We are praying for you, Houstonians. The city of Houston just dealt with the loss of one major sports superstar in James Harden earlier this month, after his trade to the Brooklyn Nets. Now, their star quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out of town as well. Things are just not going well in southeast Texas lately.
The gunslinger is coming off of arguably his best full season in the NFL, despite his team finishing with just a 4-12 record. Watson led the league with 4,823 passing yards, which were accompanied by 33 touchdowns through the air and just seven interceptions. Not to mention, the loss of his old go-to guy in DeAndre Hopkins, who was sent to Arizona in the now-infamous trade of the 2020 offseason.
No slight to Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller (prior to his PED suspension), who both have productive moments during the 2020 season but the lack of a true number one game-changer in the passing game, along with the putrid Texans’ defense, led to the team’s demise this past year. To make matters worse, the Houston Texans do not own their first or second-round picks in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft, which they sent to Miami several years back in the Laremy Tunsil trade.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the Texans turning into the laughingstock of the NFL. Bill O’Brien, their former head coach, was let go in October but was responsible for both the Tunsil and Hopkins trades, which have obliterated their cap space and draft pick arsenal. Jack Easterby, the team's new Vice President of Player Personnel, has no experience with his job title and has been reported as an individual who fails to connect with players continually.
New Texans owner Cal McNair, taking the reins from his late father, seems to have a very limited understanding of how to run a professional sports franchise. Stir all of these factors up in the pot and it’s easy to see why Deshaun Watson has little faith in this organization to build a contending team around him.
However, it is not a given that Houston does wind up moving on from Watson for several reasons. First, he just signed a massive extension in September, which makes his contract very difficult to move. Houston would need to have a deal in place with a team and process the trade after June 1st, in order to make it more cap-friendly.
Second and more importantly, even the most poorly-run franchisees understand the value of having the face of the franchise, especially when that individual plays the most important position in professional sports.
The major factor will be if Deshaun Watson truly wants to be there and according to multiple league-wide sources, he does not. It is a massive blow and an unfortunate circumstance for the Houston Texans and their fans and with how things are seeming now, many would-be floored to see him starting for the Texans in week one of the 2021 NFL season.
Obviously, a player of Watson’s caliber makes him one of, if not, the most attractive trade chip in NFL history. There are already reports of teams such as the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins wanting to acquire the 25-year old Clemson alum but it would be an odd circumstance to see Houston trade him within the same conference.
When looking at team timeline, familiarity and the likelihood of executing a blockbuster deal, one team sticks out above the rest: the Carolina Panthers. Many people will look at that statement and believe it’s solely because Watson was the national championship-winning, star quarterback for Clemson University from 2014-2016 but there are several other motives that make this the optimal fit.
The Panthers have a new owner in David Tepper, a very rich man whose personality is eerily similar to that of the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Steve Ballmer. Forget the difference in the sports for a second - not only are both filthy rich but they both come from a technological background and have shown in their interviews and press-conferences their intent to be aggressive.
Tepper, along with head coach Matt Rhule, has made it abundantly clear that finding a quarterback of the future in Carolina is a major priority this offseason. This is a team that wants to win now.
As for their cap situation, they are also in a good spot to make a major splash in the coming months. If we are projecting the salary cap for the 2021 NFL season to be $180 million, the Panthers go into the offseason currently $5,506,705 under that number, according to Over the Cap.
While that number may not appear promising as of right now (especially with numerous players to resign), the Panthers have a lot of flexibility with veterans in terms of restructuring and releases and some nice trade chips that could be shed off of the roster.
Speaking of the roster and the players that Watson could hypothetically be throwing too, he has Christian McCaffrey, who despite his slew of injuries in 2020 is still arguably the best running back in the NFL. Wide receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson both had 1,000-yard seasons this past year for the Panthers and there is still a chance the team re-signs Curtis Samuel.
The tight-end position will need to be addressed via free agency or the draft and the offensive line could use some work (re-signing OT Taylor Moton should be a top priority in free agency), but this is an awesome situation for Deshaun Watson to walk into if traded there.
So, what would the deal look like? Many analysts are forecasting a truly massive haul for Houston and that is what they should seek for a player of Deshaun Watson’s caliber. A team will not fully empty their cupboards for him, to be honest. At this point, Houston has lost some leverage to truly get a king’s ransom but the haul should still be quite prevalent. There is also a good probability a third team gets involved to help make the proposed transaction easier to complete. One example of a potential deal is listed below:
• - WASHINGTON receives current Panthers starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater
• - HOUSTON receives the 8th pick, the 73rd pick, the 115th (from Washington), a 2022 1st, a 2022 4th, a 2023 2nd, and Carolina pass-rusher Yetur Gross-Matos
• - CAROLINA receives Deshaun Watson and a 2022 5th (from Washington)
This proposed deal is under the assumption that it happens post-June 1st in order to put all of the teams in the best spot financially. The Washington Football team makes sense as the third team to get involved in this trade, as they give up a four and a five to secure their bridge quarterback for the 2021 season in Teddy Bridgewater - a more than competent starter who deserves a chance to start elsewhere. With the Washington Football Team picking at No.19 this April, they won’t be in a position to take one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft, so this move makes a ton of sense for them.
Houston, who is giving up easily the biggest piece in this deal, gets a nice little heap of picks to make up for the draft capital they had given up over the past few years. Acquiring the No.8 pick in this draft is huge and they can now use that to either take their next face of the franchise or package it with another pick to move up even higher to get their guy. All in all, they receive two firsts, a second, a third, two fourths and a very intriguing young edge-rusher prospect in Yetur Gross-Matos, the 38th pick in 2020. Not a bad haul for the Texans.
Carolina clearly gets Watson and they get a future day-three pick from the Football Team as another little sweetener. With this deal, all sides would be happy. Watson goes to a young, up-and-coming team with a win-now mindset, Houston is able to rebuild properly and Washington gets a player who could very well lead them to the playoffs again with safe play and a good defense.
This is going to be the biggest story of the NFL offseason by far and it will be interesting to see how things wind up shaking out. At the end of the day, Carolina just makes the most sense as the future home for Deshaun Watson, thanks to the conference they play in, their roster and the team’s overall aggressive mindset.