The Houston Texans shook up the NFL landscape at the start of 2020 free agency by essentially trading an All-Pro wide receiver in his prime for a battered 28-year-old running back, leaving many to wonder how in the world coach Bill O'Brien has been allowed to remain the team's general manager -- and if O'Brien cares at all to build around star quarterback Deshaun Watson.
It's now apparent that Watson himself isn't immune to the questions. The 24-year-old signal-caller New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who just happens to be in need of a new quarterback now that Tom Brady's packed his bags for Florida.on Monday about a murky future and "iconic duos" being ripped apart, then sent speculation into hyper-drive by liking another user's tweet about deserving "better" -- a tweet not-so-subtly featuring a picture of
Watson continued to, as he continues to -- inadvertently or not -- add fuel to the increasing rumors regarding his future in Houston.
With all that in mind, we figured it appropriate to explore the possibility -- far-fetched or not -- of Watson becoming the latest big name to be exported from Houston:
Is a Deshaun Watson trade likely?
Absolutely not. Let's get that out of the way first. No matter how bizarre some of O'Brien's decisions have been, this is the QB we're talking about -- and a young, Pro Bowl, former first-round pick at that. Watson's also under team control for at least another two years, assuming the Texans exercise his fifth-year option for 2021. A future franchise tag could keep him locked in even longer. Athletes embracing trade speculation is also pretty common. Heck, as we speak, Yannick Ngakoue won't stop toying with Philadelphia Eagles fans on social media, but all indications are that the Jacksonville Jaguars aren't even close to dealing him.
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Then why would the Texans do it?
Counter-question: Have you seen how the Texans operate? We can't really overstate how absurd it was for O'Brien to dump DeAndre Hopkins, even if it meant saving money down the road. You simply don't go out of your way to remove a 27-year-old four-time Pro Bowl wideout from your lineup. Paying David Johnson and Randall Cobb for multiple seasons as the "replacement" offensive weapons sounds more like a tanking strategy than anything else. (And that says nothing of the Texans' polarizing moves of 2019, like trading a mid-round pick for Duke Johnson, or accepting one for Jadeveon Clowney.) Either O'Brien is legitimately way in over his head, he's deliberately masterminding a tank job a la Jon Gruden pre-Las Vegas, or both. We can call a Deshaun Watson trade unlikely, but how in the world could we rule it out entirely at this point?
Why would the Patriots do it?
This one goes without saying. Not only does New England desperately need some QB juice now that Brady has closed the door on a 20-year Patriots career, and not only are the Pats apparently not in love with any of the current veteran options, but they've got a direct line to the Texans' GM office thanks to O'Brien's history with Belichick. New England has a thing for acquiring ex-division rivals, and they'd have no trouble reconnecting with their old flames if it meant getting their hands on one of the game's top young QBs. It's not like the two sides haven't talked lately, either; they reportedly just got done.
What would it cost the Patriots?
This is the trickiest part of all, because a.) Watson is the type of young, proven, franchise-caliber QB that simply does not get dealt away, and b.) the Texans do not operate like a normal front office.
You'd think Houston would demand a massive load of picks, seeing as the Texans only own two selections in the first three rounds this year. But as we've seen time and time again, they (or at least O'Brien) also don't seem to have a clear grasp on whether they're rebuilding or shooting for instant success. Acquiring a young left tackle in Laremy Tunsil and trading away Clowney smells like a long-term move. Giving up picks and players for Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde and David Johnson, meanwhile, smells like ... well, garbage, but ... trying to plug holes immediately. Who's to say what they're doing?
Still, if you're talking about a franchise QB, you're probably talking at least multiple first-rounders in return.
The biggest holdup for New England might not even be trade compensation, but rather Watson's inevitable future contract. Asked about the Texans QB's long-term value, one NFL source assured CBS Sports that Watson is more than a $100 million investment: "If Patrick Mahomes gets $250 million with $150 million guaranteed," the source said, "Watson gets $200 million with $130 million guaranteed," meaning the Pats could ultimately be on the hook for an average annual salary of between $40 and $50 million.
And yet even that's not impossible to reconcile. The Pats are tight against the salary cap in 2020, but as sure as they kept Brady on an under-market deal for two decades, they could make it work. In 2021, for instance, they're projected to be among the top 10 teams in terms of cap space. (And it could get better. For example, just by allowing Mohamed Sanu (32), Dont'a Hightower (31) and Jason McCourty (34) to come off the books, they'd save more than $20 million. The following year, they could let Julian Edelman (who'll be 36) and Devin McCourty (35) depart and save almost another $20 million.) It also stands to reason that Watson might give New England even a slight discount knowing that he'd be able to escape O'Brien's lair to play for a proven winner.
"Bill Belichick is shrewd, so a Watson extension would be likely," says CBS Sports contributor Joel Corry, a former agent and contract expert. "(But) New England doesn't make a habit of paying top dollar, so resetting the QB market like Watson would presumably want (well north of Russell Wilson's $35 million per year and more than Jared Goff's $110M in total guarantees) would be another stumbling block. The only time Tom Brady signed a contract making him the league's highest paid player was with his 2010 extension at $18 million per year. Such a move is whole lot easier said than done."
All that being said, here's a totally speculative but not entirely unreasonable suggestion for trade terms:
Patriots receive: QB Deshaun Watson, 2021 sixth-round pick
Texans receive: 2020 first-round pick, 2021 first-round pick, 2021 third-round pick, 2021 fourth-round pick, 2022 second-round pick, OG Joe Thuney
Houston would recoup both first-round picks it traded away from 2020-2021, as well as three Day Two picks for 2021-2022, when they'd possibly be targeting their next QB of the future. Thuney, meanwhile, would bolster the interior of the line for O'Brien's staple of RBs, and his 2020 franchise tag would ensure Houston is in control of his future. The Patriots, on the other hand, would get a QB young enough to be a draft prospect for the likely cost of moving up to take one of this year's best prospects.
"Trade compensation would have to be a lot more than Khalil Mack, Jalen Ramsey and Laremy Tunsil went for since Deshaun Watson is a quarterback," says Corry. "The Texans should want a minimum of three fairly early first-round picks (and probably more), but maximizing trade value hasn't proven to be Bill O'Brien's strong suit."
What would the Texans do at QB?
This one goes way down the hypothetical lane, but in the event O'Brien actually deals Watson, either by his own accord or after the QB hints/demands for a move elsewhere, he'd have any number of routes to take in what would presumably be a full-on rebuild. O'Brien has often preferred more traditional pocket passers over the years, so veterans like Andy Dalton or Joe Flacco could conceivably be on the radar as stopgap starters. Ditto for current backup A.J. McCarron. Then, in either 2020 or 2021, he could plant his flag on a new face of the franchise through the draft.
That is, of course, assuming O'Brien is still running the show by then. You can be the judge of whether that's likely considering we're exploring this entire scenario in the first place.