NFL

Deshaun Watson Can Still Be a Fantasy Football Stud Without DeAndre Hopkins

Coach Bill O'Brien is on a one-man mission to sink the ship that is the Houston Texans' franchise.

It appears some believe that will have an adverse effect on Deshaun Watson in fantasy football as Watson's current average draft position (ADP) puts him at QB6, according to BestBall10's May ADP, a drop from his ADP of QB2 a year ago. Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson are deservedly in their own tiers at the position, but Watson is also coming off the board after Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, and Kyler Murray.

Averaging 21.6 fantasy points per game since entering the league, Watson is a proven fantasy stud, and the market is undervaluing him. Here's why.

Supporting Cast

Much has been made of the DeAndre Hopkins trade, and to be sure, it was an atrocity. O'Brien managed the double whammy of trading away one of the game's best pass-catchers, on a bargain contract, for pennies on the dollar, while simultaneously acquiring an overpaid running back in clear decline.

Make no mistake, losing Hopkins is bad for Watson. Hopkins is routinely near the top of our metrics -- specifically Net Expected Points (NEP) -- for a reason. Hopkins is not only an efficient receiver, but he's an efficient receiver capable of doing it with large volume.

In 2019, Hopkins posted 0.71 Reception NEP per target, meaning he added 0.71 expected points to Houston per target. The league average was 0.70. Reception NEP per target is usually slanted more toward big-play wideouts, something Hopkins wasn't in 2019 with just 11.2 yards per grab, which ranked 88th among all receivers and tight ends who had at least 30 catches.

Will Fuller, Houston's new number-one wideout, is capable of being efficient -- he finished with 0.79 Reception NEP per target -- but he has struggled with injuries, playing only 18 total games the last two seasons. Luckily, the Texans have some other quality pass-game options and can take more of a committee approach to replacing Hopkins.

Let's look at who remains in the Texans receiving corps. The logical place to begin is David Johnson, the player acquired in the Hopkins trade. Johnson's addition is both bad and good news. The bad news is that at least some of Hopkins' 29% target share from 2019 will go to a running back. Running backs are inherently less efficient than wide receivers, even in terms of receiving, since their targets come close to the line of scrimmage.

The good news is that despite Johnson's visible decline as a runner, he remains significantly better than the average running back in terms of pass catching, registering at 0.47 Reception NEP per target a year ago (league average for backs was 0.33).

Johnson is miles better as a receiver than his predecessor, Carlos Hyde, who is one of the worst pass-game backs in the league, managing the extraordinary feat of -0.02 Reception NEP per target. Hyde was good for only a 3.1% target share, but throwing 3.1% of your targets into the abyss is never optimal.The other major running back on the roster, Duke Johnson, is also very good in the passing game, recording 0.53 Reception NEP per target.

At wide receiver, the Texans opted to acquire Brandin Cooks. Was trading a second-round pick for a player who is a concussion away from the IR an overpay? Maybe. But Cooks is a capable receiver, putting up 0.68 Reception NEP per target even in a down year a season ago. Beyond that, the Texans go at least four deep at the receiver position, with Will Fuller (0.79 Reception NEP per target,) free agent-signee Randall Cobb (0.82) and Kenny Stills (0.95). Rounding out the unit are DeAndre Carter, Keke Coutee, and rookie Isaiah Coulter.

At tight end, the Texans return target leaders Darren Fells (0.73 Reception NEP per target) and Jordan Akins (0.64). Returning from injury are the promising Kahale Warring and Jordan Thomas, in their second and third years, respectively.

In all, some of Hopkins' value is being replaced by running backs (albeit relatively efficient ones), but some of that volume is being replaced in aggregate by receivers who are incredibly efficient in their own right.

You might be wondering if these cancel each other out. Well, almost. Looking at our projections, we have Watson's yards per attempt dropping down a bit -- from 7.8 yards per attempt in 2019 to 7.5 yards per attempt this coming year. Watson's fantasy production might not take much of a step back after all.

Offensive Line

Not to be ignored is the fact that Watson looks likely to enter 2020 with the most talented offensive line of his career. According to PlayerProfiler, Watson had the 12th-best protection rate a year ago. That number is likely to get better with all five starters returning, and the trio of Laremy Tunsil, Tytus Howard, Max Scharping all entering Year 2 with the team.

Granted, even with that protection, Watson was still sacked 8.2% of the time. At the very least, that number was down from 10.9% the year prior. Watson's sack rate is likely to never be particularly low as his scrambling and downfield passing lend themselves to taking a higher number of sacks. Still, staying around an 8.2% sack rate would be a good outcome.

While in 99.9% of leagues, you don't lose fantasy points for taking sacks, you do lose the opportunity to score fantasy points on that play. Self-induced pressure is also a great way to lower your own efficiency, as Football Outsiders has demonstrated. And obviously, extra hits increase the chance for injury.

However, Watson is a fantasy star largely because of his scrambling and deep passing, so the trade-off here is worthwhile.

Increased Opportunity

While the depletion to the Texans' offense is potentially overstated, the curse of O'Brien has most definitely struck the defense of the battle red and steel blue.

We know Watson is one of the game's best quarterbacks, and he finished 2019 with 0.19 Passing NEP per drop back. Houston's defense nearly topped that number by allowing 0.18 Passing NEP per drop back. Houston was marginally better against the run, but of course, that's not as important. Having Watson is great, but it's less effective when your defense turns the average quarterback you face into, essentially, Watson.

In part, this is why FanDuel Sportsbook has set the Texans' over/under at just 7.5 wins. While chasing garbage-time points with bad quarterbacks is inadvisable, chasing garbage time with good quarterbacks is a different story. See 2019 Matt Ryan for how a bad defense can powerboost a talented quarterback's volume.

Now, even in comparable situations, the Falcons pass much more often than the Texans, a difference that isn't fully accounted for by Watson's scrambling alone. Nonetheless, Watson may see more neutral or negative game scripts in 2020, giving him the chance to rack up more drop backs.

Our friends at Sharp Football Stats show us that, on average, teams pass 50% of the time when leading, but that number jumps to 66% when losing (teams pass 57% of the time when tied, for those curious). This also bears itself out in our projections, where Watson is projected for a career-high 549 attempts. This serves to make an potential decrease in efficiency even more tolerable.

Should You Draft Watson?

As mentioned earlier, Watson is currently the QB6. He's coming off the board 70th overall -- roughly 15 spots later than his 2019 ADP.

While that's not the greatest value for a signal caller, the general theory I am going after is that folks shouldn't really be down on Watson in 2020.

We project Watson as the QB5, and he's just eight fantasy points away from being the QB2. We have him totaling 4,111 passing yards and 28 touchdowns through the air along with 430 yards and four scores on the ground. That's just one fewer total touchdown than Watson had in 2019, while our projections for passing yards (by 259) and rushing yards (by 27) are higher than what he posted over 15 games in 2019, when he logged a QB4 campaign (QB2 by points per game).

So don't necessarily reach to grab Watson in the fifth round, but if he's available in the sixth or seventh, he's a worthwhile target there, especially in a year without obvious later-round Konami code options like Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray.