The rumor mill has been circulating since the offseason about Texans QB Deshaun Watson and the rumor mill is heating up again this time with multiple people indicating that the Dolphins and Panthers are heavily involved in discussion to bring in Watson. Any trade for Watson is complicated because of Watson’s off field legal issues where he has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, yet the NFL has refused to act on it and instead silently watching as the Texans simply pulled Watson from the game day roster this season.
There have been numerous investigations, most notably by Jenny Vrentas of SI, that certainly deemed the accusations as credible, but the “bury your head in the sand approach” is one that the NFL has taken many times before in situations such as this. Houston made it clear that they were not playing Watson this year and while the CBA prohibits prolonged deactivation for conduct nobody really challenged it in part I would assume because Watson stated he no longer wanted to play for the Texans. This has given the NFL cover in the situation as it has become an “out of sight, out of mind” scenario. That would immediately change with a trade where it would be expected that Watson would be returned to the active roster and inserted as the starter.
This is the first level of complications for any team acquiring him. The league can place Watson on the exempt list- essentially a deactivation with pay- while the NFL conducts a more thorough investigation. That would put Watson on the shelf though he would have the right to appeal it and I would think that the union would try to argue that the de-facto deactivation in Houston should be looked at as already being placed on exempt to give the NFL more time to sort this out. So a team would probably need some assurance that the NFL would not immediately do this right after a trade was executed. The exempt list and a possible suspension will also linger for some time.
I do think that one of the concerns the NFL has here is that time on the exempt list would also count toward a suspension. It would look incredibly bad for the NFL to suspend Watson only to have a “time served” penalty. Ultimately, I think they are just looking to run out the clock and hope that the cases are all settled or that they go into the criminal courts where it becomes easier to justify a suspension.
All of this makes compensation very tricky. The Texans have long been said to want a minimum of three first round picks for Watson. If there was no off field concerns that would be very reasonable. Watson is young and under contract until 2025 and the Texans have already paid off a good portion of his $39 million per year contract. A team that trades for him will have Watson at $34 million per year for the next four seasons while only having to pay him about $6.4 million this season as an added benefit.
My assumption would be that any trade made would be contingent on Watson’s status on the 90 man roster in the prior year. For example the Texans would receive a 2022 1st round pick if he is on the 90 man roster for at least 9 games this season, and they would receive a 2023 1st round pick if he is on the 90 man roster for at least 13 games in 2022, and so on. There might have to language regarding why he is not on the 90 man or have a number of games that would also allow for any other type of NFL related suspensions (i.e. PEDs) to not impact compensation.
Watson does have a no trade which he would have to waive in order to be traded. Miami is supposedly where he would like to play, but coaches and front office executives can be very convincing if they can make a pitch to a player so I would not discount another team.
Miami rushing into a trade this season would seem to be pointless as there would be no benefit to acquiring him this season since they are sitting at 1-6 and look like one of the worst teams in the NFL along with the Lions, Jaguars, and Jets. So admittedly it seemed strange after a loss to the Jaguars that they felt the urge to make this move. Unless they feel they are getting Watson on the cheap and can get the NFL to just dole out whatever punishment they may have this year I am not sure I see the rush to trade now versus March when they should have more clarity on the situation, though I guess this also gives them a big jump on planning for 2022.
Miami leads the NFL in projected cap space for 2022 and while adding Watson would bring that number down significantly they could easily restructure the contract to jump right back into the top tier. Watson would likely be a big selling point in free agency for Miami and one they would need since they would have to be free agent dependent over the next year or two to make up for the loss of draft selections that would occur if they traded for Watson.
Miami has arguably been the most disappointing team in the NFL this year and have probably determined that 2nd year QB Tua Tagovailoa doesn’t have a high ceiling. He has been banged up in his first two years and is all over the place at times. He reminds me of the type of player that can put up a number of yards in a game and then just have two or three complete meltdown plays that cost a team far more than they gain from the times he is productive. I would assume they feel they could package Tua in a separate trade for a 2nd round pick either at the deadline or next March.
Miami intentionally went into a rebuild a few years back and despite acquiring a ton of draft capital and creating cap space has simply gone sideways. They made a mistake this year in not considering a QB in the draft and instead trading away a 2022 draft pick to select Jaylen Waddle. While Waddle may be a good pro the team had far too many holes to jump around the draft the way they did this year. Miami does not have enough cap space to trade for Watson so they would have to restructure a contract or two. If you see them do that this week I would think that is a strong indication that they feel they have a trade in place for Watson.
Carolina is a different situation entirely. They desperately need a QB now and would be a competitive playoff team if Watson was on the team so unlike Miami they would benefit now from the trade. They have two good receivers already in place along with what has been a good defense that should only get better once they activate Stephon Gilmore, who they acquired from New England recently.
Carolina has been chasing a QB for two years now and has simply thrown money away at the position. They would up paying Teddy Bridgewater around $31M to start 15 games in 2020. They quickly pulled the plug on that experiment, paying $7 million of his contract to facilitate a trade to Denver.
They then turned their attention to Sam Darnold, the failed starter of the Jets. Apparently they bought into the poor reputation of the Jets staff and roster and assumed a change of scenery would do him well. They traded a 2nd, 4th, and 6th rounder for Darnold and agreed to take on his $4.78 million salary this year and guaranteed his $18.858 million salary in 2022. It turned out it was not simply just the Jets- Darnold was benched during this afternoon game for former XFL standout PJ Walker.
Watson is about the closest they could get to a sure thing on the field rather than having to continue throwing money and draft picks at subpar QBs who happen to be available. It is simply not a winning formula and this is a team that definitely could go further with decent play. Carolina has the cap space to make the trade this year while he would all but wipe out their cap room in 2022 unless they could find someone to take on Darnolds contract (the odds of that are slim and none), They could do the same restructure to get into the $25M cap space range, but they would be more tied to the current roster rather than the promise of a new roster in Miami.
Given how aggressive they have been at paying Bridgewater and Darnold and trading for Darnold, my guess would be that the Panthers would put forward the best trade package for Watson. It would probably be the better destination at least for the short term but it might require a lot of convincing to make Watson want to go there rather than Miami.
The NFL trade deadline is November 2 so teams would have about a week to finalize a deal. If I were Carolina I would want it done this week while I don’t think it matters for Miami, unless they want to move Tua at the same time.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.