NFL draft makeover: Texans must give Deshaun Watson the supporting cast he needs

Eric Edholm
·7 mins read

Every week during the 2020 NFL season, we’re going to — just being honest here — overreact to what we’ve seen on the field the previous Sunday and start projecting NFL draft prospects to teams that might need help at certain spots.

Think of it as a mini one-team mock draft, with early (Rounds 1-2), middle (Rounds 3-5) and late (Round 6 and later) prospects at each team’s respective position of concern.

This week’s NFL draft makeover is the Houston Texans. Can they find Deshaun Watson some better receivers next year?

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Just to be clear, the Texans’ offensive problems are not limited to wide receiver.

The offensive line has been under siege the first two weeks of the season. The run game has been inconsistent. The combined vision for the offensive design of head coach Bill O’Brien and coordinator Tim Kelly remains a work in progress.

But yet without more WR help, quarterback Deshaun Watson might as well pull up and scramble every down. He needs separators and playmakers on the outside. A receiver such as — just spitballing here — maybe DeAndre Hopkins?

The Hopkins trade stunk to high hell for a number of reasons, but the lack of a young, dynamic wideout to step into his role is hurting the 0-2 Texans so far. Even with all the other concerns being what they are.

Both of Watson’s TD passes this season have gone to tight ends. After Will Fuller’s terrific opener (eight catches, 112 yards), he was not even targeted in Sunday’s loss while playing about half the offensive snaps in Week 2.

Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb had solid games against the Ravens but were both quiet in the opener. Kenny Stills is a fourth receiver at this point, and the Keke Coutee experiment might be entering its final phases.

The Texans currently have six receivers on their active roster, four more on their practice squad and one (rookie Isaiah Coulter) on injured reserve. Are any of them clearly part of the big picture going forward?

Coulter deserves a long look, and Cobb’s 2021 cap hit anchors him to the team another year, but Fuller and Stills are free agents-to-be. There will be notable change at this spot next season.

Could the 2021 NFL draft provide answers? That’s the hope, although lacking first- and second-round choices clearly limits the team’s firepower.

Early-round prospect

Louisville WR Tutu Atwell

As it stands now, the Texans won’t pick until Round 3. They also have two picks in Round 4, one in Round 5 and two more in Round 6, along with their own seventh-rounder. They are not projected to receive any compensatory picks.

So that makes projecting which wide receivers might be available tricky; we’re talking about a range of about No. 65 to No. 95 overall for the Texans’ first selection, but for this exercise we’re going to expand that range upward just a tad with the assumption that a top-50 talent might fall to them (or they could trade up a few slots).

The good news, however, is that the early view of the 2021 WR draft class is very strong. Perhaps it’s as good as the banner 2020 class.

Louisville WR Tutu Atwell is a big play waiting to happen. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Louisville WR Tutu Atwell is a big play waiting to happen. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Atwell is a fascinating prospect whose lightning-quick speed — and fast start this season — could allow him to go higher than the range of where the Texans will pick. If he runs in the 4.2-second range at the NFL scouting combine, all bets are off.

But if O’Brien and Watson should learn anything from their first two opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens, it’s that having a quick gadget receiver in this mold can be very valuable. Patrick Mahomes has Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman; Lamar Jackson has Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.

The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Atwell does not possess Hill’s strength and is not yet the same caliber of all-around deep threat. Think of the Louisville blur more in the Brown or Hardman mold. But since the start of the 2019 season, Atwell has hauled in 16-of-18 catchable deep passes for 543 yards and six TDs, according to Pro Football Focus.

He’s also a weapon on screens, ranking second among FBS receivers in 2019 in screen yards with 305 (despite ranking 23rd in screen catches), per PFF. Atwell also is a threat as a runner and punt returner. The Texans could use a specialist such as this.

Yes, Houston would love another Hopkins. But the screen-threat, deep-threat element is missing from this offense, not knowing if Fuller can contribute every week. This is the type of play we’d love to see Atwell run if he somehow could land in this offense:

Watson simply was a different player with Fuller on the field versus when he’s not, although that past statistical disparity should get thrown out with Hopkins no longer a Texan. What the Texans could use most is a player whose playmaking burst is respected every time he’s on the field. Atwell has that potential.

Mid-round prospect

Sage Surratt, Wake Forest

We thought we’d go with a completely different style of receiver. Perhaps we should say “complementary” instead; the idea of drafting two wideouts with differing styles would not be a wild one at all.

The 6-3, 215-pound Surratt is a physical, tackle-breaking receiver who wins with strong body control, jump-ball confidence and the ability to come down with the ball in tight quarters. Asking Surratt to try to win with vertical speed and quickness will put a serious cap on his potential; it just isn’t his game.

But utilizing Surratt on slants and fades and allowing him to use his great body positioning, body control and strong hands is a role we can embrace for him.

Wake Forest wide receiver Sage Surratt excels at contested catches. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Wake Forest wide receiver Sage Surratt excels at contested catches. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Polish-wise, Surratt is NFL-ready, even though he’s sitting out the 2020 college season with an eye on preparing for the draft. We hope he’s spending time on his speed training, however, as he plays like you’d imagine a 4.6-second 40-yard-dash runner would.

Surratt has some skill overlap with Detroit Lions 2020 fifth-rounder Quintez Cephus, who already has carved out a role in the Lions’ offense early as a rookie, and Surratt is a bit bigger-framed. Although Surratt’s lack of elite traits could prevent him from ever being a true go-to option, his clearly defined skill set absolutely can upgrade an offense if employed properly.

Late-round prospect

Frank Darby, Arizona State

If the Pac-12 truly is moving toward playing this season, it’s potentially a great thing for a player such as Darby — a player who could receive a final-year draft bump similar to the ones experienced by former Sun Devils WRs N’Keal Harry and Brandon Aiyuk.

Both turned themselves into first-round picks as ASU’s go-to targets in their final seasons, and we believe Darby has a chance to go from a Day 3 pick (which is the range where most of his summer grades fell) to somewhere in the top 100 overall in 2021.

Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby could boost his draft stock if the Pac-12 plays football this season. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby could boost his draft stock if the Pac-12 plays football this season. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Darby’s game is built on explosiveness, and he has the hands, feet and yoked-up athleticism to break out this season. His four-game flourish (16 catches, 387 yards, seven touchdowns) late last season was the proof we needed. Arizona State QB Jayden Daniels also possesses a skill set somewhat similar to that of Watson’s in that he’s highly athletic, confident in attacking deep and can throw well on the move.

Darby also gets after it as a run blocker. It’s something we noticed more than once on tape this summer. This is a highly athletic prospect with high upside worth keeping tabs on this season.

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