In 2009, we signed Michael Vick after he was incarcerated for 21 months and suspended by the league. Prior to doing so, we had two criteria that needed to happen for us to be open to making a deal with Vick: First, he needed to have paid for crimes, which he did through serving time in federal prison and being suspended by the league. Second, we had to be confident that he would not commit future crimes or re-offend.
After speaking to Vick and numerous other people, we were comfortable that he had paid for his crimes, and we were confident that he would not be involved in further inappropriate behavior.
Deshaun Watson’s situation is different from Vick’s. First of all, the crimes he is accused of are even more egregious. Watson also has not faced any real retribution for what he did. Though he sat out all of the 2021 season, he was paid $10.54M by the Texans.
To be clear, the accusations against Watson are repugnant. From an ethical standpoint and based on team culture, I do not believe I would acquire Watson if I were sitting in the decision maker’s seat. But it’s hard to say that definitively without sitting in that seat and having all of the information. If guilty, no team in the NFL should engage in discussions to acquire him. And without confidence in the criminal charges being resolved, I would absolutely not trade for him.
For those in the league who don’t view the situation as I do, the purpose of this story is to discuss their thought process and where Watson may end up. I do believe Watson will be traded and will play in the NFL, but I don’t know what the league is going to do. The league could let it play out legally and then take further action based on that. At some point though, based on past precedent, Watson is going to be suspended. It is just a question of how long.
Here are four criteria that have to be met for any team to pursue the QB:
- Whether there’s a real chance of him going to jail has to be off the table.
- The team must feel confident that he didn’t do what he is accused of or they need reason to be positive it won’t happen again.
- The team has to be able to deal with the financial implications.
- The team has to be able to deal with the PR implications of acquiring him.
Under his current contract, the timing of Watson’s guaranteed money triggering on March 22nd presents a complication. That is, Watson’s $20M P5 Base Salary and his $17M Roster Bonus in 2023 both become fully guaranteed then. If he is not suspended, the acquiring team would be obligated to pay the $37M. If he is suspended, the guarantees in his contract would void, and either Houston or the team acquiring Watson would not be obligated to pay the $37M. Alternatively, in negotiating the trade, Houston could agree to pay part of the $37M (if it is still guaranteed by then).
This leads to all kinds of questions like can you get enough answers by March 22nd? Is Houston willing to pay part of the $37M and assume some of the risk? Will the $37M still be guaranteed when the trade takes place? Will teams negotiate a trade with less compensation but things added to it based on milestones?
Unless Houston can get multiple real bidders, the trade will likely involve conditional picks. To address the fact that we may not have all the answers to the questions about the criminal case, civil case, and league suspension, there is a possibility of a base trade with contingent compensation added based on the outcomes.
We also shouldn’t assume that the list of teams that he wouldn’t go to last year is the same as the list that he wouldn’t go to this year. There are multiple teams that are researching this; there are multiple teams using people directly and indirectly to try to recruit him. Even if those reports were true last year, that list has likely changed. There are different coaches, different qualities of rosters, and different things that may motivate him at this point. Or, he may just have to be more flexible to get out of Houston.
Let’s take a look at which teams need QBs and the likelihood they would be able to trade for Watson, starting with the teams that are unlikely…
Colts: They have the money and cap room (6th most, $42.48M). They have the need for a quarterback. They’re obviously willing to be aggressive, as they were with Wentz. However, they probably don’t have the draft ammunition and historically they don’t appear to have the personality to do something like this. It would appear that they would need to make trades, potentially including some of their top players, to acquire sufficient draft capital. Also, it’s unlikely Houston would trade Watson within the division.
Commanders: I think Washington would be extremely interested, but it’s hard to picture how a team under the eye of the federal government for the way it has treated women can engage in trading for Deshaun Watson. And they now supposedly have the wife of the owner basically running the day-to-day operation. Making a major move like this would make it look like they’re not learning from their mistakes. There literally could be legal consequences and ownership consequences to the investigations regarding Washington.
Dolphins: Miami appears to have taken themselves out of contention, which I think is a mistake on their part.
Giants: New York has said they will give Daniel Jones this season to prove himself under new HC Brian Daboll. They’re not going to make a move for another QB; they’re going to try to put Jones in a position to succeed.
Buccaneers: Tampa Bay is unlikely because of the cap situation and because of how many UFAs they will try to bring back. They’re also clinging onto hope Brady won’t retire.
Seahawks: Although the Russell Wilson trade has given Seattle the ammunition to trade for Watson, the fact that they traded a high-quality QB and are a run-first team makes it unlikely they will end up trading for Deshaun.
Vikings: Minnesota has the need, but they are not in great financial shape (projected $15M over the cap, which is 4th worst). New HC Kevin O’Connell worked with Cousins in Washington for one year, and he has been very positive about Kirk.
Browns: They’re a possibility, in spite of their public comments about Baker Mayfield. It is reasonable to assume they are looking to upgrade the position if an opportunity would present itself. They could be a sleeper in this situation.
Texans: The irony is that the team that needs him the most is Houston. I would not be surprised at all if Lovie Smith is doing the best he can to convince Watson it’s a new era in Houston. I would imagine Lovie is making a pitch to Deshaun to stay for at least one more year and give them another chance.
This leaves us with two teams that have the need and the resources. Both of these teams appear to be willing to take on the risks that are associated with acquiring Watson.
Panthers: Carolina is the second most likely team. We know they had conversations last year, and we know there was interest. They need a QB, and they have money available (even with Sam Darnold’s Fifth-Year Option of $18.858M). Obviously, even though they haven’t made good decisions, their actions indicate that they’re putting a huge premium on getting a really good quarterback. Fitterer has also been aggressive in the trade market.
The Panthers have some valuable weapons, including McCaffrey, Anderson, Moore, and Marshall. Although they have major needs on the offensive line, they seem to know that. They probably think they’re closer to winning than I think they would be with Watson. Ultimately though, they could come up a little short on the necessary draft capital.
Eagles: This leaves us with the Philadelphia Eagles, who are the most likely landing spot for Watson. Philly has three first-round picks this year: their own pick, Miami’s first from the trade-up for Waddle, and the Colts first from the Wentz trade. They can create the cap room—perhaps not as easily as other teams, but they have the capital to do it. They will, however, want to restructure Watson’s deal a little bit, so the short-term cap numbers are a little bit lower.
The Eagles are clearly a team that recognizes if you’re going to win big, you need to have a great quarterback. They selected Donovan McNabb with the second pick in 1999. They signed Michael Vick. They traded and later re-signed Carson Wentz. They even took Jalen Hurts with a second-round pick. Their team-building philosophy fits. There are teams that will do whatever it takes to get a great QB, and there are others that will not acquiesce if the QB costs too much. The Eagles fall into the former category. They will be aggressive. They have the capital to do it and an owner who’s shown over time the willingness to spend the money if it matters enough. Plus, by the time Watson realizes how few options he actually has given the circumstances, he will think of Philly as more desirable than he thought a year ago.
The Eagles’ effusiveness and the degree of their enthusiasm about Hurts at the Combine could be an indicator that the team is trying to maximize the trade value of the player. I do not believe the Eagles would trade Hurts under other circumstances, unless it was for a high-quality QB. With Watson, they’d be getting a top 5 to top 7 QB for $34M APY. If he were up for an extension right now, he’d get at least $45-47M. I can’t think of an example of a player of this caliber being traded.
Again, I am not advocating that a team should trade for Watson. I am merely presenting what teams may be doing to evaluate this situation and who is most likely to acquire him.