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2018 NFL Preview: Texans, and the NFL, need Deshaun Watson to return good as new

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

In a perfect football world, we’d bottle up the Houston Texans-Seattle Seahawks game last Oct. 29 and live there forever. It was as good as NFL football gets, at least before the postseason.

Even before that day it seemed something special was happening in Houston. Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson’s career was off to a great start. Then, in front of the NFL’s toughest road crowd, Watson went blow for blow with Russell Wilson, throwing for 402 yards and four touchdowns. It was one of the best regular-season games I’ve ever seen. Watson’s Texans lost 41-38 because Wilson pulled off a miracle comeback, but it seemed like a big moment for Watson, for the Texans and the entire NFL. It seemed like we had just watched the birth of a new superstar.

And then came the gut punch.

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On Nov. 2, out of nowhere, news broke that Watson tore his ACL in practice. It was a freak accident, a non-contact injury that ended his season. Watson’s phenomenal performance against the Seahawks was the last time we’d see him on the field as a rookie.

We assume what we saw from Watson last season was just the start. Because players bounce back from ACL injuries all the time, we figure Watson will look the same when he returns. Perhaps even better. Fantasy experts seem to be in a competition to be the one who loves Watson most this offseason. We all want to see Watson become a transcendent player. Maybe he will be.

However, we don’t know. We thought Robert Griffin III would be fine. For old-school fans, nobody figured Greg Cook’s career was basically over after one amazing rookie season with the Cincinnati Bengals due to a shoulder injury. Nothing is guaranteed. Aside from that, there’s no way Watson can continue at his rookie pace.

Watson threw touchdowns on 9.3 percent of his passes last season. The best mark in NFL history is Sid Luckman’s 7.9 percent, and for anyone whose career started after the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, Aaron Rodgers is the career leader at 6.4 percent. Last season, Watson was almost 50 percent better than Rodgers’ historic mark. Among quarterbacks of the past 40 years, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Wilson are tied for second in touchdown percentage behind Rodgers at 5.7. Long story short: Watson wasn’t going to keep up what he did last year, even if his knee stayed intact. The pace he was on, not just for touchdowns but across the board, is unsustainable. That doesn’t mean he’ll fall back so much he’ll turn into DeShone Kizer. It’s just that we can’t expect Watson to repeat his 2017 and do it over 16 games.

Expectations can be fierce and they don’t often consider the gravitational pull of regression. People assumed Dak Prescott would go from rookie star to MVP candidate last season, ignoring that he couldn’t sustain his 2016 pace. And he didn’t. Watson has the additional hurdle of coming back from a torn ACL. Every report indicates his rehab is going well, but he still depends on his mobility to stress a defense, and this is his second torn ACL.

It isn’t just Houston that’s invested in Watson’s return, though the Texans’ outlook for the next decade is riding on it. If Watson is the NFL’s next superstar quarterback, Bill O’Brien is going to save his job for a while and it lifts a franchise that has only three playoff wins and has never made it out of the divisional round. It’s, however, more than that. With Peyton Manning gone and Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Drew Brees close to joining him in retirement, the NFL needs stars like Watson. For a too-brief time last year, he looked like the type of player who could be the face of the entire league. He was making some great headlines off the field too. Houston is rooting the hardest for Watson, and the folks at the NFL’s Park Avenue offices might be second in line.

We wait to see what 2018 brings. If Watson and J.J. Watt come back as good as new from injuries, the Texans should be contenders in the AFC South. They were 3-3 in Watson’s starts but with very close losses to New England, Kansas City and Seattle. The Texans looked good with Watson in the lineup. They were equally as awful without Watson (and without Watt and fellow injured pass rusher Whitney Mercilus).

We can only hope the optimists are right and Watson picks up where he left off last season. What we saw from him last year was really fun.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is coming off an ACL surgery, practices this offseason. (AP)

The Texans were still paying the draft price for trading up to take Deshaun Watson and dumping Brock Osweiler last year. They didn’t have a pick in the first two rounds. The Texans overpaid free-agent guards Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete because they needed to do something to help a bad offensive line and didn’t have the draft capital to fix those spots. Houston didn’t lose a ton, but this was a light offseason for additions.

GRADE: D

There are plenty, and the biggest one wears No. 4 (No. 99 isn’t far behind). Another that has to be mentioned is receiver DeAndre Hopkins. In six-and-a-half games with Deshaun Watson last year, Hopkins had a blistering 44-599-7 line. Here are the other starting quarterbacks Hopkins has had in his Texans career: Matt Schaub, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Tom Savage, Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler. He has 5,865 yards in his five NFL seasons despite most of his passes coming from that crew. The Texans have receiver Will Fuller, who is a very good deep threat when healthy. Other than that, there aren’t many proven, dangerous pass targets to take pressure off Hopkins. The running game, led by Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman (who is coming back off an Achilles injury) won’t help a ton either. But Hopkins keeps plowing through all the obstacles that should limit his production. And he probably dreams of what could happen if he and Watson stay healthy for a full season.

The Texans’ offensive line isn’t good. They traded left tackle Duane Brown, and you have to wonder how much Brown’s criticism of team owner Bob McNair’s insensitive comments led to that move. It certainly didn’t help the product on the field. Jim Sannes of NumberFire.com ranks the Texans as the worst offensive line in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked the Texans as the league’s worst line last season. This is a bad group, and that’s not good news for a young quarterback coming off a major injury.

Since we spent the intro discussing Deshaun Watson at length, let’s point this out: Last season, after dozens of offseason and training camp practices and then four preseason games to evaluate his quarterbacks, Bill O’Brien thought Tom Savage was a better option to start Week 1 than Watson.

The most important non-quarterback in the entire NFL this season might be J.J. Watt. Watt’s resume is incredible; before injuries set in he was on a GOAT pace. Injuries stink, and they’ve piled up for Watt. He had two back surgeries in 2016 and played only three games. A devastating tibial plateau fracture cost him all but five games last season. Now Watt is 29 years old with a scary injury history working against him. Bill O’Brien’s go-to comment this offseason has been, “I would never bet against J.J. Watt.” Maybe I’m reading too much into that line, but that doesn’t sound as confident as you’d hope.

“I feel great. I feel very good,” Watt said in May, according to the team’s transcripts. “I mean, I’m not going to put any percentages on it or anything. Like I said earlier in the offseason, I could tell you I’m feeling unbelievable [or] I could tell you I’m feeling super [bad] – you won’t know until I hit the field. Just show up to training camp, watch how I play and then you can decide for yourself how I look.”

The Texans need Watt to look like the guy who won three Defensive Player of the Year awards. If Watt is just an above-average player after his back and leg injuries, it’s not the same team.

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “With batons in hand, the regression police are out in full force. They incessantly argue Watson’s 24.7 fantasy points per game, the second-highest mark by a passer since Peyton Manning unloaded 55 touchdowns in 2013, is unsustainable. Their point is veracious. It is unlikely he meets or exceeds last year’s prolific pace. Still, at his ADP, he’s bound to turn a lavish profit. Reduce his 2017 numbers by 10 percent and he bests eight of Aaron Rodgers’ last 10 season tallies in the category.

“The environment around Watson is nourishing. DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, who last year posted a combined 54 percent play success rate with Watson according to Sharp Football Stats, are dynamite intermediate/downfield targets. Mix in Bruce Ellington, Braxton Miller, explosive rookie Keke Coutee and Lamar Miller and the Texans offense looks potent.

“Though Bill O’Brien doesn’t plan to change the passer’s desire to run, questions do linger. For the sake of body preservation, will Watson run less, especially when considering Houston’s sketchy offensive line? Even if he does, his deadly execution throwing the ball shouldn’t be underestimated. Last season, he ranked No. 2 in play-action completion percentage, No. 6 in deep-ball completion percentage and No. 1 in total QBR. The dude shredded defenses even behind a line that ranked No. 30 in pass-blocking per Football Outsiders. And blasting him for turnovers is rather silly considering A) he was a rookie, and B) turnovers are not weighted heavily in most fantasy leagues.

“Exactly where he needs to be in his ACL recovery, the second-year QB should begin training camp at or near 100 percent. At his modest price (70.9 ADP, QB3) he’s worth the risk. The possibilities over 16 games are intoxicating. Chase the potential. Thank yourself later.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Texans.]

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Quarterbacks get too much praise and too much blame, but it’s hard to deny what Deshaun Watson meant to the Texans’ offense. If you don’t count Watson’s first start, which came on the road in a short week, the Texans averaged 39 points per game in his five starts. They averaged 13 points in the 10 games he didn’t start. Part of that is the incredibly steep drop to Tom Savage (one more time: Bill O’Brien thought Savage was a better option to start last season than Watson), but that one stat reveals all you need to know about Watson’s impact.

WHAT DO THE TEXANS DO ABOUT JADEVEON CLOWNEY?

Clowney’s contract situation is going to become an issue soon. He’s in the final year of his rookie deal. John McClain of the Houston Chronicle wondered in mid-June if Clowney will be extended by the team. While McClain also said there’s “no way” the team would let him leave as a free agent, the franchise tag isn’t a permanent solution. A long-term deal will be very expensive. After last season, Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle offered that Clowney could get the biggest contract for a non-quarterback in league history, in terms of total value, even more than the six-year, $114.1 million the Denver Broncos gave Von Miller. Even if Clowney doesn’t pass that mark, it seems he’ll be in the $100 million range. The Texans already have J.J. Watt, who has the fourth-highest non-QB contract in the NFL, and DeAndre Hopkins, who is 13th on the list. Deshaun Watson is on his rookie deal and that’s a major advantage in terms of the salary cap, but it’s still hard to invest a fortune in three non-quarterbacks. Also, Clowney has dealt with many injuries and while he has developed into a very good player, the former No. 1 overall pick isn’t close to being the best non-quarterback in the league. It’s a complicated situation and won’t get easier the longer it lingers.

Deshaun Watson might have been the best rookie quarterback we’ve ever seen, even though it wasn’t for long. J.J. Watt is one of two men to win three Defensive Player of the Year awards, and the other Is Lawrence Taylor. If both Texans return to their peak, nobody in the NFL can match that combination. Also, DeAndre Hopkins is one of the top few receivers in the game. There’s no question a division title is within the possible outcomes for the Texans. They’ve won the AFC South with worse quarterbacks, after all.

“Yeah, we have won a few division titles with like 15 different quarterbacks, so if we have one quarterback who is back there who can play the way that he plays, who has the potential and has the abilities he has, of course,” Watt said about the confidence he has in Watson. “I think he has great potential. We are really excited to see what he can do with a full season. I’m definitely excited to have a franchise quarterback.”

I worry about J.J. Watt regaining his old form because the injuries he has dealt with aren’t easy to overcome. Deshaun Watson will be fine, but we’re still putting him in the Hall of Fame after just six starts and his injury adds uncertainty. The Texans were entirely reliant on Watson last season; they won one game without him. It’s hard to go all-in on a team when its two superstars are coming off major injuries.

According to NFL analyst Warren Sharp, who uses Las Vegas win projections to calculate strength of schedule, the Texans have the easiest schedule in the NFL. That helps. Still, there are enough reasons for concern which is why we’ll be a bit disappointed in Houston. I still like the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars more in the division. I won’t rule out Deshaun Watson being a football prodigy, but it will be very hard for him to exceed expectations this season. I’m probably going to be a bit low on the Texans. All the uncertainty – as well as major holes on the offensive line and in the run game – is a concern.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!