HOUSTON — There are flashes, such as the pass Deshaun Watson threaded to tight end Evan Baylis in Tuesday’s minicamp practice, that can make people believe the Houston Texans rookie quarterback will be ready for NFL action sooner rather than later.
And even in Watson’s not-so-pro-ready moments, Texans coach Bill O’Brien says, there’s been nothing about the first-round pick's first six weeks here to suggest Watson wouldn’t be ready if needed in 2017.
“Absolutely not,” O’Brien told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “No, he’s got a really good future.”
Tom Savage, a strong-armed pocket passer who has started all of two games in his first three NFL seasons, will go into training camp as Houston's No. 1 quarterback. Odds seem pretty good Savage will be in the lineup for September’s opener, too, provided he can avoid another untimely injury.
For all his success in college, Watson was widely regarded by scouts as a guy who needed time to develop and transition from Clemson’s high-percentage spread offense. But in a potentially pivotal season for a Texans franchise that has gone 9-7 in each of O’Brien’s three seasons — with the motley crew of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Ryan Mallett, Savage, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler throwing passes — it’s fair to say the QB they traded up 13 spots to get in April will loom large every minute Watson’s on the sideline.
“I just go out and compete. Whatever’s best for the team is best for the team,” Watson said. “I’m one of the team players, so I do my job, play my role and do it well.”
Nobody in the pre-draft process really questioned Watson’s makeup, intelligence or leadership. He has a strong enough arm. He’s mobile. And he played big in big games, including the national championship tilts the past two years against Alabama.
Where scouts poked holes in Watson (the third quarterback drafted in 2017, at No. 12 overall, after North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes) was mostly based on how he threw the ball in a one-read, tempo type of scheme. Accuracy, forcing balls into coverage and field vision were among the questions. Watson finished his college career with 90 touchdown passes, and 32 interceptions.
“First of all, his accuracy I think is excellent,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know where that came from. I think sometimes there’s so much time between the end of the college season and the actual draft that people start just making things up. That’s just really my opinion. I mean, this kid can throw the ball. Throws a tight spiral. He’s very accurate.
“I think all young quarterbacks that are any good are risk-takers, so they’re going to try to fire it in there into some tight windows and sometimes that doesn’t work out real well for you. That’s something that a young quarterback has to learn pretty quickly. I think overall, he’s made a lot of good decisions during the spring.”
That O’Brien says Watson has picked up the Texans’ complicated offense “better than any rookie I’ve been around” seems like a telling statement from a coach who has a track record of in-season QB changes (even if he sometimes had no choice). Houston has so many other pieces, including last year’s No. 1-ranked defense and loads of young talent at the skill spots. And that only amplifies scrutiny on the position they haven’t been able to get right, particularly with a respected, offensive-minded coach in O’Brien entering the fourth season of a five-year contract.
Ideally, how would O’Brien like the quarterback situation to play out — not just in camp, but throughout the season?
“I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t,” he said. “Tom’s No. 1. He’s had a lot of experience in our system. When he’s gone in there recently, he’s played decently for us. He’s had a good spring. And I think the fact that Brandon Weeden and Deshaun have had good springs, too, that’s made Tom better and vice versa. I think it’s a very competitive position.
“Tom will go into camp No. 1. And he knows he’s got to earn it every day. Deshaun, for being a rookie, has done a lot of good things. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.”