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It Sure Seems Like Deshaun Watson Could Use an Elite Wide Receiver

The star quarterback struggled to throw the ball down the field against the Chiefs Thursday night, reminding everyone of the DeAndre Hopkins–sized hole in the Texans offense

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Early in the second quarter of Thursday’s season opener, there was a moment when Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes’s worlds collided. Watson, desperately scrambling for yards on a third-and-10, scampered out of bounds and into the Chiefs’ sideline, where he squatted down on a bench next to a helmetless Mahomes. The two smiled, and Mahomes patted Watson on the back. The interaction captured two of the NFL’s biggest stars, still early in their careers, embracing the spotlight.

The problem for Watson: He didn’t spend much time smiling throughout the rest of the night. He certainly spent much of it scrambling around trying to make something happen. It never did. The Texans were outclassed by Kansas City in a 34-20 defeat that made one point especially clear: Watson deserves more than what Bill O’Brien has provided him. The Texans might be contenders for the AFC South division crown, but they remain several steps behind the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC’s top teams.

Watson inked a four-year, $160 million contract last week. He’s paid like one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. But Watson’s supporting cast suggests that he’s expected to make diamonds out of coal. Even for someone as talented as Watson, that’s a tough ask, and it’s clear that trading All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals this offseason didn’t help. Hopkins spent the first seven years of his career with the Texans, performing at premier levels despite a collection of Matt Schaub, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage at quarterback before Watson finally arrived in 2017. Hopkins then achieved three consecutive All-Pro seasons with Watson. But now that Hopkins is gone, it’s Watson who’s being underserved. Meanwhile, Hopkins can celebrate signing a two-year, $54.5 million extension with Arizona, and hinted at enjoying his new situation as the Texans lost Thursday night.

It’s inexplicable that Bill O’Brien—a former offensive coordinator—has coached Houston since 2014, yet a pair of generational talents have, at different times, lacked adequate talent around them. O’Brien officially assumed the general manager title in January, but he had de facto personnel control before that and has made several questionable moves in the past. Jettisoning Hopkins—in exchange for running back David Johnson and a couple draft picks—was the latest instance, and just one game in, it hasn’t appeared to work.

Will Fuller V is a great deep threat and a nice player when healthy. But it took only one play to show that he is not, in fact, DeAndre Hopkins:

Kansas City’s Demarcus Robinson dropped a pair of Mahomes passes, too. But Robinson might be Mahomes’s no. 5 receiving option, behind Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman. The Chiefs added to their skill position might by drafting LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who looked phenomenal in his debut. Meanwhile the Texans have provided Watson with a receiving corps of Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Darren Fells, and Randall Cobb—and the latter didn’t record a target until the fourth quarter. David Johnson and Duke Johnson form the Texans backfield. Early-game jitters aside, Fuller caught a team-high eight passes for 112 yards. But no other Texans receiver registered more than three catches. David Johnson’s 19-yard touchdown marked his longest rushing touchdown since Week 6 of the 2016 season, but the Texans rushing attack wasn’t successful often on early downs, and ended up in passing situations that relied on Watson to create something out of nothing in desperate spots.

Mahomes enjoyed the luxury of Edwards-Helaire’s 138-yard debut, which stemmed from a run-heavy attack that featured a quick passing game. This was counter to what the Chiefs often did last season. Mahomes averaged 2.82 seconds per throw last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That was down to 2.35 on Thursday night. Texans second-year offensive coordinator Tim Kelly scripted a quick-hitting passing game to allow Watson to get into a rhythm early on, but aside from Houston’s nine-play, 80-yard first-quarter touchdown drive, there was little flow. Watson finished 20 of 32 for 253 passing yards, one touchdown, and one pick. He added 27 rushing yards and a score. But he was sacked four times and despite a game plan that attacked Chiefs rookie safety L’Jarius Sneed in the air, he struggled throwing downfield. Watson, considered one of the best deep passers in the league, started the game 0-for-5 on throws 15 yards or more downfield. He didn’t complete such a pass until connecting with Fuller on a 30-yard play late in the fourth quarter. Per Next Gen Stats, he went 4-for-11 with 81 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on throws of 10 air yards or more. On such throws, he registered a completion percentage 8.9 percentage points worse than expected.

“I took what the defense gave me,” Watson told reporters. “They took a lot of the deep shots. I tried to give my guys some opportunities to make plays. Sometimes we capitalized and sometimes we didn’t. We just gotta continue to grow from there. I did what I needed to do to try to stay as close as possible and keep this team in reach to try and win the game.”

The question for the Texans is: Where do they go from here? Their next three opponents—the Ravens, Steelers, and Vikings—are playoff-caliber teams. The lack of a preseason slate was always going to lead to a bumpy start, but Houston can’t afford to start too slow.

“There’s a lot of things to fix,” O’Brien told reporters. “We’ve gotta improve very quickly, but it is just one game.”