Revisiting the college draft
Deshaun Watson has made such a wonderful transition to the National Football League from a star-studded college career, the Second Guessers of the World are having a field day with the Browns.
Commissioner Roger Goodell had not called Watson’s name among the first 11 selections of the annual NFL college draft last spring in Philadelphia. The Browns, looking for their quarterback of the future, were sitting there at 12 after selecting Myles Garrett with the top pick.
In the last two drafts, the Browns’ analytics-minded front office has made a conscious decision to stockpile draft choices with an eye clearly on the future. So when the Houston Texans called and offered their first-rounder (No. 25) and next year’s first rounder for No. 12, they couldn’t say yes fast enough.
That one was in their draft-stockpile wheelhouse.
The Texans, also looking for their quarterback of the future, immediately grabbed Watson. The Browns used the Houston pick later on in the opening round to select safety Jabrill Peppers. And we all know where the Browns picked up their quarterback of the future.
Fast forward to the present.
Watson was supposed to start the season on the bench. Texans coach Bill O’Brien, however, did not want to thrust him into regular-season games right out of the chute. He opened the season instead with Tom Savage, a young veteran, at the helm.
Six sacks, two lost fumbles and a 19-0 halftime deficit later, Savage was on the bench at the beginning of the second half in the season opener at home against Jacksonville and Watson became the team’s starting quarterback. And it sure looks as though he has every intention of keeping it.
He has adapted to the pro style of game seamlessly and is making extremely loud noises, casting an eye on rookie-of-the-year honors with a dazzling display of quarterbacking that has caught the attention of everyone around the league. Next up on his docket: Sunday at home against the Browns.
Which, of course, brings up the question whether it was wise for the Browns to pass on Watson and pick up DeShone Kizer later in the second round. Other than the same pronunciation of their first names, they have been polar opposites in their brief pro careers.
Kizer has struggled enough where his coach had seen enough and benched him after just five games. At the same time, Watson has absolutely blossomed. Jackson became very defensive the other day when the draft scenario was broached.
“I totally get it,” he told the Cleveland media. “What did I tell you guys earlier in the week? You guys can say whatever you like. I get it. I get the second-guessing, the questions and all of that. You are entitled to do all of that.
“DeShone Kizer is on our team. Deshaun Watson is on their team. We can’t all of a sudden flip them. So why are we having this discussion? I’m being very honest about that.”
The Houston offense has exploded in a point-scoring spree the last three games with Watson shredding opposing secondaries for 845 yards and 11 touchdown passes, nine of them in the last two games.
He administered a 57-point spanking on a Tennessee Titans defense choreographed by the great Dick LeBeau. One can only imagine what lies in store for the Browns against one of the best offenses in the NFL.
Of course, Watson is just five games into his professional football career and anything can happen in the next 11 games. But you can’t ignore what he has accomplished in the last three weeks and call it an aberration.
So why are the Texans only 2-3 heading into the Browns’ visit? That doesn’t square with the prodigious numbers Watson puts up.
The problem is the Texans also have to play defense. And they don’t play it very well, surrendering 130 points (worse than the Browns), including 92 in the last three games.
It comes down to this: To have a chance to win, the Texans almost literally have to outpoint opponents to compensate for a leaky defense. The offense has scored 124 points in the last three games and lost twice.
The chief culprits on the defensive side of the ball have a distinct northeast Ohio flavor. Mike Vrabel from Akron, Ohio State and the New England Patriots is having a rough first season coordinating the Houston defense after coaching the linebackers for three seasons.
He succeeded former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, who was bumped up to assistant head coach/defense. Both can point to key injuries that have hampered the Texans’ struggle to play decent defense.
Last Sunday, they lost defensive end J. J. Watt (broken leg) and outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral muscle) for the season. Watt also missed most of last season with a herniated disc in his back.
Linebacker Bernardrick McKinney, the club’s leading tackler, and Jadeveon Clowney are questionable at best for Sunday for a defense that yields 323 yards a game on the average and allows opposing quarterbacks to complete 64% of their passes for 234 yards a game.
That’s not quite as bad as the Browns, who surrender 244 yards a game through the air and allow opposing quarterbacks to complete passes at a 74% clip. Let that sink in. Three out of every four passes thrown against the Cleveland secondary wind up as completions.
As if he didn’t have enough weapons to play with in running back Lamar Miller and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Watson welcomed back wideout Will Fuller a couple of games ago after he spent two months healing a broken collarbone. They connected immediately.
Watson celebrated Fuller’s return by completing six passes to him in those games, four for touchdowns. A wide receiver tandem like Hopkins and Fuller is downright lethal.
Unless the Cleveland pass rush somehow finds a way to keep Watson in the pocket and force him to throw before he wants to, the secondary will be in for an extremely busy and long afternoon. It could get ugly in a hurry.
The much more balanced Houston offense also produces 141 yards a game on the ground, a challenge for a Cleveland defense that permits a meager 77 yards a game infantry style.
The biggest difference between the teams on offense is that Watson has the luxury of throwing to Hopkins and Fuller, while Kevin Hogan makes his pro starting debut throwing to the likes of Ricardo Louis, Rashard Higgins, Bryce Treggs, Kasen Williams, tight end David Njoku and, if he is healthy, Kenny Britt.
Working against a sketchy patchwork Houston defense should help Hogan. His ability to get the ball out quickly and decisively is a plus. A large degree of success through the air should help a Cleveland running game that has been stuck in a mud bog all season.
Jackson most likely will try to take advantage of the Texans’ porous secondary and return to a heavier dose of passes. Hogan’s success last week in the second half of the Jets’ loss after coming off the bench in relief of Kizer could be a precursor for success against Houston.
The Cleveland defense, while trying to cool down Watson’s recent surge, must be mindful he is also an effective runner, although O’Brien has him concentrating on throwing the ball rather than running with it.
At Clemson the last two seasons, Watson threw for 76 touchdowns and ran for another 21 in just 30 games, gaining more than 1,000 yards with his legs in 2015. He has run the ball only 22 times for 179 yards this season.
This one has all the earmarks of a good old-fashioned Texas-style shootout where defense is nothing more than just another word in the dictionary.
Both quarterbacks have big afternoons, Watson throwing for three more scores and running for a fourth. But the Texans’ ground game provides the difference with Miller outdueling the Browns’ Isaiah Crowell.
The Browns’ losing streaks reach six games this season, stretches to 16 straight overall on the road and nudge Jackson closer to the exit door. Make it:
Texans 37, Browns 23