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GamePlan: NFL Trade Deadline Notes, Plus the Latest on Deshaun Watson

It's looking like it’ll be a relatively tame few days, but here are some names that could move. Plus, this week's best games, story lines to follow, a look at cap space around the league and more.

Very clearly, at several junctures, parties interested in facilitating a Deshaun Watson trade have tried to make it happen. There was the push before the draft, one at the start of training camp, again at the beginning of the season and, now, finally, in the days leading up to Tuesday’s trade deadline.

To this point, every effort on the part of Watson’s camp, and on the part of the Texans, to get the embattled 26-year-old quarterback moved has failed.

Why? Well, for all the reports of teams’ calling and deals’ looming that have fizzled into a big puddle of nothing, there are really three people on the ground for this one, two with different motivations than the third. One is Watson himself. Another is Texans owner Cal McNair. Those two, estranged since McNair failed to follow through on a promise to involve Watson throughout the team’s coach/GM search, are on the same page—both want a separation.

The third party, Houston GM Nick Caserio, is the one charged with pulling off the deal. And his role in all of this is more important than most people have considered.

He’s also the reason I think there’s a good chance there won’t be a deal for Watson next week.

Deshaun Watson walks off the field during a 2020 game against the Bears

Just put yourself in Caserio’s shoes. He was hired in January, with no first- or second-round pick in his first draft as a GM, a messy cap situation and an aging roster. When he took the job, its allure was Watson, a young franchise quarterback under contract for another five years. But first with Watson’s trade request, and then with 23 lawsuits filed alleging sexual misconduct, it steadily became clear that Caserio wouldn’t have him either.

Less than 10 months later, his football team is 1–6. To this point, it’s been led by a third-round rookie named Davis Mills, who, while talented, hasn’t asserted himself as the long-term answer. The players, for their part, have shown effort and character. And, still, there’s no question this is a ground-up operation for the (still) new guy in charge.

All of which is why he can’t take a discount for Watson or allow himself to be held at gunpoint to make a trade. Watson is far and away the Texans’ most valuable asset, and the chip that Caserio can use to supercharge the rebuild. If he takes 50 cents on the dollar? Or gives another team six-ways-from-Sunday protections on a trade? Then, Caserio’s leaving himself with no quarterback or the capital to build on any sort of expedited timetable.

And here’s another key question: What does it benefit Caserio to trade Watson now?

By trading him now, you’re making the team you’re trading him to better, necessarily devaluing the picks you’re trading for. Conversely, if you wait until February, you know where any 2022 pick you’re getting will be. Also, there’d likely be more suitors to drive the price up, and maybe more clarity as to Watson’s standing both legally and with the league.

The downside of waiting is carrying Watson on the roster the rest of the year, sure. But I’d argue the Texans have already weathered the storm on that. They dealt with the awkward days of July and August. They’ve had him in the building, and around the guys, and that’s all been fine. They’ve paid nearly half his salary. There is, of course, the risk that Watson’s legal situation worsens, but it’s tough to guess on the unknown there.

As for what we do know, I’d think we can say two things. One, the Texans’ best player is someone who hasn’t played a snap for them, or anyone, this year. And two, they’d be better off keeping it that way than dealing him off for anything but full value.

Which, I believe, is why Caserio to this point has done the right thing, no matter how much the other two principals involved might be wishing for a different result.


A busy week wrapping up in the NFL, and we’ve got a lot to cover in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, we’ve got …

• A playoff rematch among the best games of the weekend.

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• Big weeks for young quarterbacks.

• A look at cap space around the league.

• Improving, but still not great, gambling picks.

But we’re starting with the looming trade deadline.


nfl-marlon-mack-colts-trade-deadline

Tuesday will be defined by a simple yes-or-no question: Will Watson be dealt? And, again, I don’t think it’s close to a sure thing that it’ll happen, which actually mirrors how I think the next few days will play out league-wide.

Cap space is tight across the NFL (we’ll get to that in our big question below), and very few teams (maybe the Jaguars, Jets, Lions and Texans) are in a position now where they’re willing to wave the white flag on the year. I think, in the end, that’ll all add up to a pretty quiet few days, with, outside of whatever happens with Watson, some minor deals getting hammered out. But, as usual, there are a lot of names floating around.

So here are some players being discussed ahead of the deadline, with one important caveat: Teams aren’t necessarily shopping the guys on this list. In some cases, these are notes resulting from another team calling to ask …

• For a team in the running, the Colts have a few players whose names have been bandied about. Marlon Mack’s has been out there for weeks, after he asked for a trade earlier in the season. I’ve heard former second-round pass rushers Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu have been discussed as well.

• Pass catchers are always at a premium, and there are a few names out there along those lines. Dolphins WR DeVante Parker, Giants WR Darius Slayton and TE Evan Engram, and Cardinals WR Andy Isabella have been discussed. The Saints and Lions are among the teams I’ve heard are looking for help at receiver.

• The Falcons haven’t put TE Hayden Hurst on the block, but calls have come in on him, based largely on the fact that he’ll be a free agent after the year. Atlanta probably won’t deal him, barring an unexpectedly rich offer.

• The Eagles have a couple of linebackers, Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton, who’ve made starts this year who could be had. And of course, Philly’s 2019 first-round left tackle, Andre Dillard, has been discussed, and could be a reclamation project for someone.

• Speaking of draft busts, the Raiders have had discussions involving 2019’s fourth pick, Clelin Ferrell. The ex-Clemson star has 6.5 sacks in 32 career games, and none to date in 2021.

• Defensive backs are always hard to come by, and Denver’s become the place to call. Veteran corner Kyle Fuller is available, and the Broncos will listen to offers on safety Kareem Jackson (though they’re not actively shopping him). The Panthers’ A.J. Bouye is another name teams have discussed, though I’m told Carolina would need a really strong offer to consider parting with him.

• The Browns’ space-eating nose tackle Andrew Billings hasn’t been a great fit for Joe Woods’s defense—and has been the subject of calls.

• The Saints are in an interesting spot, still tight to the cap but looking to set themselves up for a playoff run. So, yes, they’re out there looking for receiver help, as we said. But they could also shed some salary. CB P.J. Williams and DL Carl Granderson are two guys who could be dealt to create space. The bigger name that other teams mentioned to me was WR Michael Thomas, though that’s harder to see based on how much he’s making and the fact that he’s hurt.

• The Jets would listen to offers on S Marcus Maye, but his remaining money and contract status—playing on a franchise tag—might make it difficult to get value back. An acquiring team would probably see him as a rental, since re-signing him would be expensive, as would be a repeat tag in 2022.

And there are a bunch of lesser names out there, too.

Bottom line, chances are good this will wind up being a vintage trade deadline day: Lots of discussion. Very little action. Everyone moves on the next day.

Unless, of course, someone meets Houston’s price for Watson.


tom-brady-buccaneers-saints

FIVE STAR MATCHUPS

1) Buccaneers at Saints (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET): These games got nasty last year—Mike Evans and Marshon Lattimore had their own particularly chippy return match—and you’d imagine some hard feelings remain after the Saints swept the regular-season set, then the Bucs won in the playoffs. It’s a nice test for the champs and a big spot for the hosts in the Superdome.

2) Patriots at Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET): Justin Herbert and crew are coming off a blowout loss to the Ravens, and their bye. And Herbert is going against the team that dealt him the worst loss of his career (45–0 last December, with a career-low 43.9 rating). So there’s that, and getting to see Mac Jones in what’s shaping up as a relatively pivotal early game in the AFC playoff race.

3) Titans at Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): The Colts have pulled themselves off the canvas after an 0–3 start, Carson Wentz has been much better in October and a win here would make it a race in the AFC South. Meanwhile, the Titans have been on a different level the last two weeks against last year’s AFC finalists. This one should be a fight.

4) Steelers at Browns (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET): Pittsburgh, at .500, is alone in the AFC North basement. Cleveland, meanwhile, listed 18 of its 53 rostered players on the Thursday injury report, with its star tailback, top three receivers, bookend tackles and starting quarterback all among them. So this is a gut check for both teams, and a chance for one or the other to take a big step in the division race.

5) Cowboys at Vikings (Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET): Kirk Cousins is quietly having himself a career year, and the offense around him is going to be a headache for a good-not-great Dallas defense. Which, when you add the Cowboys’ offense into the mix, means we could have ourselves a shootout on Sunday Night Football.

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Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW

A very big spot for the Dolphins. The Bills are still smarting from their loss two Mondays ago to the Titans. They’re coming off their bye. They’re probably still the best team in the AFC. And Miami’s heading to their place on Sunday, after another week of Watson speculation, and Tua Tagovailoa referendums. Oh, and the Dolphins also come into Western New York with six losses, which is as many as they had all of last year. If 1–6 would be tough to come back from to make the playoffs, 1–7 would make it damn near impossible, and missing out this year would be three in a row for Brian Flores and Chris Grier. There’s a lot of pressure on a lot of people in Miami going into this one, simple as that. So it’ll be interesting to see how Tagovailoa plays, amid all the Watson buzz, and how Flores leads his team in a very difficult environment.

Another long trip for Jacksonville. The Jaguars, like Buffalo, are coming off a bye. But on each side of that week off has sat a long trip—to London in Week 6 and now to Seattle in Week 8. The last time we saw them, the defense was making a huge fourth-down stop, Trevor Lawrence was making game-winning plays and a kicker promoted off the practice squad, Matt Wright, was kicking a 53-yard field goal to win Urban Meyer his first NFL game. The whole thing, in the moment, seemed to give Meyer and his staff something very real to build on. We’ll see if it really was that on Sunday, against a team that’s desperate for a win.

The Lions getting their first win? There’s no two ways about it: Philly’s reeling. There are players on the trade block, following the departure of Zach Ertz. Jalen Hurts has been up and down. The run game’s been non-existent. The team’s been bad. And because it’s Philly, there’s drama around the team too. All of that’s one reason why I took the Lions this week. The other is that right now I think they’re probably the better team. So maybe in the week the first unbeaten fell on Thursday night, we’ll have the last winless group rise.

What happens at quarterback in Chicago? There’s just a lot to sink your teeth into here. Justin Fields isn’t playing well and, quite honestly, the Bears could be doing more to help him. Jimmy Garoppolo comes in banged up. Trey Lance will be available for a while. If you play out all the scenarios for how this goes, just about any of them would at least be interesting. And that both the 49ers and Bears are carrying four losses into this week only makes the game more important for two teams that had designs on not just making the playoffs, but making runs when they got there.


TWO BEST BETS

Season record: 4–10 (I’m starting to stack those 1–1 weeks!)

Buccaneers (-4.5) vs. Saints: I went against the Bucs last week, so call this my mea culpa. In the end, this one will be treated like a big game by Tampa—and the Saints, who are slowly getting guys back in the lineup, won’t have quite the firepower to keep up.

Lions (+3.5) at Eagles: This is, at the very least, a hotly-contested one. And I actually think, like I said above and in Thursday’s mailbag, Detroit will wind up with a big win.


ONE BIG QUESTION

Why aren’t bigger names floating around ahead of the trade deadline?

The simple reason why is the salary cap. This year’s cap is the one that’s most affected by pandemic economics. Remember, last year’s was set before COVID-19 hammered the U.S., and no adjustment was made thereafter on the 2020 cap. It’ll be healthier next year. So in ’21, everyone pays the price, with the cap’s sinking to $182.5 million, some $25 million under where teams had projected it pre-COVID-19, and that’s made for a lot of clogged books.

Four days ahead of the deadline, from the NFL’s internal cap report on Thursday, here’s the cap space across the league, by team.

1) Jaguars: $28.73 million
2) Eagles: $20.94 million
3) Broncos: $13.23 million
4) Seahawks: $11.92 million
5) Panthers: $11.32 million
6) Steelers: $10.27 million
7) Chargers: $10.10 million
8) Washington: $9.94 million
9) Browns: $9.00 million
10)Bengals: $8.50 million
11) Texans: $6.73 million
12) Titans: $5.12 million
13) Rams: $4.52 million
14) Vikings: $4.41 million
15) Bills: $4.15 million
16) Jets: $3.99 million
17) Packers: $3.71 million
18) Cowboys: $3.69 million
19) Bears: $3.41 million
20) 49ers: $3.16 million
21) Buccaneers: $2.94 million
22) Raiders: $2.72 million
23) Patriots: $2.53 million
24) Cardinals: $2.50 million
25) Lions: $2.35 million
26) Dolphins: $1.92 million
27) Colts: $1.90 million
28) Chiefs: $1.81 million
29) Saints: $1.62 million
30) Giants: $1.58 million
31) Falcons: $1.58 million
32) Ravens: $1.32 million

Some teams have moved things around, of late, to create space—and so there are a few more that have breathing room, although that’s a relative term looking at the numbers above. And that gets at another point here, which is that a lot of the contenders on the list aren’t just capped out, they’ve also already mortgaged contracts just to make things fit in 2021, leaving them fewer avenues with which to generate more breathing room.

So yes, GMs have been more aggressive about adding in-season the last few years. Sure, it’d be exciting for any contender to add a recognizable name or two to its mix for the back half of the season.

But it’s often not the most responsible of things. And that goes especially during a weird year like this one.

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