It's been a rocky couple of weeks for the Houston Texans and their evolving situation with quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Coming off a career season that was waylaid by Houston's 4-12 record, Watson was "extremely unhappy" (per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport) that the organization failed to involve him in the process that led to the hiring of general manager Nick Caserio, after owner Cal McNair promising Watson would play a role in the decision. While McNair has since said he wants Watson to participate in the search for a new head coach, speculation about Watson's potential exit from Houston has arisen, with other teams calling the Texans to gauge Watson's availability.
It takes a long time to earn someone's trust and half a second to lose it. The fact that the fourth-year pro has been indicating his potential dissatisfaction on Twitter (including via a since-deleted post saying "some things never change" after Caserio was hired) suggests to me that Watson has been frustrated before; it's not likely he'd take to social media after one incident.
Houston might be attempting to heal this rift by interviewing Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, whom Watson has reportedly vouched for and expressed interest in, for the head-coach position. Aside from my personal opinion that Bieniemy would be a great hire for Houston, this might be the only move that would get Watson back on good terms. Well, that and re-signing wide receiver Will Fuller. I don't think Watson wants a lot -- he probably just wants the organization to follow through on what it has told him: that his opinion matters, and that he'll be part of the process.
Is it too late to mend this relationship? Maybe. I say this because I am one of the few people who knows what it's like to be in Watson's shoes. Really -- I've been in his exact situation as the former franchise quarterback of the Texans.
I was with the team for five seasons after being selected with the first overall pick in the 2002 NFL Draft. Given that the Texans were a new expansion team at the time, I knew there would be a learning curve for everyone, myself included. And there was. There were definitely some great moments during those five seasons, but we never even reached .500 in any of those years. Houston's late owner, Bob McNair, wanted nothing more than to bring a championship to Houston, and I believe his son Cal feels the same. One afternoon after my rookie season, Bob McNair asked me what he could do to make things better. One of the things I mentioned in that meeting was to have a place where guys could hang out and spend some time together. The next thing I knew, a huge facility where we could hang out, build chemistry, play games and study was being built.
During the recent Bill O'Brien era, decisions were made that often gave me and many others pause, including the trade that shipped tackle Duane Brown to Seattle back in 2017 and the trade last offseason that sent DeAndre Hopkins, one of the best wide receivers in franchise history, to Arizona -- a trade Watson learned about on Twitter, just like Caserio's hiring. I believe every move was made in the best interest of the football team, but it doesn't feel that way coming off a four-win season. Just listen to J.J. Watt, the franchise's widely respected leader for the better part of the last decade. The comments he made to Watson after the team's final regular-season game were so telling -- maybe the most telling comment he's made during his career.
"I'm sorry," Watt said. "We wasted one of your years."
He's right. As I wrote above, Watson had his best campaign to date, with career highs in touchdowns (33) and completion percentage (70.2), and he led the league with 4,823 passing yards and 8.9 yards per attempt.
Andre Johnson also recently went to bat for Watson, and I can respect Johnson's opinion, because I know how rarely the former receiver -- who is the only member in the team's Ring of Honor aside from Bob McNair -- vocalized his thoughts when we played together. He wasn't even someone who would say something during a game -- instead, I would learn about whatever he wanted to point out while watching film the next day. So I feel like there is something drastically wrong if the former wide receiver is publicly making his feelings known.
So what will happen with Watson next? It's worth noting that no one in Houston, including Cal McNair, has said the team would trade Watson, and the quarterback has yet to officially request a trade. And while there are plenty of suitors who would go to the ends of the Earth for Watson, we also must note that the quarterback must want to play for the potential trading partner, due to the no-trade clause in his contract.
So several things must fall into place before Watson dons another team's colors. But let's set reality aside for now and go through some juicy -- and purely speculative -- potential trade options, should Watson and the team end up parting ways.
Here are my top four fits and landing spots for the quarterback:
Watson in the Bay Area would be a home run. Kyle Shanahan has developed his scheme since going to San Francisco with more bootlegs, zone runs, QB-designed runs and RPOs, and knowing this, I can't think of a better fit. A dual-threat signal-caller with Watson's ability is what this improved offense has been missing. They have a group of good, young receivers (Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne), a premier tight end (George Kittle) and an unbelievable run game that would be that much better with Watson. What makes this pairing feasible is the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo's contract is easy to move on from, as the 49ers would only take a $2.8 million dead-money hit if they released him, saving $24 million against the cap. I would pencil Watson's 49ers into the NFC Championship Game every year.
This feels like a clear landing spot for Watson, considering the Patriots' cap space ($57.3 million, per Over the Cap) and an opening at the quarterback position. They shouldn't want to be in the same situation they were in last year when they signed their eventual starting quarterback in late June. With Cam Newton, whose playing style is nearly opposite of Tom Brady's, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was forced to dip his toes into life with a mobile quarterback, and though I don't think the offense was nearly as efficient as he'd hoped, I do think McDaniels liked the challenge and options that opened up with Newton on the field. The Patriots know what Watson is capable of; in fact, he's given Bill Belichick plenty of reasons for never wanting to play against him in the AFC again. Since 2019, Watson has sliced and diced Belichick's defense for six total touchdowns, zero giveaways, a 74.2 completion percentage and 129.6 passer rating.
The Patriots should do everything in their power to get Watson if he becomes available. I'd send their 15th overall pick with another player -- and honestly, whatever else it'll take -- to acquire him. Even that feels like it'd be a steal. The last time the Patriots had an elite quarterback, they dominated the division, conference and entire league. This would re-start the Patriots' engine and allow them to once again compete every year -- at least, until Belichick decides to walk away.
It certainly feels like the Bears' chances of retaining Allen Robinson, who's set to become a free agent, grow slimmer by the day. And while Robinson may want a fresh start, the Bears need to do everything in their power to keep the stud receiver in Chicago. Trading for a player like Watson could be the answer. The Bears made the playoffs this season with an uninspiring offense (ranked 26th overall) that was also without a viable quarterback. Plug Watson into this team, and it immediately gets a whole lot better. The Bears would likely get maximum production from Robinson, presuming he resigned to play with Watson, and the rest of their receiving corps; he'd also make the rushing attack a bigger threat, which would provide the defense a break. The Bears wouldn't be quite as dynamic or intricate as Kansas City, but Matt Nagy's system and his ability as a play-caller (though his performance on that front was a bit iffy in 2020) makes this a great scheme fit for the quarterback.
If I like Watson in San Francisco, then the Jets also make sense as a landing spot, with new head coach Robert Saleh bringing Mike LaFleur with him as New York's new offensive coordinator. From the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, LaFleur's system would highlight Watson's strengths as a dual-threat quarterback. The Jets are in rebuild mode, and hiring Saleh was a great first step. Saleh and I spent two seasons (2005-06) together in Houston, and his passion and energy was contagious. At the time he was a defensive intern and quality control coach, so naturally, he wasn't often around the quarterbacks room. But he was a guy who motivated me to stay longer and work harder because he demanded the best, even in the early stages of his career. He'll have the Jets turned around in no time. Bringing in Watson would certainly provide a boost -- no disrespect to Sam Darnold, who would benefit from a fresh start elsewhere -- and the Jets also boast plenty of cap room to add more talent around him.