The Watson Conundrum

Updated: Apr 10


Photo Credit: Jeffrey Beall (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Deshaun_Watson.JPG)


This past Friday, a Harris County grand jury in Texas declined to indict Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on any of the sexual assault charges he faced. While Watson still faces up to 22 civil lawsuits stemming from these allegations, the specter of criminal charges no longer hangs over his head, and he is more or less free to begin seeking new employment - if the Texans still want to trade him, that is.


It would be hard to believe that the Texans aren’t actively seeking a trade partner as we speak. Watson publicly requested a trade from the Texans after a miserable 2020 season in which the team won just four games and head coach Bill O’Brien was fired. However, as the 2021 offseason unfolded, Watson’s off-field problems came to light and since then, he’s been frozen in carbonite until this weekend.


Now a free(ish) man, QB-needy teams around the league will have eyes for the precocious 26-year old Watson. With teams more willing than ever to throw in draft capital to trade for quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson, Watson could fetch a hefty sum. At the same time, Watson’s situation is unique: he’s younger than both Stafford and Wilson were when they were traded, his most recent season was more successful than Stafford’s and Wilson’s pre-trade seasons, and, most importantly, Watson is still facing a likely suspension from the NFL.


As soon as Watson’s name was cleared by the Harris County grand jury, the NFL media exploded with trade speculation. The Carolina Panthers were supposedly already making a substantial trade offer to the Texans. So too were the New Orleans Saints. The Buccaneers looked like a good fit until Tom Brady announced he was ending his Brett Favre-style retirement on Sunday.


Other quarterback-needy teams like the Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns were also floated as possibilities. But does Watson really make sense for all of these teams?


For the Panthers and Saints, Watson might have way too much potential to pass up. Ever since owner David Tepper acquired the team in 2018, the Panthers have been looking to make a splash, and securing Watson’s services would certainly fit the bill. The Saints also have a win-now roster, and Watson could be the player that moves them from possible-playoff team to full-blown Super Bowl contenders.


It’s less clear how Watson might fit for the rest of these QB-needy teams. The Colts just shipped out Carson Wentz to the Washington Commanders, but are they ready to replace one mercurial QB with another? Wentz, for his part, has never faced any criminal allegations like Watson, but he made Colts’ executives lose sleep for other reasons, like refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, generally-inconsistent play week-to-week, and saving his absolute-worst performance for the game Indy needed to win most - their inexplicable week 18 loss to the pitiful Jacksonville Jaguars.


The Seahawks and Lions both shipped out their expensive, former Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford, respectively. While both teams have the draft capital and cap space to make a strong offer for Watson, neither seem like an ideal fit and both are probably looking to the 2023 draft for their quarterback of the future. Besides, is bringing in Watson’s baggage worth the risk for both of these rebuilding teams? Not the way I see it.


The Browns are an interesting case because they, like the Saints, Panthers and Colts, have a roster that is capable of competing right now. At the same time, the Browns currently have their own QB giving them fits. With Baker Mayfield coming off an injury-riddled campaign in which he performed so poorly that many Browns fans were calling for him to be benched, the Browns’ front office could view Watson as a sure-fire upgrade that will immediately jump-start their stagnant offense.


Where would this leave Mayfield, though? Would the Texans take Mayfield as part of the Watson trade-package? With promising second-year QB Davis Mills already on the roster, it seems unlikely that the Browns would be looking to add another project at the position. At the same time, Mayfield’s contract will expire in 2023, so if Houston is looking for a one-year flier and a player that can provide competition to Mills, Mayfield might be a perfect fit.


So, in this hypothetical scenario, what would it cost the Browns to acquire Watson? Given what we know about the recent Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford trades, multiple first round picks will be involved. But Deshaun Watson is a unique player, and this is a very unique circumstance.


For starters, even though Watson is cleared of any criminal charges, the NFL has already shown in the past that it is willing to hold players accountable for their actions even if the criminal-justice system doesn’t. Watson will likely be facing a suspension similar to the one the NFL handed down to Ben Roethlisberger back in 2010.


In Roethlisbergers’ case, the Steelers’ QB was twice-accused of sexual assault over a nine-month span, once in July of 2009, and the other in March of 2010. In both cases, criminal charges were never filed. Even so, the NFL suspended Roethlisberger for violating the personal conduct policy and he was ordered to complete a “comprehensive behavioral evaluation by medical professionals.” Roethisberger would miss the first six games of the 2010 season due to the suspension.


It’s hard to imagine that Watson will go into the 2022 season without a suspension looming. Six games seems about right based on precedent. But with Atlanta Falcons’ wide receiver Calvin Ridley facing a year-long suspension for gambling on an NFL game despite being inactive, a six-game suspension for sexual misconduct seems a bit light in comparison, especially given the NFL’s poor track record.


We all know that the NFL has consistently missed the mark with meaningful and timely punishment. Ray Rice, after all, wasn’t even suspended for knocking-out his wife in an elevator until video footage of the incident was released to the public. Greg Hardy was only given a ten-game suspension after he was found guilty of domestic violence and threatening to kill his girlfriend (the charge would be overturned on appeal because the victim refused to show).


So, even though the NFL has improved somewhat in the ways it holds NFL players accountable for off-field issues, there’s still lots of work to be done. Suspending Watson for the entire 2022 season would be a good start.


Back to our hypothetical: let’s say the Browns and the Texans agree to a trade in principle that would send Watson to the Browns in exchange for Mayfield and some draft pick compensation. What would that compensation look like?


For reference, I compared Watson’s 2020 season (his most-recent full season) to some other QB’s pre-trade seasons:


Deshaun Watson (2020): 26-years old, 16 games started, 4 - 12 record, 70.2% completion percentage, 4823 passing yards (league leader), 33 passing touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 8.9 yards/attempt (league leader) - - - -> named to Pro Bowl


Russell Wilson (2021): 33-yrs, 14 GS, 6 - 8 record, 64.8% completion percentage, 3113 yards, 25 TDs, 6 INTs, 7.8 y/a - - - -> named to Pro Bowl


Matthew Stafford (2020): 32-yrs, 16 GS, 5 - 11 record, 64.2% completion percentage, 4084 yards, 26 TDs, 10 INTs, 7.7 y/a


Jay Cutler (2008): 25-yrs, 16 GS, 8 - 8 record, 62.3% completion percentage, 4526 yards, 25 TDs, 18 INTs, 7.3 y/a - - - -> named to Pro Bowl


Brett Favre (2007): 39-yrs, 16 GS, 13 - 3 record, 66.5% completion percentage, 28 TDs, 15 INTs, 7.8 y/a - - - -> named to Pro Bowl and finished 2nd in MVP voting to Tom Brady


This list is fascinating for a couple reasons. First, only Deshaun Watson’s 2020 season would be considered any of these players’ best seasons, and he is more than a year removed from playing at this point. Second, the next best season on this list has to be Favre in 2007. In that year, he led the Packers to a 13 - 3 record, finished 2nd in the MVP voting, and helped the team reach the NFC Championship game. None of these other quarterbacks even had a winning record in their pre-trade seasons. Somehow, the Packers were only able to acquire a conditional 4th round draft pick for Favre’s services. I get that he was 39-years old, but come on.


Based on this list, Watson’s situation most-resembles Cutler’s situation in 2009. After a falling-out with then-head coach Josh McDaniels, Cutler was traded to the Chicago Bears for a package that included QB Kyle Orton as well as the Bears’ 2009 1st and 3rd round picks and a 2010 1st.


Cutler, like Watson, was considered at the time to be one of the most gifted throwers in the entire NFL. He was also in his prime, and the Bears paid accordingly. Today, however, Watson hasn’t played football in a year and will likely be facing more down-time if he is suspended.


In our hypothetical Texans-Browns trade, the Browns would have to weigh Watson’s potential impact against the probability that he will miss some time in 2022. Throw in the fact that our hypothetical trade would include Baker Mayfield, and the Browns would likely be starting a backup QB for a significant portion of the season. That doesn’t mean Watson wouldn’t be a huge difference-maker in the games in which he was permitted to suit up.


So, given what we know about Watson’s situation, what would that trade package look like? My best guess? A similar package to the Cutler deal, just slightly less overall:


Browns get: Deshaun Watson and 2023 4th round pick


Texans get: Baker Mayfield, 2023 2nd and 2024 1st & 2nd


Because Watson will likely be facing a significant 2022 suspension, the Texans are unable to convince the Browns to part with their 2022 first round pick. For the Browns, giving up the #13 overall selection in this years’ draft is too much for a player who’s missed so much time. To make up for the lack of a 2022 first, the Browns will include their second round selection (#44 overall), as well as their first and second round selections in 2023, when the team will hopefully be at full-strength. The fourth rounder they get in return from the Texans can be used to find Watson’s potential backup.


For the Texans, they get a one-year look at Mayfield to see if he can live up to the potential he showed earlier in his career. Mayfield is a much better player at this point in his career than Orton when he was traded to the Broncos, so the Texans get far more upside in this deal. While the Texans don’t get the coveted #13 pick from the Browns in 2022, they still come away with significant draft compensation for Watson, especially considering he isn’t a part of their future plans. If the Browns disappoint in 2022, the Texans could also be looking at some premier picks in the upcoming draft.


Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how close Watson’s real trade value compares to my hypothetical. Given that multiple teams seem interested in making an offer, it's possible that a bidding war begins and my initial estimate was far too conservative. That said, there is still a lot of risk involved with whichever team decides to move forward with Watsons as their QB. He might be a tremendous talent, but he comes with tremendous baggage. Whether that talent supersedes all else will be up to the QB-needy teams of the NFL.

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