The Deshaun Watson situation hasn’t changed much since the summer, and that’s notable.
No criminal charges have been filed. No action has been taken by the league. And while the 22 lawsuits are still pending, the idea of a settlement, once eschewed by Watson as he pursued full exoneration, has been floated again.
Amid that status quo, the trade deadline came and went Tuesday, and Watson remained on the Texans’ roster. That means, officially at least, he’ll stay there until mid-March (Houston could conceivably agree to, but not formalize, a deal before then, as the Rams and Lions did on Matthew Stafford last January).
So what happens when we get there?
It’s possible, of course, that Watson’s legal situation will stay cloudy and the league continues its hands-off approach, and that combined with what should be a trade market crowded with available, accomplished, veteran quarterback drives down his value.
Here’s what’s more likely: We get to February or March, and there’s more clarity on Watson’s legal situation. Given more clarity on that end, the league, no longer under the threat of seeing Watson hit the field in a gray area legally, could give more guidance for teams interested in Watson. And it being the offseason then, far more teams will be open to the idea of upgrading at quarterback than you’d ever see in October or November.
At that point, the Texans would be positioned to cash in after months of being patient.
My feeling is what we know about where the case stands now could well lead us there.
Again, for months, Watson, steadfast in his desire to be cleared completely, didn’t want to settle. But with respect to the seriousness of the allegations, his decision to let his lawyers reopen settlement talks in the days leading up to the deadline, to open for the possibility of a trade to the Dolphins, indicates the obvious: He wants to move on with his football career, and if he’s going to, a settlement might be the only way to do it anytime soon.
Guilty or innocent, the 22 lawsuits aren’t going to be adjudicated overnight, and the NFL hasn’t shown much appetite (which is understandable) for coming to their own conclusions ahead of the courts. Absent a settlement, there’s a good possibility the suits will remain in the courts through the 2022 offseason, given that Tony Buzbee told Fox 26 in Houston Tuesday that his side won’t even get Watson’s deposition until February, at the earliest.
Which is to say that, between now and then, it seems plausible that the sides work out their disagreements over postsettlement confidentiality, and come to a financial agreement. Then, what? Well, before we get to this week’s mail, with the trade deadline now in the rearview mirror, I figured we’d take a quick look at what its passing means for all involved.
• For the Texans, it means finishing out the year with Watson on the roster. And unless something changes, I don’t know that it’ll be as awkward as some people think. In fact, I asked coach David Culley about it after the Texans’ Week 1 win, and he said he and GM Nick Caserio worked hard to get ahead of any issues that could crop up.
“Nick and I and our staff sat down and we decided, This is how we were gonna approach things,” Culley said. “And to not only Nick’s credit and our staff's credit, Deshaun did a heck of job of being able to work with us and how we wanted to handle this particular situation. And basically, this worked out really good for both of us from the standpoint of This is how we gotta deal with it, this is the situation.
“It was both of us working together, our team and him working together, and it hasn't been a distraction. He hasn’t been a distraction.”
Houston just needs to get to the end of what’s very obviously been a rebuilding year, and the market will more likely than not be there for Watson. In fact, knowing they’re trading him (à la Detroit with Stafford last year) could help them get ahead of other teams looking to deal quarterbacks. Bottom line, if there’s more clarity legally, and that does remain a big if, Houston’s well-positioned.
• For Watson, it means there potentially being more teams to pick from—and, remember, because he has a no-trade clause, he does have some control over the situation. He’s losing a year of his athletic prime in the big picture. But in the smaller snapshot of the last few weeks, he’s lost only the chance to play out the string with a 1–7 Dolphins team, with a good chance that team will be involved again when we get to the offseason.
The upshot is the other three teams that have kept close tabs on the situation since the start of training camp (the Panthers, Broncos and Eagles) figure to maintain their interest as well, given where they stand now at quarterback, and other teams that haven’t been involved at all in 2021 could well reassess and dive into the veteran quarterback pool in ’22. (Giants? Browns? Seahawks? Steelers? Saints?)
So from a football standpoint, for missing the back half of this season, things actually work out for Watson here. In March of last year, before the lawsuits were filed, word was that Watson favored the Dolphins and 49ers over the field as potential destinations. The Niners eliminated themselves as a possibility with the trade up for Trey Lance. Which is an example of how the offseason works—if a guy’s available earlier, he’ll have more options.
• For the Dolphins, there’s now a nine-game test to see where Tua Tagovailoa stands. It’s true that Miami was engaged with the Texans on a possible trade, and it’s also true that owner Stephen Ross wanted Watson to settle the lawsuits fair. It’s fair to assume that if Tagovailoa doesn’t do more over the next two months, Miami will be right back in that spot again, with interest in Watson contingent on the legal clarity Ross was seeking.
Why would the Dolphins throw Tagovailoa overboard so quickly, just 18 months after taking him fifth in the draft? Really, the Dolphins’ pursuit of Watson was more about the opportunity to get a proven 26-year-old franchise quarterback who is under contract for the next five years than it was disappointment in where Tagovailoa stands. That said, if the Dolphins had drafted Justin Herbert with the No. 5 pick in 2020, it seems doubtful they’d be wading in these waters. So it is something of a referendum on Tagovailoa’s progress.
Taking all that into account, the strange circumstance accelerates the clock on the former Alabama star. The team has already shown a clear willingness to replace him, and if he fades down the stretch, there’s no question, because of all this, there’ll be questions asked about whether the team should move forward with him, whether Watson winds up being the alternative or not. Conversely, the benefit is the team gets to see how Tagovailoa reacts in an adverse spot—and maybe he’ll really show them something.
That brings us back to the beginning here—and the continued uncertainty of where Watson stands legally. It’s possible settlements won’t be reached. It’s possible criminal charges will be filed. And that shows, again, that football could very quickly take a back seat in this situation.
It’s also why it’s hard to get a real feel for where this will go. The accusations against Watson are serious, and the number of them is significant. At the same time, Watson does deserve the chance to see the legal process through; he hasn't been charged criminally at this point.
That, in fact, is why we’re here in the first place. Trading him under these circumstances, and getting market value, was always going to be incredibly difficult for the Texans and Caserio, no matter how badly Watson wanted out, how badly Cal McNair wanted him out or how badly an individual GM or coach of another team might have wanted him.
Now, with the deadline come and gone, there are about three months or so for the situation to sort itself out. Whether it does or not inside that time frame will go a long way toward determining the outcome on this one.
But based on what we know now, it does seem like there’s a chance we’ll have more clarity a few months down the line.
On to your mail …
From Jake (@JakeMc945): How many 100-yard games does Peterson get for the Titans?
Jake, let’s, just for the sake of it, take another look at Adrian Peterson’s most recent history in the NFL. His last five years …
2016 (Vikings): 72 rushing yards, 1.9 yards per carry, zero 100-yard games.
2017 (Saints/Cardinals): 529 rushing yards, 3.4 yards per carry, two 100-yard games.
2018 (Washington): 1,042 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, three 100-yard games.
2019 (Washington): 898 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry, two 100-yard games.
2020 (Lions): 604 rushing yards, 3.9 yards per carry, zero 100-yard games.
So if the question is, is it amazing that a guy who has the mileage Peterson does on his legs can still carve out a big-enough role within an offense to make an NFL roster without any special-teams value, then the answer is, yes. That Peterson, at 36, and with 3,192 carries in the pros under his belt, can still go out there and produce at a level that would make a contender like Tennessee want him is absolutely remarkable.
But if the question is whether Peterson is going to be able to replace Derrick Henry, even just in the short term, the odds are definitely against it. He’s had just eight 100-yard games since his last true bell cow season (2015) and hasn’t played football in 10 months. The hope here should be that Peterson can be a part of a larger equation in the run game for the Titans, given how much Tennessee leans on that phase of the game.
From Brad Clemons (@greeky71): With Henry possibly being done for the rest of the season, do the Titans have to change their offensive game plan? Can they trust Tanny to carry the weight now?
Brad, I think this is an interesting spot for a number of players. Ryan Tannehill is making $33 million per year. Julio Jones arrived in Tennessee as the missing piece, is pulling down $15.3 million for the season, and cost the Titans second- and fourth-round picks (a sixth-rounder came back with Jones). A.J. Brown will be eligible for a new contract after the season and should wind up, whenever he signs, among the NFL’s richest receivers. They also have three well-paid linemen in Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold and Ben Jones.
So there’s a part of me that’s now thinking, while the Titans need to maintain an identity that’s served them well over the last three years, it’s time for a few guys who have a lot of skins on the wall to pull the rope, and take pressure off the people around them the way Henry did the last few years.
Now, I’m not positive what that’ll look like. Maybe it means throwing more often on early downs than the Titans do now. Maybe it means leaning on Tannehill, Brown and Jones to deliver more in critical spots (which involves those linemen, too). Maybe it means running behind Jeremy McNichols and Peterson in a different way. But what I don’t think it’ll mean is the Titans’ flipping over the apple cart altogether and trying to become something they’re not.
From Houston “Rebuild” Football (@Houstonfootbal3): Do you believe Giants could be suitors for Watson after the season?
Houston, this is a fascinating question, and it’s a good place to, again, take a long look at the history of first-round quarterbacks doing monster second contracts with their teams under the current rookie salary system, and how Year 3 (where Daniel Jones is), almost uniformly, ends up being pivotal in each guy’s pay, in large part because it’s after that season that they can first do new deals. Here’s a look at how it played out for the 20 first-round quarterbacks drafted between 2011 and ’17.
• Five (Ryan Tannehill, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson) were extended before Year 4 kicked off.
• Two more (Andrew Luck, Cam Newton) had their options picked up after Year 3, then got big extensions following Year 4.
• Another (Blake Bortles) got his fifth-year option declined, played out Year 4, then got a two-year deal after Year 4 (he didn’t make it to the second year of that deal).
• Two (Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston) had fifth-year options picked up and actually played on those fifth-year options. Neither did a second deal with his drafting team.
• One (Robert Griffin III) had his option picked up, played out a fourth year, then got cut before that option became fully guaranteed.
• Six (Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel, Teddy Bridgewater, Mitch Trubisky) had options declined and left their teams after Year 4.
• Three (Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch) didn’t even make it to Year 3 with their teams.
So if you throw out Bortles’s Band-Aid second contract, you have seven of the 20 doing long-term deals with their drafting teams, and five were done after Year 3. The other two, Luck and Newton, were contracts that were a fait accompli at that juncture, where the sides agreed to wait an extra year to complete the blockbuster second deal.
The bottom line is that after three years, teams have generally made their minds up. Baker Mayfield may be a bit of an outlier this year—he’s playing a fourth season on a rookie deal—but for the most part, as a rule, the idea holds up. And so I think the Giants should have a pretty good idea where they stand on Daniel Jones coming out of this year, and my guess would be the answer might land where a run at Watson would be possible.
How does that happen? Well, if you’re in the position where there are options available to you who are in the top 10 at the position (Watson, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers), then you have to weigh those against what you have. What the Giants have, right now, is a quarterback they’re going to soon have to make a long-term decision on, choosing whether to give him a franchise-quarterback contract.
So in a way, the availability of a Watson would force a conversation on Jones. And given how frustrated John Mara’s been with his team’s recent struggles, I can’t imagine he wouldn’t at least look at the idea of moving into a high-rent district at the game’s most important position.
From Coop (@mattcoop17): What will it take for John Mara to not stick with Joe Judge? What has he shown to make someone think he’s the answer at head coach?
Matt, what I’ve seen from Judge is a head coach who is trying to build something comprehensive, where you’re not subcontracting phases of the game out—which is one reason why I’ve thought for a while now that Jason Garrett really had to show his offense can meld into Judge’s program (the way Marc Colombo was teaching on the offensive line didn’t, which is a clue into how all this works). And I do think we’ve seen some encouraging signs along the way, from the player buy-in to how the team closed out last season.
On top of that, Mara likes Judge, who came on a strong recommendation from the owner’s friend Bill Belichick. From what I understand, he sees Judge as the rare person from outside the organization who very much fits the organization stylistically. Which, at the very least, can keep an owner from doing something rash, especially after this particular owner, who prides himself on the team’s stability, just fired consecutive coaches after just two years.
That said, obviously, wins will soon have to follow. You are what your record says you are, and right now the team is 8–16 under Judge. So it’d be good if the Giants started rolling now the way they rolled at the end of last year.
From Amol Yajnik (@amolyajnik): If the Dolphins continue to look as bad as they have the first half of the year, do Flores and Grier both get let go or could one stay?
Amol, I don’t think Steve Ross is of a mind to start over after the amount the organization has invested in Brian Flores and Chris Grier. This was always going to take a while, and last year’s 10–6 mark was, without question, ahead of schedule. A little bit of a step back would be understandable. A bigger step back? Maybe harder to swallow.
The problem now is that Miami is 1–7. So even to get to that moderate step back, say, 7–10, Miami would have to be really good, 6–3 in this case, the rest of the way. And you know what else wouldn’t hurt? Some of the players drafted as part of the Dolphins’ grand plan to amass capital—linked to the deals sending away guys like Tannehill, Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick—developing into foundation pieces.
Then, in Year 4 for Flores and Grier, you’ve got something to build off, and, as we said earlier in the column, you are positioned to get one of the big-name veteran quarterbacks to Florida if Tagovailoa doesn’t make significant progress.
From Raider Yeezus (@raideryeezus): Are my Raiders good?
Yeezus, this just became a more difficult question to answer. The team’s strength, from the start, has been its offense, and the Raiders knew it would be coming into the year. Losing Henry Ruggs III is no small deal. The 2020 first-round pick had emerged as the team leader in receiving yards and a big-play machine (19.5 yards per catch) for Derek Carr. The team released him after he was charged with DUI following the fatal car crash. Losing him will affect how teams defend Las Vegas and condense the field for everyone.
Now, the Raiders still have skill guys, for sure. Hunter Renfrow and Bryan Edwards are tough as nails, Darren Waller’s among the game’s best, and Foster Moreau’s a very underrated No. 2 tight end. The line’s played well. Carr’s been outstanding. So this won’t suddenly morph into a subpar offense. But will a slip affect the defense? That’s a fair question to ask.
Also, I think it’s important not to position this as the Raiders’ having to overcome adversity. Someone died unnecessarily here. Multiple lives were irreparably altered. The fate of Vegas’s football season is miniscule compared to all of that.
From Scared Dead Wyche (@JerradWyche): It’s clear Justin Fields thrives in an RPO/boot-based scheme. If the Bears hire a new coach, which possible new hire could build the best system based on that scheme around him?
Jerrad, I actually think these are clubs Matt Nagy should pull out of his bag and start swinging. He worked with Andy Reid and Doug Pederson in Philadelphia, and Reid ran a very spread-centric offense with Alex Smith at the trigger, while Pederson went on to basically become the King of the NFL RPO in Philly. Presumably, Nagy, whose reputation has always been as a good ideas guy, can build off Fields’s progress in that Niners game.
But if there were a change? Pederson would be an interesting name to consider, if you’re O.K. with pulling from the same tree. Ditto with Nagy’s successor in K.C., Eric Bieniemy. Ohio State coach Ryan Day would be an obvious name to consider (although I definitely don’t want anyone taking him from my alma mater). Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and Panthers OC Joe Brady are creative minds, with experience developing young quarterbacks. And Tampa Bay’s Byron Leftwich and Green Bay’s Nathaniel Hackett are less RPO specific but have earned their way into these conversations.
Look at those candidates, and I think for the first time in a while, there are more really good candidates than there will be openings, in part because this year we lack the obvious places we had last year (Atlanta, Detroit, Jacksonville), where we went into the offseason with a good feel for where at least a few of the job searches would be taking place.
From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Besides the Chiefs, which team(s) with a .500 or less record can make a legitimate playoff run?
Matt, New England and San Francisco are two that jump off the page to me, since both were relatively recently (the Patriots three years ago, the Niners two years ago) in the Super Bowl, and still have a lot of players left from those runs.
For the Patriots, the key to me would be how their back seven holds up on defense, sans Stephon Gilmore, and whether their offensive line issues (with Michael Onwenu now back at his natural spot of right tackle) are fully taken care of. For the Niners, it’s the development of young guys on offense, and in particular the rookie running backs and second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk, and how their secondary holds up on defense.
As I see it, if those things are taken care of, those two have the coaching and good-enough quarterbacking to get to January. And if they get to January, I think both could advance a round. I don’t know that I’d bet either can do more than that—remember, two wins means you’re in the conference title game—but I don’t think the teams further up in the seeding would be happy to see either of these teams in January.
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