Yes, he’s had DeAndre Hopkins, an All-Pro for the past three seasons, and, when healthy, the explosive Will Fuller. He's had deep threats, including the addition of Kenny Stills last year. But in his first three NFL seasons, Watson hasn’t had a reliable slot receiver, a player to get the ball to quickly.
In fact, Bill O’Brien hasn’t really had one since he took over as the Texans coach in 2014. Since then, Houston has had a long list of players who have not had very much success in the role: Damaris Johnson, Cecil Shorts, Braxton Miller, Bruce Ellington, DeAndre Carter and Keke Coutee. Coutee, a fourth-round pick in 2018, struggled in 2019 and was a healthy scratch for several games. O’Brien said the young slot receiver needed to be better with his attention to detail in practice.
In the last three years, Hopkins lead the Texans with 516 routes run from the slot. Fuller was second (306 routes) and Ellington was third with 265, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In comparison, Cobb has run the fourth-most routes from the slot in the past three years, playing for the Green Bay Packers and then last season with the Dallas Cowboys. Cobb’s 1,384 routes are more than Hopkins, Fuller and Ellington combined from that position in the same time frame.
In that same span, Cobb was “open” (three or more yards of separation) on 44.3 percent of his targets, which ranked ninth out of 48 wide receivers, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. When Hopkins was in the slot -- not the position he ran the majority of his routes from -- he was open in the slot on just 35.6% of his targets, which ranked 36th out of those same 48 receivers.
According to Next Gen Stats, among the 29 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 750 passes in the last three seasons (since Watson entered the league), Watson has targeted receivers lined up in the slot (pre-snap) on 29.6% of his total pass attempts, which ranks as the ninth-lowest rate among those 29 quarterbacks. When throwing to a target who was lined up in the slot pre-snap in his career, Watson’s 69% completion percentage ranks 11th in the league, but his touchdown-to-interception ratio (1.40) ranked 32nd.
For all the ways Watson protects himself by using his mobility to scramble and escape pressure, he can also do so by making higher-percentage throws to Cobb. In 2019, Watson completed 75.2% of passes he threw in 2.5 seconds or less, which ranked fifth in the NFL.
Not long after Cobb signed, he told reporters that one of the biggest things he can add to the Texans’ offense is his chemistry with Watson because he will “be able to learn what he likes and show him what I'm good at and just being able to communicate and be on the same page.”
Cobb, who turns 30 this month, sees how they can benefit each other.
“When I watch his highlights, a lot of the routes that were ran by the slot receivers are a lot of the stuff that I'm used to in my career,” Cobb said. “I've ran a lot of routes out of the slot just being my primary position for most of my career. I think, obviously, when I played with [Packers quarterback Aaron] Rodgers my first eight years, a lot of what he did was late in the play, scrambling around, moving around and just being able to find ways to get open after the initial route and create separation and be a target and find a way to get open for him in those situations. I see a lot of the same characteristics in Deshaun, the way he's able to escape the pocket and keep his eyes downfield and find receivers."
After four months of virtual study, Cobb says he feels “really comfortable with with everything that’s been thrown my way so far,” but because of the COVID-19 restrictions during the offseason, he and Watson “haven’t had the opportunity to build the chemistry I would like to over the offseason, given we’ve only had a few days to work together.”
“That’s going to take time,” Cobb said. “That’s not something that happens overnight. Obviously, we’re pressed for time with the situation that we’re in right now. We’re talking through everything and I think that’s a big part, is communication and him being comfortable and trusting in me, knowing that I’m going to be where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there.”
Cobb estimated that during a normal offseason program, he and Watson would have had 25 to 30 “opportunities to communicate, to go through routes and timing.”
“He would be able to get a sense of the way my body moves, understanding of how I come out of routes and I would be able to get an understanding of his release, his ball placement and all those things,” Cobb said.
Instead, the pair have had “maybe five to seven” chances to work together. But even though the pair are still building that chemistry, wide receivers coach John Perry said everything he has seen from Cobb tells him he will be a valuable addition to the Texans' offense.
“Randall is a very professional player,” Perry said. “He came in here and just from the minute I met him, he has a certain professionalism about him. When we’re meeting and stuff like that, he’s asking really good questions and just really trying to get on the same page with what we’re trying to do here because he knows he wants to meld in. I think his presence is going to be a positive one on us as a team.”