller||36|
…Oh, this is awkward.
With Fuller now out of the fold for the rest of the season (and potentially his Texans career, as he’s in his walk year), there’s some question as to whether Watson can sustain his performance. After all, despite injury issues for both players involved, Watson accumulated more Total Points throwing to Fuller over the last four seasons than Carson Wentz throwing to Zach Ertz, Tom Brady throwing to Julian Edelman, and Ben Roethlisberger throwing to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The good news for the Texans is that they started the season with enough speed to burn that they released Kenny Stills after last week’s game. They still have Brandin Cooks in the fold, and he has comparable production on deep balls as Fuller minus the three touchdowns.
Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks on Throws 20+ Yards Downfield, 2020
The biggest issue the Texans are likely to face is their ability to stress the defense, particularly on the outside. They’ve faced Cover 1 or Cover 3 more than half the time, and they’ve demolished those coverages thanks to their ability to send Fuller and Cooks down the sidelines and put the deep safety in a tough spot.
Fuller’s reputation for downfield prowess makes him an underrated producer in the intermediate area. This year, intermediate throws to Fuller have produced the third-most EPA of any receiver. As a result, Watson ranks second to Russell Wilson in IQR on intermediate throws.
Most Valuable Receivers on Throws 10-19 Yards Downfield, 2020
With Fuller’s targets moving towards less dynamic players, the Texans can’t threaten the defense downfield as much, and therefore they won’t have as much room to work underneath. Deshaun Watson is posting career bests in IQR on short, intermediate, and deep passes, so it’s as safe a time as any for him to lose a playmaker like that, but the offense’s overall upside will take a hit.