There is no player with more pressure on him than Deshaun Watson this season. Sure, Aaron Rodgers has a lot of eyes on him as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time playing in a big market. He's won a ring though. Watson is in his own category.
The Browns' trade to acquire Watson was one of the most polarizing and controversial deals in sports history. It was one of three deals in NFL history where a team traded three first-round picks for a veteran player (the others were for Herschel Walker and Jim Plunkett). Then Watson got an earth-shattering deal worth $230 million guaranteed, which is still sending shockwaves throughout the league. And it was all with the backdrop of his legal issues. He served an 11-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual assault and sexual misconduct during massage sessions.
Unsurprisingly, Watson didn't look like the superstar QB Cleveland traded for last year in just six starts after going 700 days between starts. He was statistically the worst QB in the NFL in a small sample. He ranked last in the league in EPA per play among 35 QBs with at least 200 dropbacks in 2022. The Browns scored just 12.8 offensive points per game in his starts, the lowest mark of any QB with at least five starts. It's even lower than Cleveland averaged in eight starts with Johnny Manziel from 2014 to 2015.
Yes, it's tough to evaluate Watson after he missed so much time and was getting acclimated to a new offense. But, if there was any weakness that stood out above the rest, it was the absence of his deep ball. His furthest completion traveled just 21 yards downfield in 2022. There were 540 completions that were longer throughout the league last year. It's not like he was just missing on all his deep shots, he was taking significantly fewer.
Only six percent of his attempts traveled more than 20 yards downfield. His career rate entering 2022 was double that. Only Matt Ryan and Daniel Jones took fewer deep shots. That's quite unusual for Watson, who ranked top five in completions and touchdowns on those deep throws in his first four seasons in the NFL.
Deshaun Watson career throw distances
Average pass length
Pct of attempts 21+ air yards
This image should tell you just how limited his game was. The heat map on the left is the locations of his career completions from 2017 to 2020 and the one on the right is his completions in 2022. You'd figure that is the heat map of a game manager type QB. Not a game-breaker like Watson.
Deshaun Watson career completions heat map (2017-20 on Left & 2022 on Right)
Why might that be? Watson will have more downfield threats this year with the additions of WRs Elijah Moore (trade with Jets) and Cedric Tillman (2023 third-round pick) to pair with Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
The Bengals could also be vulnerable to downfield throws. Cincinnati will have two new starting safeties after Vonn Bell went to the Panthers and Jessie Bates III signed with the Falcons this offseason. Their replacements should be free agent addition Nick Scott and 2022 first-round pick Dax Hill. Cincinnati's secondary was tested consistently last year. Opponent's average pass length was 8.7 yards downfield against the Bengals, the fifth-longest in the NFL.
It all adds up to home run opportunities for Watson, something noticeably absent from his game in 2022.