While the NFL awaits the conference championship round and the eventual end to its improbable 2020 season, a far greater subplot that will affect a larger percentage of the league is brewing beneath the surface. As first reported by my esteemed colleagues, Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has had enough in Houston. The Texans’ franchise is in tatters while a character-coach-turned-power-broker ransacks what was just a year ago a team in fumbling distance of hosting a conference championship of their own.
Watson does not want to be in Houston. This is not just media conjecture, as he Tweeted as much himself later in the weekend. Trading him or forcing him to retire seem to be the only options on the now heavy plate load of incoming general manager Nick Caserio (option three, it would seem, is an incredible, uphill battle to win back Watson’s affection and convince him that he is not squandering his athletic prime in Houston, which seems unlikely at this point).
So, it is more than fair to wonder where he might land if Caserio sees this as his Jimmy Johnson moment; a chance to reset the franchise in his own image with a stable of draft picks and cap space. Realistically, it would be safe to assume that most of the league would be interested in trading for Watson. He is a top-five quarterback who can beat defenses in myriad ways. He could, by his mere presence alone, transform a woebegone franchise. But we’ll try and narrow down the list.
Who is in the best position? Who can afford it? We’ll break all of that down here.
1. New York Jets
Here are the three things working against the Jets, as far as we can see.
1. The absurdly high state income tax.
2. The lack of available weapons
3. A new head coach and, thus, an unknown culture.
Two of those three things, income tax and culture, were mentioned as important boxes to check for Watson in a series of reports from ESPN over the weekend. I think a quick phone call from Watson to Richard Sherman could fix the culture uncertainty. Sherman had a front row seat for the rise of Robert Saleh in San Francisco and watched as he transformed a patchwork group of high draft picks into one of the most feared and efficient units in the NFL. He was hired, specifically, because of his ability to galvanize a locker room and handle the teams’ front-facing presence. Watson also suggested the Texans interview Saleh for the Texans’ opening.
Here’s what makes sense for Houston: The Jets have a pair of first-round picks in 2020 and a pair of first-round picks in 2021. They have multiple third-round picks in 2021 and multiple fifth-round picks in 2022. As Daniel Jeremiah from NFL Network noted over the weekend, there isn’t a team better poised to make a run at Watson based solely on its draft war chest. Houston could have Sam Darnold as a throw-in (a chip they could manipulate pre-draft as they see fit to net additional picks), plus the No. 2 pick to draft his competition and ultimate successor.
Watson would get access to a prime media market and an organization that seems to be trending in the right direction. An additional bonus: Mike LaFleur is in as offensive coordinator. The Shanahan system is a draw for quarterbacks around the league. If the Jets can find a handful of pieces up front and at receiver, this is a quick turnaround that Watson would get all the credit for.
2. San Francisco 49ers
As I wrote this offseason, there is no bigger draw for quarterbacks who want to win than Kyle Shanahan himself. While his system is now responsible for head coaches and coordinators across the NFL (Arthur Smith in Atlanta, Matt LaFleur in Green Bay, Sean McVay in Los Angeles, etc., etc.,) the man himself can get more out of quarterbacks and design plays with incredible YAC potential.
Since Watson has a no-trade clause, he can steer the direction of any potential trade talks and if he is serious about a stable culture and formidable weapon set, San Francisco has to be up there. The drawbacks, of course, are that the 49ers simply do not have the draft capital to match some of the other teams on this list. San Francisco has its first-round picks in 2021 and 2022 but there aren’t many additional throw-ins. The Niners are missing a third-round pick in 2021, for example, because of the Trent Williams trade. Jimmy Garoppolo is an interesting piece of this equation, given that the personnel executive who helped spearhead his drafting in New England is now in charge in Houston. That could help ease the sting of any swap, as Garoppolo could come into a familiar setting and immediately still be one of the best quarterbacks in the division.
3. Miami Dolphins
Here is the one thing I find kind of cold about the entire process. In the ESPN report, a person familiar with Watson’s thinking targeted the Dolphins, noting that Miami has multiple first-round picks (including Houston’s No. 3) and that Miami can send Tua Tagovailoa back to Houston in return. This would mean that Watson essentially putting another promising young developing quarterback into the same hell from which he’d just escaped. Anyway…
It makes sense in that Houston can recoup some of its draft capital from the Laremy Tunsil trade. Miami has six draft picks in the top 114 next year but no significant additional picks in 2022 to toss into the fray, unless the Dolphins are interested in surrendering another first and third, for example, and passing on counting that year as a replenisher for their roster.
Another bonus for Watson seems to be the list of candidates Miami has assembled to replace Chan Gailey as offensive coordinator. The better this roster gets, the more significant the candidates lining up to use it as a springboard for their head coaching ambitions. NFL Network mentioned Pep Hamilton and, most notably, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott as potential candidates. All of them would be tremendous draws for a star quarterback. Hamilton is coming off a banner year developing Justin Herbert in Los Angeles. Elliott has been with Clemson in different roles since 2011 and has an obvious familiarity with Watson.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
If culture is indeed one of the largest draws for Watson, there is no better coach to align with long term than Mike Tomlin. Tomlin will be in Pittsburgh. He treats his team fairly. He has expertly piloted it through choppy waters countless times before. Now, with Ben Roethlisberger’s future in question, the Steelers need to decide by the middle of March if they would like to keep the future Hall of Famer on board for another season at an exorbitant price.
While I think the Steelers makes more sense for someone like Sam Darnold, given their tradable assets, they could decide to mortgage their near future and empty the coffers for Watson, understanding that their generational defense has an expiration date on it. Pittsburgh does not have a ton of flexibility with its draft capital, and its first-round picks are always going to be in the middle or end of the round (it has the 24th pick this year).
What the Steelers do have is a ton of unique young skill position players, one of the best general managers in the league at identifying receiving and pass-catching talent and Matt Canada as a soon-to-be offensive coordinator, reportedly. Canada was the godfather of a lot of sprint motion backfields we see that are now commonplace in the NFL (especially with Sean McVay in Los Angeles).
With the Steelers, Jets and Dolphins, though, one has to wonder how interested Houston is in trading Watson within the conference. I’d be especially hesitant to deal Watson to a place like Pittsburgh, where his success is almost guaranteed. However, if Watson presents a list of potential suitors, it may limit Houston’s list of ideal circumstances.
5. New Orleans Saints
This one is far off the probability matrix, given that the Saints have just three draft picks on tap for 2021. If I were Nick Caserio, trading one of the best quarterbacks in the league to the NFL’s best quarterback whisperer also feels like a fool’s errand. From Watson’s perspective, one has to wonder how long Sean Payton will remain in New Orleans post-Drew Brees and what the Saints’ future will look like after that.
Still, if you are Watson, New Orleans is the closest to home of all the teams on this list (about two hours closer to Watson’s Georgia birthplace than Miami) and features the best pre-baked conditions for offensive success right away. The Saints have some cap navigation to take care of, but their defense is star-studded and their complementary set of skill position players is second to none. Jeff Ireland is one of the best talent-finders in the league.
6. New England Patriots
I cannot imagine Watson fleeing to New England after staging an escape from New England South in Houston. It would also be difficult to see both Bill Belichick and Jack Easterby untangle their webs enough to make this work sensibly. That said, the Patriots are one of the most revered organizations in sports. They can make life good for a face of the franchise starter. They also have a ton of cap space and a high-ish draft pick going into 2021, which is unusual for Belichick. If we imagine there is still an amenable working relationship between Belichick and Caserio, perhaps they pick up the phone and talk Tom Brady successors. In return, Caserio could get his hands on whatever prospects he acquired in New England that he’d like to have with him in Houston.
7. Las Vegas Raiders
Jon Gruden loves Deshaun Watson. Jon Gruden loves veteran quarterbacks. Jon Gruden has flirted with just about every potential option that wasn’t Derek Carr, despite Carr continuing to put up encouraging seasons. While Vegas has now blown through its Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper bounties, the team does have some movable pieces on the roster and will reset a bit this offseason as it does its best to rework bulky contracts signed by the likes of Tyrell Williams and Trent Brown, among others. Gruden is a great recruiter and has the time and contractual runway to develop an offense to Watson’s liking. The drawbacks? Facing the Chiefs twice a year, facing new Chargers head coach Brandon Staley twice a year after his historical run in Los Angeles and facing Vic Fangio twice a year, a defensive coordinator from which a lot of modern successful schemes have been borrowed.
8. Chicago Bears
While the mystique has certainly rubbed off on Matt Nagy in Chicago, we have not seen him paired with an incredible, top-flight quarterback. We also saw him making chicken salad out of the quarterback situation he was saddled with for the better part of three years (and two playoff appearances in a tough division). Embattled general manager Ryan Pace, who I think has done an O.K. job at admitting his mistakes through supplemental free agent signings and other maneuvers, could right the ultimate wrong and bring Watson to Chicago, where fans feel he belongs in the first place (you have likely heard about the 2017 draft).
Chicago is in murky waters as far as the salary cap goes. The Bears do not have much additional draft capital and they’ll be picking at the bottom of the first round anyway. Their best receiver, Allen Robinson, is off to hit free agency. But hey, stranger things have happened.
9. Washington Football Team
Ron Rivera boasts an exciting young defense, a good set of skill-position players and a franchise that, on the field, seems to be turning itself into less of a black hole for talent. While owner Daniel Snyder is always a concern, Watson could see Washington’s current infrastructure, which includes offensive coordinator Scott Turner, as a check in the positive column. Washington is in a healthy salary cap position and could pair Watson with the consummate backup and mentor in Alex Smith. They could also pitch Watson on the idea of ruling a division that has zero established quarterback presence at the moment and is ripe for the taking.
Washington can offer the 19th pick this year (and likely another late first-rounder next year, given the dismal state of the division) and it has multiple third-round picks in 2020 as well.
10. Denver Broncos
The Broncos are a blueblood franchise that just snagged one of the most sought-after general manager candidates of the last 10 years, George Paton. Fangio is a solid defensive head coach and Pat Shurmur can be a draw for certain quarterbacks. Like we mentioned with the Raiders, the divisional drawbacks are obvious, with Mahomes set to prowl the division for the next nine seasons and beyond. That said, Elway is a masterful recruiter, Denver has good young pass-catching talent and developing talent up front on the offensive line. The Broncos also have a top-10 pick and four picks in the top 105 to use as tinder for a trade conversation.