We've known about Deshaun Watson's discontent with the Texans organization for weeks now, but if you thought the hiring of David Culley to be head coach might have changed his opinion, guess again. Multiple reports surfaced Thursday that Watson has officially requested a trade, and the Culley hiring will not change his mind. Watson has soured on the organization over the past year, with the final straw seeming to come when he was not consulted on the hiring of general manager Nick Caserio despite being told he would be.
Obviously, just because Watson has requested a trade doesn't mean he'll be anywhere but Houston next season. He is under contract, after all, and the Texans could simply call his bluff and wait to see if he'll change his tune by training camp. Given how hard it would be to get a fair return for a player of Watson's caliber after a trade demand became public, they just may opt to do that.
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But, in the end, I suspect Watson will get his way. Trying to deal with a disgruntled star quarterback when your team probably isn't on the cusp of competing isn't a great spot to be in, and one way or the other, the Texans will probably come to realize that. That means we've got another big name on the trade market this offseason in what figures to be an unprecedented offseason of change around the league. Matthew Stafford is also known to be on the block, and Drew Brees and Philip Rivers are likely retiring, so that leaves four obvious holes; the Jets, Patriots, Dolphins, Jaguars, Raiders, Broncos, Washington, Giants, Bears, Panthers and 49ers might also be in the market for a new starter, either in the draft or via trade or free agency.
We'll know soon enough where everyone will be playing, but Watson is the biggest prize of them all, and every team in the NFL outside of maybe five should be doing their due diligence. Of course, as Fantasy players, we've got our own preferences about where Watson might end up.
I've ranked my top preferences for Watson to end up with, and the top option is the same as it was for Stafford, naturally. I've also got some thoughts on the process of projecting the quarterback position after Heath Cummings and I talked about our projections on Thursday's Fantasy Football Today podcast with Adam Aizer. Make sure you check out that episode and subscribe to the podcast if you don't already. Now, here's where I'd like to see Watson end up.
Deshaun Watson's top landing spots
I ranked the top landing spots for Stafford earlier this week, and obviously there's a lot of overlap with the top landing spots for Watson. But, there is one key difference: Watson doesn't need a good supporting cast nearly as much as Stafford does at this point in his career. We saw arguably the best stretch of Watson's career come in 2021, and he closed the season out averaging 26.8 PPR points in the final five games while throwing to Brandin Cooks and a bunch of guys who weren't even on the active roster early in the season.
While I wanted to pair Stafford with offenses that had a big need and could help Stafford take a step forward, Watson could fit in pretty much anywhere, and he can elevate any offense. Stafford might not be a significant upgrade for a team like the Steelers, say, but Watson definitely would be; that's why they're near the top of this list but didn't make it in the top three for Stafford.
Here are five spots I'd like to see Watson end up this offseason, and you might notice New Orleans isn't on here. The reason for that is fairly simple: I'm not sure I want to see Watson and Alvin Kamara playing together. Watson has not historically targeted his running backs in the passing game, and while some of that is related to scheme and personnel, he threw the ball to Duke Johnson and David Johnson just 81 times in 2021. The Saints are one of the rare teams whose weapons would not benefit from Watson.
Here is where he would:
This is going to be my top choice for just about anyone this offseason, because I love the pieces the Broncos have put around their quarterback so far. Watson's downfield passing style would mesh incredibly well with Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Noah Fant, and would help get the absolute most out of them. Of course, part of why I want the Broncos to find a new QB is because I just don't believe in Drew Lock. He's aggressive and will take shots, but he just doesn't make enough plays to make up for his many mistakes; he's been like a worse version of Jameis Winston so far. Maybe he'll get there -- the Broncos have certainly put him in a position to succeed -- but I'd rather go into the 2021 season knowing the Broncos have the QB position figured out. Watson would make this one of the most enticing offenses in Fantasy.
Ben Roethlisberger says he's coming back in 2021, and the Steelers don't exactly have much flexibility when it comes to the cap, so this might be a long shot. But it sure would be fun if Watson ended up here. The Steelers offense was frustratingly conservative, because Roethlisberger didn't seem to trust his own ability to consistently push the ball down the field. That left an incredibly talented receiving corps trying to make plays on their own after the catch. Watson could help unlock Diontae Johnson as more than just a Julian Edelman clone, but he would really make me excited for Chase Claypool's breakout potential. Claypool actually got plenty of deep targets -- 31, tied for third in the NFL -- but he and Roethlisberger connected on just nine of them. Claypool is 6-foot-4 and runs a 4.42 40-yard dash, and he could make a Will Fuller-esque impact playing with Watson. I would love this one, even if it's pretty unlikely.
It might not make a ton of sense to want Watson to end up with such a run-heavy team, but we've seen Watson be an elite Fantasy option even on a run-heavy team, because he's so efficient and because he's such an effective runner. San Francisco's creative running game might make him an even better player with the ball in his hands, which is exciting, but it's also fun to imagine what Watson could do with a receiving corps as talented as this one. Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are both elite after the catch, while Brandon Aiyuk has the skill set to do it all. Jimmy Garoppolo is fine -- and, clearly a step up from the backups they had to run out there for much of 2020 -- but Watson would take this offense to an entirely different level. Three 1,000-yard receivers wouldn't be out of the question with this kind of QB upgrade.
This one is less about what it might mean for Watson than what it might mean for the offense as a whole. Washington is still building up its group of playmakers, but a core of Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson
and Logan Thomas is a pretty good place to start. Expect this team to make some more additions, but Watson would immediately raise the ceiling of all three of those guys. McLaurin and Gibson are already pretty close to being top-12 options at their positions in my rankings, while Thomas is a top-five tight end, but I could see all three moving close to the elite tier with this kind of upgrade at QB. Washington has the cap flexibility to make it happen, and this offense could really surprise if it happened.
Wait, doesn't this one fit into the same category as New Orleans? Sort of, but Christian McCaffrey's
value isn't as dependent on receiving as Kamara, so he's got a bit of a wider margin for error in that respect. And I would love to see what Watson could do with this receiving corps. D.J. Moore is, in my opinion, among the handful of most talented receivers in the NFL, and could be in line for a Stefon Diggs-esque leap if he gets the opportunity. Like Diggs, he's already proven he can thrive in different ways, emerging as a dangerous deep weapon in 2020, just as Diggs did in his final season in Minnesota. Teddy Bridgewater is fine, but that's just it; he's just fine, and we saw the limitations of that at times in 2020, especially in the deep passing game. Bridgewater was at least willing to pull the trigger, but he struggled with accuracy down the field in a way we never see from Watson. Even if Curtis Samuel doesn't return as a free agent, this is a solid receiving corps between Moore, McCaffrey, and Robby Anderson, and as in some of the other locations, Watson could make this one of the best offenses in the league.
You'll notice I didn't include some of the teams Watson has been linked to in some reporting, like the Dolphins and Jets. Neither situation would be awful -- the Jets actually have an OK receiving corps, while the Dolphins have a bevy of assets with which to find help even after a hypothetical Watson trade -- but they just aren't at the top of my list. There aren't more than four or five offenses in the NFL that wouldn't be improved by the addition of Watson, but Miami and New York are both still works in progress. That doesn't mean I wouldn't be excited if he ended up there, of course.
On Thursday's episode of Fantasy Football Today -- make sure you subscribe at Apple or Spotify and leave a review! -- Heath Cummings and I broke down the very early version of our projections for 2021, mostly centered around how we think the elite quarterbacks are going to shake out. It was a fascinating conversation, and I want to highlight a few key points that we made along the way that I think can help make you a better Fantasy player.
1. The margins are very thin at the top
In six point-per-pass-TD leagues, the top three quarterbacks were separated by just one Fantasy point per game; No. 3 through 8 were within two points of each other, and No. 11 was just 1.5 points removed from No. 8. There was a drop-off after that, and my projections look pretty similar: Patrick Mahomes is 1.3 points ahead of No. 2, but then No. 2 and No. 7 are separated by 1.1 points and No. 11 is just one point shy of them. There are a few clear tiers at the position, with Mahomes by himself at the top and some combination of Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Dak Prescott in the next tier.
What that means is, you probably don't want to reach, but you don't want to wait too long. There's obviously a lot of time between now and the start of the season, and free agency, trades, the draft and coaching changes will impact how we view things, but right now, I would say my goal is to end up with one of the top eight at the position. If Taysom Hill and Jalen Hurts end up starting, I might be comfortable waiting just a little bit longer, but I definitely don't want to be the last person to draft a quarterback this season, a strategy I've been perfectly with in the past.
2. Running is a significant differentiator
I have nine quarterbacks projected to rush for at least 20 yards per game, and Cam Newton and Daniel Jones are the only ones not inside the top 10 at the position. Lamar Jackson is the projected leader, but Hill, Hurts and Kyler Murray are all projected for 600-plus and at least five touchdowns, and that's just such an edge. It's how Jackson is a top-five QB despite being projected for just 3,153 yards and 27 touchdowns -- and Heath has him as his No. 2 QB.
My No. 2 QB? It's Murray, who might be the closest thing the league has to Jackson as a rusher at the position, and he might have matched Jackson yard for yard if not for a late shoulder injury -- he was on pace for 1,074 and an absurd 18 rushing touchdowns in the first nine games of the season. Why is he No. 2 overall, though? Because I expect him to be a much more productive passer than Jackson. He nearly got to 4,000 yards in his second season with 26 touchdowns, and was on pace for 30-plus scores before that injury. Murray is still a work in progress as a passer, but his team trusts him more to put the ball in the air, while still leaning on him as a rusher. If he gives you 80% of what Jackson does as a runner but throws for 1,000 yards more, the math just works out in his favor.
That's also why I'm so high on Hill and Hurts, and why I'm hoping they'll end up their team's starter. Hill would make me a little nervous about trusting the Saints skill players, but I think he's a top-10 QB if he starts.
3. There's a lot we simply don't know yet
This is obvious, with a whole offseason left, but I'll just highlight one situation to make this point: Atlanta. We know, more or less, who the principals in the offense will be: Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones and Hayden Hurst. The Falcons presumably will bring in a running back to compete with Ito Smith for carries, but the stars are obviously in the passing game. That brings up an obvious question: How will that mesh with new coach Arthur Smith?
Smith was the architect of the Titans offense of the past few seasons, and they ran the ball nearly half the time -- they had just 933 pass attempts combined in 2019 and 2020, including just 485 last season despite a pretty bad defense. The Falcons, on the other hand, have thrown 1,312 passes over the past two seasons. That pass volume is why Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones can both be elite Fantasy wide receivers, but Smith's presence raises some real questions -- and there was some real disagreement between Heath and I about it.
Heath skewed his projections more toward Smith's side, projecting Ryan for around 525 pass attempts. That's not an unprecedented number -- Ryan threw just 529 passes in 2017 -- but it would represent a significant decrease. And I'm not quite willing to buy into that because I still have Ryan projected for over 600 attempts -- and Ridley and Jones as top-10 Fantasy WR as a result. It's possible Smith does lead to a significant decrease in pass volume but the Falcons are simply more efficient to make up for it, But if they really do start to lean on the run more in a significant way, Ridley and Jones could be pretty disappointing picks in 2020.
We'll probably get a better sense of what they want to do after free agency and the draft -- if they add a running back in the early rounds, expect a decrease in pass volume. But for now, I'm going with Smith mostly keeping a similar approach. That brings me to one final point about projections ...
4. Volume is king -- but it is incredibly difficult to project
OK, volume isn't everything, but it's the biggest piece of the puzzle when trying to figure out Fantasy value. A lot goes into projecting volume beyond just past tendencies or stated desires. A team might want to lean heavily on the run, but if they fall behind in every game, it might not matter what they want to do. Just check out the Vikings pass attempts over the past three seasons along with their points allowed:
- 2020: 516 attempts, 29th in points allowed
- 2019: 466 attempts, 5th in points allowed
- 2018: 606 attempts, 9th in points allowed
There was a clear schematic change from 2018 to 2019, and that carried over to 2020, but they threw the ball 50 times more because Kirk Cousins turned the ball over more and their defense couldn't slow anyone down. In situations where the game was within seven points either way, the Vikings had the third-lowest pass rate in the NFL at 50%; when they were down by eight or more, their pass rate jumped to 68%. You could project some decline in quality of defense for the Vikings, but dropping from one of the best to one of the worst? That was harder to see coming.
And that was hardly the most significant change in the NFL, despite the significant change in context. Five teams ran the ball at least 100 times more in 2020 than they did in 2019: the Raiders, Patriots, Browns, Rams and Saints. It wasn't hard to see that coming from the Patriots, who replaced Tom Brady with Cam Newton, and the Browns hired Kevin Stefanski seemingly with the sole intention of running the ball more. The changes for the Raiders and Saints were harder to see coming because there weren't any significant personnel changes that precipitated them.
On the other end of the spectrum, Pittsburgh, Washington, Miami, San Francisco and Buffalo all threw at least 83 more passes than the previous season. The 49ers defense predictably regressed, while Washington's incredibly low play volume (only 885 total in 2019) meant both their run and pass volume increased. And it's not surprising that the Steelers would throw the ball more with Ben Roethlisberger healthy, but he matched his second-highest pass total as a 36-year-old coming back from a serious elbow injury. That was harder to see coming. Meanwhile, the Bills just abruptly changed their offensive philosophy overnight, while the Dolphins became a more pass-happy offense despite being in more competitive games, the opposite of what you'd expect.
This is all to say, projecting this stuff is hard, and you should never be too married to projections, or rankings. It's better to think about a lot of this stuff in terms of potential ranges of outcomes, and those ranges are probably a lot wider than you think. Identifying players who have ways of succeeding no matter where their team falls on that range of outcomes is a key to Fantasy success.
We'll spend a lot more time talking about that over the course of the offseason, updating our projections for roster changes and other relevant news, and we'll have those available for you to see at some point later in the offseason, so keep an eye out for that.