This is the 160th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.
Through his first month of NFL action, Deshaun Watson has been incredible, especially since he looked #notgood in his first two appearances. In relief of the overmatched Tom Savage, Watson played the second half of Week 1 against the Jaguars before starting against the Bengals on the road in Week 2 for Thursday Night Football. In those contests the Texans averaged only 10 points per game (PPG) and Watson had a horrid 4.30 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). In retrospect, it’s fair for Watson to have struggled against two of the league’s five best defenses.
Since then, he has been the best quarterback in the league, throwing for 845 yards and 11 touchdowns (to three interceptions) with a 64.3 percent completion rate and adding 96 yards and another touchdown on 15 rushes — and chipping in a two-point conversion for good measure. In Weeks 3-5, he’s led the league with 31.8 DraftKings and 30.8 FanDuel PPG with +16.08 and +14.54 Plus/Minus values. It helps that two of his games have been against the Patriots and Titans — who have two of the league’s five worst defenses through five weeks — but his matchup against the Chiefs wasn’t a gimme. In the aggregate, the production Watson has through his first month of the regular season he’s earned, especially since he didn’t prepare as the starter for Week 1 and had just four days to prepare for his first NFL start in Week 2 on the road. He currently leads the league with an 85.5 in ESPN’s Total QBR.
All of this begs the question:
What can we expect from Watson for the rest of the year? Is Watson the greatest first-month rookie in the history of the universe?
The Bayesian Priors
In the preseason I (with substantial help from Ian Hartitz, Joe Holka, Kelly McCann, and Matt LaMarca) pounded out a 32-piece series on each NFL team: Coaching tendencies, offseason roster moves, potential 2017 outcomes, Vegas win totals, etc.
Here’s what I wrote about Watson in the Houston Texans preview:
Deshaun Watson, QB
A four-year starter in high school, Watson shattered Georgia state records on his way to becoming a first-team All-American and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback college recruit. Choosing to play for HC Dabo Swinney at Clemson, Watson flashed in eight appearances (five starts) as a true freshman, scoring 19 touchdowns as a passer and runner.
As a sophomore and junior, Watson was electrifying. A Heisman finalist both years, he led Clemson to back-to-back National Championship appearances against Alabama, winning it all in his final college game. With 8,702 yards and 76 touchdowns passing (and 1,734 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing) in his final 30 games, Watson was every bit the best player in college. In the final three games of each season — ACC Championship, playoff bowl game, National Championship — Watson was strong when his team needed him to perform, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for an average of 308 yards and 2.5 touchdowns (to one interception) and adding 89 yards and 1.3 touchdowns on the ground. As a college producer and winner, Watson has everything an NFL franchise could want in a first-round draft pick.
Except for arm strength. Although Watson tore up the combine with fantastic speed (4.66-second 40), agility (6.95-second three-cone), and burst (119.0-inch broad) for a player of his size (6’2″ and 221 lbs.), he represented himself poorly in the passing drills. He was accurate — but he had a ball velocity of only 49 mph. That number is unspeakably low given that 55 mph has become something of an expected threshold over the last few years. Almost no quarterbacks below that threshold have had NFL success since ball velocity was first measured at the combine in 2008.
At the same time, correlation is not causation. We need to consider multicollinearity when it comes to quarterbacks and ball velocity. Draft position is predictive of the opportunities a quarterback receives, and the NFL tends to prefer passers who throw the ball hard. They are selected with higher picks and have more opportunities to succeed. Over the last decade, only a few times have NFL teams used top-100 picks to draft quarterbacks with weak-ish arms: Christan Ponder (51), Jake Locker (54), and Chad Henne (53). That sample is small, and none of those guys as prospects had the superior production profile Watson has. It’s possible that most quarterbacks with weak arms don’t have NFL success at least in part because they’re not drafted with high enough picks and as a result don’t get opportunities to show if they’re actually good.
Tellingly, two quarterbacks drafted outside the top 100 with weak arms and dual-threat playing styles have broken out in the NFL over the last two years: Tyrod Taylor (50 mph) and Dak Prescott (54). Taylor finally got his opportunity to start after sitting on the bench for four years in Baltimore, and Dak got his chance to start only because the two guys in front of him suffered serious injuries. Once they got their opportunities, Tyrod and Dak succeeded — in spite of their noodle arms.
It makes sense that a quarterback with a weak arm would not be a good NFL player. At the same time, we can’t say definitively that a quarterback with a weak arm but strong draft pedigree, athleticism, and production won’t be a good fantasy player. We don’t have enough data to make that statement with certitude — and the data we have suggests that the combination of draft position, athleticism, and college production is probably more predictive of NFL success than arm strength is.
Quarterback evaluation is still more of an art than a science — but the numbers are on Watson’s side, and it also helps that he has the kingmaker O’Brien to mentor him, Hopkins to catch his passes, and an elite defense to keep the Texans in games. He might not play this year, but I’m willing to bet on Watson in dynasty drafts.
Right now he’s tied with running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey at +400 with the highest implied odds to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Of the three, Watson probably has the best real odds — but only if he starts within the first six games. Fournette’s Jaguars are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs, and if McCaffrey’s Panthers make the playoffs it will have more to do with the play of quarterback Cam Newton than McCaffrey. But Watson could quarterback the Texans to the playoffs and give stability and a bright-seeming future to a position that has been in turmoil over the last four years. That would probably give him an edge in the ROY race (assuming one of the backs doesn’t have a historic campaign).
Did I just quote myself for basically half an article’s worth of text? Positive expected value, baby.
The sample is small, but through five weeks the concerns about Watson’s lack of arm strength seem overblown. It’s uncertain that ball velocity at the combine and ball velocity in games actually correlate — but even if they do we still can’t say for sure that a weak-armed quarterback can’t be a productive NFL player in fantasy and reality. So far, it looks like Watson’s draft position, college production as a passer and runner, and athleticism mean more in the NFL than his arm strength.
In total DraftKings fantasy points through five games, here are are the top 10 rookie quarterbacks:
- Cam Newton: 142.4
- Watson: 120.8
- Robert Griffin III: 114.5
- Andrew Luck: 103.8
- Dak Prescott: 88.7
- Geno Smith: 88.2
- Marcus Mariota: 86.8
- Jameis Winston: 81.2
- Carson Wentz: 81.1
- Derek Carr: 74.4
And remember that Watson didn’t play in the first half of Week 1. That’s impressive. As a passer, Watson has been as efficient as the best rookie passers we’ve seen in the last 20 years. His 7.81 AY/A through five weeks is comparable to the marks of other strong first-year quarterbacks through their first month of NFL action (minimum of 100 passes):
- RG3: 8.60
- Dak: 8.51
- Wentz: 8.16
- Newton: 7.63
- Mariota: 7.42
- Geno: 6.85
As a runner, he’s second in yardage with 179, right below Griffin (241) and above Newton (160).
Watson probably isn’t the greatest first-month NFL rookie of all time, but at the quarterback position he’s top three, along with Cam and RG3.
What does Watson’s early-season performance mean for his rest-of-season outlook? It means that at worst on a weekly basis he’s likely to have high floor projections in our Models because of his ability as a runner. And, at best, he’s going to be a defense-crushing plug-and-play Konami Coder with the arm talent and the wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller to have 50-point upside every slate. For instance, in Week 6 the Texans are -10.0 home favorites implied for 28.25 points against the Browns, who have a pass-flowing funnel defense that’s third against the run and 31st against the pass in Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). On the Week 6 NFL Daily Fantasy Flex, Watson was the first person we talked about as a chalk lock.
Although Watson will be challenged at Seattle in Week 8, at least he’ll get that game coming off a bye, after which he’ll have six advantageous matchups in the last nine weeks of the season:
- Week 9: vs. Colts
- Week 10: at Rams
- Week 11: vs. Cardinals
- Week 13: at Titans
- Week 14: vs. 49ers
- Week 17: at Colts
He could struggle at Ravens (Week 12), at Jags (Week 15), and vs. Steelers (Week 16), but in general Watson is positioned to go on a big run to close his rookie campaign.
The 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year
When I wrote the Texans preview in mid-August, Spencer Ware was yet to suffer the season-ending injury that would unleash Kareem Hunt upon the world. At that point, Watson was in a three-way tie with running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey for the highest implied odds to win Offensive Rookie of the Year at +400. Now, Watson is -200, Hunt +160, and Fournette +1,200.
Hunt is a good candidate, but he plays an injury-prone position and could wear down as the season progresses. Also, he’s probably not better than Ezekiel Elliott was last season — and Zeke didn’t win OROY. Dak did.
On account of his production and dual-threat capability, the previous rookie quarterbacks to whom Watson is most comparable are RG3, Cam, and Dak — all of whom won OROY.
- Cam: 2011
- RG3: 2012
- Dak: 2016
If the Jaguars make the playoffs, Fournette won’t get credit for it: The defense will. If the Chiefs make the playoffs, Hunt won’t get credit for it: Quarterback Alex Smith will. If the J.J. Watt-less Texans make the playoffs, Watson will likely get credit.
There’s little value in betting award props, and they’re hard to handicap (especially just five weeks into the season), but it looks like Watson will have to be notably unimpressive for the rest of the season not to win OROY.
Watson’s not the greatest first-month rookie in NFL history — but he is of this season.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.65, 160