Matt Waldman’s Rookie Scouting Portfolio shares its pre-draft scouting report (and post-draft thoughts) on Texans QB Deshaun Watson.
Watson’s Ranking And The Context Of My Rankings
Quarterback evaluation is the most enjoyable challenge of my job. I also examine the position different than my peers, which requires context for my rankings. Watson was my fourth-rated quarterback in the 2017 class but as I advised my readers, my top two options would be sitting for at least a year and would present a strong value later on.
I also warned my readers that my top-two options had more inherent risks as NFL prospects. if they were Watson was my fourth quarterback in this class. My first two are on a long-term development track and I knew this as I wrote my publication.
The first tier of two quarterbacks possesses the best combination of physical prowess, technical skill, and intuitive play. But only one of themis likely to earn a first-round nod and the accompanying expectation to play sooner than later.
That player is Patrick Mahomes. Watson was in my second tier:
The second tier has two passers with a fine combination of physical skill, technical competency, and experience putting it all together against top competition. If the NFL selects 3-4 quarterbacks in the first round, there are good odds that this pair will be among that group. And if the surrounding talent is good enough to give them time in the pocket and move the offense without leaning too hard on them to create off-script, they could experience promising rookie seasons.
As we’ve seen with Watson, the Texans have fitted an offense that maximizes his ball-handling, perimeter throwing, and mobility in a scripted and effective manner. When Watson goes off-script, it’s often in situations where he’s not pressured to force plays from a bad game script.
Ultimately, I advised my readers that if they were to go a conventional route with quarterback development, my top-two options would not be their top two:
It may be odd that the top tier is a boom-bust group [which I explained why in great detail in the 2017 RSP], but that’s the difference between ranking talent and ranking a mix of talent and draft stock. If you’re risk averse, this tier will not be your first tier. Ignore it. If you don’t mind risk, the first two players have on-field skills that could make them special.
I believe this about Mahomes and my second player, Chad Kelly. However, I also like to frame my analysis in a way where fantasy owners can determine their risk tolerance with a clear-eyed view.
I also believe that context matters more than rankings because when someone sees that I ranked Watson fourth in light of his rookie performance, it probably seems low. However, I’m entirely comfortable with that spot even now because I framed my analysis with care on both a macro and micro level:
If you decide to draft a quarterback, there are six passers in this class that are within range of the scors I assigned to Wentz, Goff, Mariota, and Winston during the past two years.
While I’m cautious about quarterback development because of the potential risk-rewards of scheme fit, surrounding talent, and early vs. late playing time, I know others won’t be. The NFL certainly isn’t. The macro statement above was an endorsement to draft Watson if you don’t follow my annual advice to pay the premium for an established veteran.
The micro statement on Watson’s portrait as a player is what I believe is most important. Did I see him correctly? Did I project what types of things he’ll do well in the NFL with the right fit? Did I reveal where he might struggle and how correctable these issues are?
While it’s still too soon for me to make a firm conclusion, I’m happy with what my analysis compared to Watson’s first two months of professional work.
Here is the 2017 RSP’s scouting profile of Watson, including my pre-draft and post-draft advice:
Despite winning the National Championship this year, there are many in the scouting community that were mildly disappointed that Watson’s play didn’t take a significant step forward. One scout opined that “After the 2016 title game, I thought he’d continue developing on a higher trajectory, but he didn’t and he looks like the same player he was last year.”
It is something that I’ve heard numerous times. Even so, Watson remains a strong contender to be the first quarterback taken in the 2017 NFL Draft. I understand the rationale.
A dual-threat player, Watson may not have advanced his development at a rate that gets scouts excited about him as an immediate contributor, but there aren’t any serious issues that could impede his growth. The greatest risk to his development could be an NFL team that installs Watson as the opening-day starter and doesn’t give him the necessary support all young quarterbacks should have. In that case, he could get overwhelmed early, the team would suffer as a result, and management turns over and decides they want to go in a different direction– effectively scapegoating Watson.
There are detractors of Watson’s game, and they often cite the predetermined reads of the Clemson offense as a factor. Most college quarterbacks have plays with a number of predetermined reads in the playbook. Dak Prescott had plenty of them. It’s more important to look for situations where Watson makes decisions that are similar to what he’ll do in the NFL. There are enough examples on his film to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion that he can read the field.
I’ve seen Watson read safety blitzes, anticipate linebacker drops, and spot defensive back rotations. I’ve even watched Watson hold the safety in place in the same area of the field where he’s throwing the ball – a more difficult manipulation of a defender that also requires strong anticipation and accuracy with the route.
His work against the blitz has some notable highlights, too. He has a good feel for whether the defender sugaring a gap at the line of scrimmage is going to blitz or drop. When there is a blitz, Watson does a strong job of truncating his drop so he can get the ball out and he displays good form to throw off his toes. His short-range accuracy is strong and he’s confident in his ability to fit the ball into tight windows against pressure.
I’ve spoken with peers of mine on pre-draft podcasts about Watson and one of the issues I’ve heard repeatedly is that he’s too apt to tuck and run out the backside of the pocket when he feels pressure. I have seen games where he didn’t climb the pocket once, but I have also watched him repeatedly climb and throw the ball with accuracy against interior pressure only 2-3 steps from reaching him.
One consistent issue with Watson’s pocket management is his tendency to climb with a stride that’s too long. When he takes shorter steps, he’s under control and he finds good throwing lanes. But all too often, he’ll take longer strides and climbs into further congestion, and it forces him to escape the pocket when shorter strides would have given him the lane to find an open receiver. Because Watson has film examples of him taking shorter steps when maneuvering the pocket, I have more confidence that he can develop better control.
That long stride also occurs with some of his dropbacks. It forces Watson to set up with a stance that’s too wide. When this happens, he doesn’t get enough velocity on the ball because he can’t get over the ball on his release. There are a lot of throws on his tape where Watson is consistently placing the ball into the body of his receivers on timing routes in tight coverage. This doesn’t sound bad, but he should be leading the receiver. A throw into the body with a defender in trail position can lead to the defender knocking the ball away or undercutting the route for the interception.
When Watson’s drops end with a stable setup, he delivers the ball with an over-the-shoulder release that’s nice and high. He has quick feet and sets up fast in the short game to deliver the ball on screens, throw-outs, and other plays to the flat. He’s also good at the one-step setup and throw of the fade route, which is a great complementary change-up and prevents defenders from creeping up and sitting on the short routes.
There are plays where I’ve noticed an elongated release in Watson’s deliveries. The issue is the depth of the ball placement when it’s behind Watson’s head as he begins his release. It doesn’t appear to be a dramatic issue, but I found it notable if he experiences any future issues getting the ball out in compressed pockets.
Despite playing in an offense where he doesn’t do a lot of work from center, Watson’s ball handling is strong. He can deliver multiple, convincing ball fakes on a single drop.
Watson finds the single coverage assignment pre-snap, and his arm is strong enough to deliver accurate, downfield throws at a consistent range of 45-50 yards. He displays anticipation on corner routes and he’s good at working to reads to the same side of the field. His touch game is often on-point with a range of 30 yards, and he has the power to throw accurately to the opposite hash with a range of 45 yards. When it falters, it’s because Watson doesn’t get enough air under the ball on fade routes. Add this up, and what you have is a quarterback whose strengths are the short zone and intermediate and deep perimeter routes.
Watson also needs to cultivate more patience with his reads. He doesn’t always understand the advantage he has on one side of the field versus another based on presnap look of the defense. But at this point of Watson’s development, he’s better at pre-snap reads than the post-snap stage of a play. He repeatedly misreads the coverage of underneath defenders, and it leads to defended passes and interceptions.
Although Watson’s interception totals are low, this is an issue that could have led to a higher total. He made this exact mistake in the red zone at the end of the Pittsburgh game, and it led to a game-sealing interception and a Panthers’ upset.
He also has this problem with routes designed to flood a zone of the defense. He needs to become more cognizant of the defenders’ drops. Most prospects display some immaturity by leaning too much on an athletic strength. In Watson’s case, he leans too much on his mobility and arm strength.
He can take too much time in the pocket by sliding to one side and then looking to the opposite side of the field. He’d be better off restricting more of his decisions to one side of the field. It’s often preferable to throw the check-down or throw the ball away than attempt a pass to the opposite side of the field.
Pressure can also create some erratic behavior. In Watson’s case, he will normally come off his first receiver based on the identification of good coverage, but pressure can force him to lock onto an option too long. Watson is a good runner. He changes direction well, bounces off wraps and glancing hits by linebackers and some defensive ends, and he can keep his legs moving for extra yards in a pile. But he’s not the second coming of Michael Vick.
Watson lacks elite suddenness, and his acceleration won’t consistently get him around the defensive end in open space. He’ll do damage as a runner but will he require opponents to spy him? Not consistently.
He practices better ball security as a runner by design than a runner in the pocket. Like Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer, Watson can be too loose with his security with maneuvering through pressure.
Watson has the projectable skills to become a competent NFL starter. My greatest concern about him is his skill in the middle of the field. If he can improve his reads of underneath coverage and develop pinpoint placement, he’ll be on his way.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice
Watson will get his opportunity to develop on the field, and it could happen year-one. Much like Dak Prescott, if he’s paired with an organization that can protect him in the pocket and gives him clear opportunities to execute with a disciplined approach, Watson could have a good first year.
Expecting Watson to land in a situation remotely like Prescott’s isn’t advisable. He’s a solid long-term bet, though, to become a competent NFL starter. Think of him as a low-end QB1 or more likely a committee fantasy QB, unless he lands in an optimal situation with great talent along the offensive line and running game. That means I wouldn’t consider Watson within the first 14-18 picks in a fantasy draft until I know where he lands. Even then, it’s unlikely I’ll bump him up my board.
Post-NFL Draft Advice (From the RSP Post-Draft)
Watson’s strengths as a perimeter anticipation thrower pair well with that of his receiving corps. The Erhardt-Perkins system will provide a faster transition to the field than a West Coast scheme. He will see the field earlier than a talent like Mahomes. Watson’s upside will depend on his accuracy in the middle of the field and his ability to read complex coverage drops that fooled him often at Clemson. He has no major flaws, but several minor issues that will either get shored up or lead to his downfall.
For analysis of skill players, get the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2017 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each.