Deshaun Watson could be one of the more divisive fantasy prospects on draft day. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Deshaun Watson took the NFL by storm during his rookie season. The first-round pick out of Clemson put up record-breaking numbers in the seven games played, completing nearly 62 percent of his passes for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns, putting him on pace for 43 touchdown passes, well beyond the rookie record (26, Peyton Manning in 1998 and Russell Wilson in 2012).

However, in early November, he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in practice and was shut down for the season. Yet the injury hasn’t stopped fantasy football experts from listing Watson as high as the No. 1 quarterback for 2018 drafts, alongside other top options such as Aaron Rodgers, Wilson, Tom Brady and Carson Wentz.

Fantasy football drafts are often an exercise in balancing risk and reward. And with injuries and inexperience marring a number of potential top quarterback options, the topic is particularly prescient at this position. And with Watson being held in such high regard, he makes for a good focal point when examining which quarterbacks might be worth the risk.

There is reason for optimism around Watson — he led the league with 24.4 fantasy points per game before his injury — but the injury coupled with the small sample size of games played make this a choice with high risk in addition to high reward.

For example, Watson’s touchdown rate (9.3 percent of his pass attempts went for touchdowns) was more than double the league average (4.4 percent) in 2017. Over the past decade, 15 quarterbacks had a season in which their touchdown rate was at least 50 percent higher than the league average. All but one, Rodgers in 2017, declined the following year. And Rodgers, too, was at odds with a small sample size: He played just seven games last season and merely saw his touchdown rate improve from 6.6 to 6.7 percent. The average drop for the rest of the quarterbacks in this sample was 2 percent, with some, such as Nick Foles (2014), Matt Ryan (2017), Wilson (2016) and Cam Newton (2016), seeing a drop of 3 percent or more. If Watson were to experience the same regression, it would shave off almost four fantasy points per game, dropping him from No 1 to No. 7 based on last year’s performance.


Plus, Watson’s latest knee injury isn’t his first. He suffered a torn left ACL in 2014, leading the analysts at Sports Injury Predictor to project Watson has a 45 percent chance of getting injured in 2018, with 1.3 projected games missed in the upcoming season.

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

Like Watson, Garoppolo had a lot of success in a short amount of time as a starter. Traded by the New England Patriots to the San Francisco 49ers, Garoppolo immediately looked like a franchise quarterback, completing 120 of 178 attempts (67 percent) for 1,560 yards and seven touchdowns in five games. His Total Quarterback Rating, compiled by ESPN, suggests a team would win more than 80 percent of its games with that kind of performance, making Garoppolo a player to watch in 2018 — with some reservations.

The fantasy experts tracked by Fantasy Pros are bullish on Garoppolo for the upcoming season, but some still have their doubts, with rankings ranging from No. 6 to No. 27 at the position. Based on that, we would expect Garoppolo, a ninth-round pick in mock fantasy drafts, to produce 217 fantasy points in 2018, a low number considering the quarterbacks  drafted in the rounds before and after Garoppolo.


Good Gambles

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Last season was a down year for the 2016 NFL MVP and offensive player of the year. Ryan completed a lower share of his passes (65 percent), threw for fewer touchdowns (20) and had more interceptions (12) in 2017, leading to a much lower QBR (63.7) than the year before.

However, not much changed with Ryan’s overall game. For example, according to Sports Info Solutions, his percentage of on-target passes was stable, yet the rate of catches on those attempts dropped from 87 to 82 percent.


Another factor limiting Ryan’s fantasy football production in 2017 was the team’s red-zone passing opportunities. In 2016, Ryan made 94 pass attempts inside the 20-yard line, or 5.9 per game; in 2017, that dropped to 4.3 per game. As a result, some are putting second-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian on the hot seat.

If the coaching staff makes the right adjustment, Ryan has everything in place to succeed in 2018. Four of his five starting offensive lineman return, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman generate receiving yards and points out of the backfield, and top wideout Julio Jones led the league in yards per route run (3.08) last year, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus.

Jarod Goff, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams’ offense will look different in 2018. The team acquired wide receiver Brandin Cooks from the New England Patriots, giving Goff a bona fide deep threat to complement Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, two players who were targeted 22 times at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage in 2017. Kupp and Woods caught 10 of those passes for 361 yards and one touchdown. Cooks, by comparison, went 16 for 36 on deep passes for 608 yards and three touchdowns for the Patriots.

Deep passes in 2017 Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Brandin Cooks 36 16 608 3
Robert Woods 14 7 246 1
Cooper Kupp 8 3 115 0

Adding a more dependable deep threat will only improve Goff’s performance — he had the sixth-highest accuracy rate on deep passes in 2017 (42 percent) after accounting for dropped passes and throwaways — and push him into the upper echelon of fantasy football quarterbacks.