Deshaun Watson was the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans in six games last season. During those six games, he was by far the best quarterback in fantasy football, putting up numbers that would have challenged for fantasy MVP. However, in early November, he tore his right ACL in practice and was shut down for the season.
So, as we start preparing for the upcoming NFL and (more importantly) fantasy football season, the obvious question is: How good do we expect Watson to be this season?
For me, the answer is easy: Watson is the No. 1 quarterback prospect in this year's draft. Period.
This stance is in the minority, so let's go through some of the reasons why I believe that Watson should be an easy choice as the top quarterback pick in this season's fantasy drafts. Starting with what he accomplished a year ago, as a rookie.
Watson entered the season backing up Tom Savage, and in the first game of the season, against a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that would go on to dominate the league, Watson took over for a struggling Savage at the half with the Texans down 19-0. Watson outplayed Savage and won the starting job moving forward. In his first start, the following week against a solid Cincinnati Bengals defense that ranked eighth in the NFL in fewest passing yards and passing touchdowns allowed, Watson passed for 125 yards and ran for 67 yards and a touchdown to lead the Texans to their first win.
This was the last time that he would look remotely human as a starter.
During the next five games, Watson would complete 63.1 percent of his pass attempts on his way to averaging 294.4 passing yards, 3.6 passing touchdowns and only 1.4 interceptions per game. On the ground, Watson would average 5.8 rushes for 37.2 yards per game, with another touchdown scored.
In standard scoring fantasy leagues, Watson's last five games as a starter were good for 28.3 fantasy points per game (FP/G). To put that in perspective, here are the per-game fantasy scoring averages for the top five scoring quarterbacks last season:
Russell Wilson: 21.7 FP/G
Carson Wentz: 21.7 FP/G
Aaron Rodgers: 21.5 FP/G (excluding partial game when he got injured)
Alex Smith: 19.7 FG/G
Cam Newton: 18.7 FP/G
Yes, a sample size of five games for a rookie quarterback is small. Vanishingly small, even. But in those five games, he lapped the field as far as production goes. Watson's 28.3 FP/G had a bigger gap over the first-place Wilson and Wentz than Wilson and Wentz had over the 18th-place Jameis Winston (15.5 FP/G).
Thus, Watson wasn't just slightly the best fantasy quarterback in the league while he played ... he was way the best fantasy quarterback in the league while he played. So, for him not to be on top this year, he wouldn't just have to regress slightly ... he would have to way regress as a sophomore. How likely is that? When one is contemplating Watson's small sample size (SSS), these are the types of factors to keep in mind:
Was Watson facing poor competition or a representative level of competition?
Did Watson's approach correlate with team success?
Was 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?
Let's tackle these questions in order.
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.
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.
Was Watson lucky or unusually hot? 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.
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.
Now the ultimate question: What would "regression to the mean" look like for Watson? 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.
In fantasy drafts, the point is to build a team that is most likely to positively separate your team from the competition. There was only a 4.7 FP/G difference between the first and 10th quarterbacks last season, and only 5.3 FP/G between first and 12th. Thus, in a standard 10- or 12-team league, it is difficult to get much separation from your peers at quarterback. This is the backbone of the "wait until the fifth or sixth round to take a quarterback" strategy; if there's no separation to be had, there's no draft value in drafting a quarterback early.
However, in Watson, we have a player with elements of risk but also with a demonstrated production upside that is far higher than any of his peers. In his short stint as a starter last season, Watson lapped everyone else in production. Even if there is no guarantee that he repeats that level of dominance as a sophomore, there is more beneficial upside to your fantasy team in taking that chance than there is downside if you swing and miss. Because if Watson isn't as impressive this season, or if he gets injured again, we've already established that quarterback is a deep position and more than likely you'd be able to get a quarterback whose production isn't far off the best.
But if you swing and connect, if Watson's production last season is who he really is, and he can replicate it this season, you would have a quarterback who is significantly better than everyone else. And one, by the way, whom you can likely get in the fifth round because many people don't start drafting quarterbacks until later. That kind of upside from that type of draft slot can legitimately win leagues.
Is Watson a guaranteed bet for 2018? No. But he is the best fantasy quarterback prospect in the league and the one who should be drafted first in any 10- or 12-team format.