Deshaun Watson's extension with Texans reminder of QB's talent — and potential

Deshaun Watson didn’t need this kind of money to justify his place in the NFL landscape. The substantial wealth that just rained downed upon him merely is one more indication of how special he is. That tends to get lost in a world where Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has dominated, and where Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has emerged as a superstar in his own right. It’s time we appreciated Watson for all he has been and can be, and that has little to do with where he ranks on the spectrum of highest-paid pro football players.

The headline Saturday is that Watson is the recipient of a four-year, $160 million contract extension with the Houston Texans, with $111 million guaranteed. His average annual salary of $40 million now puts him behind only Mahomes in that category among all players. Watson literally just altered the fate of his family for generations by signing a piece of paper. Let’s also not forget he’s been leaving a fairly large footprint on the game since long before he ever agreed to this pay raise.

Today isn’t just about dollars and cents. It’s about giving some much deserved love to a player who sometimes doesn’t receive his necessary share. Watson doesn’t have a league Most Valuable Player award (like Mahomes or Jackson), and he hasn’t won a Super Bowl yet (as Mahomes did this past season). That means his impact sometimes gets muted outside of Texas, and it’s easy to forget he’s just getting started himself.

Watson has been a walking highlight reel since the moment he entered the NFL as the 12th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He’s led the Texans to two straight AFC South titles, and he’s often thrived despite constantly having to improvise to make plays. A year before Mahomes exploded onto the scene as a starter in 2018, Watson mesmerized fans with his own wondrous play as a rookie. If not for a torn ACL that limited him to only seven games in his first season, Watson might have blown us away to an even greater degree with his accomplishments.

These facts need to be brought up today, as Watson celebrates his newfound riches, because it’s easy to see Watson as just another star, a constant fixture in the NFL Network “Top 100” list. He’s bigger than that. He’s a generational talent who might very well have more individual honors or awards if he’d been blessed with the kinds of supporting casts that surround Mahomes in Kansas City and Jackson in Baltimore. In fact, this will be the first time in Watson’s career that he’ll have all five of his offensive-line starters returning for a second straight season.

This isn’t to suggest Watson has been doing everything by himself down in Houston. It is to say that he’s doing a lot more than many people realize. He creates magic in a world where front-office drama and the personnel moves of head coach Bill O’Brien generate far more attention. We should be marveling at how Watson has continued to thrive since his arrival in 2017.

If you want to talk about Watson’s impact off the field, then consider how he operated when racial uprisings broke out all over the country. He was one of the players who taped a video (Mahomes was also among them) that demanded NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell own up to the way the league mishandled player protests during the 2016 and 2017 seasons (the video successfully elicited a response from Goodell). Watson was in the streets with fellow protesters in Houston this summer, after the killing of George Floyd became the latest example of the kind of police brutality so many people want to erase. Watson even set his sights on his alma mater, Clemson, when he and fellow alum DeAndre Hopkins (the No. 1 receiver on the Texans over the past three seasons, who also appeared in the video message to Goodell) urged the school to remove the name of John C. Calhoun, a slave-owning politician who owned the land that Clemson built its school upon, from the school.

Many star athletes have joined the fight for social justice. Watson’s willingness to embed himself in the depths of this battle — and to even take on his own school — speaks volumes about his authenticity and his passion. This isn’t a guy who’s solely concerned with having the biggest paycheck at his position. He’s somebody who is realizing his potential to have an impact on so many people outside of the game he loves to play.

Watson is so thoughtful that he actually spent a good portion of his offseason playing chess, to heighten his mental acuity. He’d engage in sessions with his personal quarterback coach, Quincy Avery, and then they’d draw parallels between the moves Watson made on the board and the decisions Watson made in actual football games. Some of this creativity resulted from the restrictions on workout time caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of it came from Watson’s willingness to utilize any means possible to enhance his skills.

It will be interesting to see what this season holds for Watson now that this deal is done. Bigger salaries tend to invite harsher scrutiny, and there’s little doubt the Texans will have their fair share. For one thing, O’Brien traded away Hopkins, who was Watson’s favorite target. This will be the first season that Watson will run an offense without an elite wide receiver on the roster.

It actually looks like O’Brien is creating an offense similar to the one Tom Brady ran in New England when O’Brien was a Patriots assistant between 2007 and 2011. More quick, shifty receivers to deploy. More pass-catching running backs who can create mismatches against linebackers. Basically, more of Deshaun Watson picking opponents apart, and less of him running for his life behind shaky pass protection.

The potential is there, despite all the criticism O’Brien has faced this offseason. The question is how much of a leap in progress Watson takes in his fourth year. We already know Mahomes, whom the Chiefs selected two spots ahead of Watson in the 2017 draft, is in a great position to have a long run of success in Kansas City. Watson, who will turn 25 three days before Mahomes does the same this month, should be feeling like he’s got a good opportunity to be a rival in that ultimate pursuit of championships.

After all, every decade has given us a handful of exceptional signal-callers. The 1990s gave us Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. The 2000s were just as good, with Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger emerging. This past decade has given us more athleticism than we’ve ever seen at the position, with men like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Jackson and Mahomes redefining quarterback play.

It’s important to note that the last four quarterbacks mentioned are Black. The position has evolved so much in terms of who gets to play it — regardless of skin color — that we’re experiencing an explosion of talent among African Americans under center. In some ways, that gives us another reason to potentially underappreciate Watson. The quantity of accomplished black quarterbacks has grown so much that it’s easy to overlook what makes each one so special.

This is why today, it’s worth recognizing Watson for what he is. There are still plenty of goals for him to pursue and awards to be won in the coming years — of that, there is no doubt. The Texans just paid him in a way that affirms they expect extraordinary results. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s hard to see him failing to deliver on that promise.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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