Over the weekend, two common themes emerged about Houston’s near future. One: The Texans have one untouchable player, Watson, as of now. Two: Houston is not only not interested in trading Watson but also not interested in listening to offers for him. At least two teams have given offers to Houston and gotten zero feedback. Like, no reaction, no “We’ll get back to you.” Nothing.
Surely rookie GM Nick Caserio is gathering said offers in a Stickie on his desktop, or in some encrypted Word file. He knows one day he might have to act on one of them. I’m told he’s categorically opposed to trading Watson, period—either in the next nine weeks before the draft (when he’d clearly get the best deal to start the Texans’ post-Watson lives) or ever. It’s easy to say that, of course, when the deadline is far away. It’s easy to say that too, when you know that trading a 25-year-old franchise quarterback is crazy, and when fresh in the memory of all Houston fans is the warm-and-fuzzy press conference just 24 weeks ago when a grateful and emotional Watson was so thrilled to sign a $156-million contract extension with the Texans.
No one knows who will fold, who will stay strong. Caserio and owner Cal McNair have never been in the eye of a storm like this one. Watson, the friendly and guileless great player, has never had to make a decision as weighty as sitting out an offseason and maybe a season.
I think Caserio is playing it right, at least for now. The message is out there: Houston’s not even listening to offers. Maybe they’re serious about sitting on Watson. But Caserio also has to be cognizant of asking 53 players he doesn’t know—perhaps prepping for the season in the same virtual and fairly impersonal world that 2020 was—to take the field in 2021 with the worst team in the league, perhaps quarterbacked by an A.J. McCarron type. The results would be disastrous and could rip the team asunder even worse than it is now. J.J. Watt’s already jumped ship. Who would be next? Who, I should say, of any value?
So if Watson continues to say he won’t play for the Texans, Caserio would be able to make his best deal in the days before the April 29 first round. Below are the best candidates, keeping in mind teams cannot trade draft picks beyond 2023 right now, and keeping in mind how draft-poor the Texans are. Houston has no first-round or second-round pick this year, and isn’t scheduled to pick till number 67 in round three.
• CAROLINA PANTHERS. I’d be surprised if the Panthers hadn’t made an offer by now, quite frankly. This is a fit in many ways. Very aggressive new owner (David Tepper), who would move mountains for a franchise QB. It’s not in the AFC, meaning Houston wouldn’t have to see Watson in the playoffs till the Super Bowl. (That would be a Belichick factor.) Because the Panthers are not flush with draft capital, I think they’d have to include a quarterback with some value and at least two very good veteran players. By the way: Cal McNair, I’m sure, would also love the fact that, if the NFL’s scheduling formula stays the same, Watson as a Panther would not play in Houston till the 2027 regular season. Cross-conference matchups happen every four years, meaning Carolina, which played at Houston in 2019, would host the Texans in 2023 and play at Houston in 2027. But that’s pretty low in the pecking order of factors in this trade. Very low.
Peter King Proposal: A 7-for-1 deal. Running back Christian McCaffrey, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, receiver Robbie Anderson and first-round and second-round picks in 2021 (eighth and 39th overall), a first-round pick in 2022 and third-round pick in 2023 in exchange for Watson. Houston might push for the inclusion of 22-year-old pass-rusher Brian Burns as a vital part of any deal, which would be a tough giveaway for coach Matt Rhule. Of course, McCaffrey would be tough too.
• NEW YORK JETS. GM Joe Douglas is a big home-grown advocate, and I believe New York would chafe at doing a mega-pick deal for Watson because too many dyed-in-the-wool scouts there believe in building the team through the draft. But so many of the ingredients are there. The Jets would be able to jettison a quarterback with some interesting value, along with the second overall pick plus a trove of draft currency.
Peter King Proposal: A 6-for-1 deal. Quarterback Sam Darnold, defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, first-round picks in 2021 (second overall) and 2022 (the higher of New York’s two first-round picks), plus second-round picks in 2021 (34th overall) and 2023 in exchange for Watson. Caserio could turn the second overall pick this year into another ransom. But I’m just skeptical that Douglas would make this move. Obviously, he’d be thrilled to get Watson. But he knows he has a crummy overall roster and denuding his looming drafts I believe is too much for him to accept. One other factor here: With Houston in some cap trouble and the Jets with a monstrous $68 million in cap space per Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap, the Texans could ask the Jets to take the guaranteed $10.5-million 2020 contract of fading edge rusher Whitney Mercilus.
• SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS. San Francisco would be okay with entering 2021 with Jimmy Garoppolo as its starter. But no matter what Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch say, they can’t be totally comfortable with it. Garoppolo has missed 23 of the last 48 regular-season games with injuries. (Tom Brady has missed 15 games due to injury in 20 seasons.) And I’ll always wonder if the 49ers have the tiniest bit of buyer’s remorse for not putting the trigger on a deal with Brady last March. We’ll know when Brady (or Lynch or Shanahan) write a book in 15 years how close that came. But if the Niners could convince Garoppolo to waive his no-trade clause, I could see San Francisco being all in here, even though the Niners clearly would have to part with some major assets, perhaps including the young nerve center of their defense. Linebacker Fred Warner is such a rising star, however, that his re-signing in San Francisco in the next 12 months might affect the franchise’s ability to keep other great young players (Nick Bosa?) in house.
Peter King Proposal: Seven-for-1. Garoppolo, linebacker Fred Warner (that really hurts), tackle Mike McGlinchey, first-round picks in 2021 (12th overall) and 2022, plus a second-round pick in 2021 and third-round pick in 2022 for Watson. It’s a lot for the Niners to pay; of all the players in all the deals I’m proposing, Warner would be the most coveted one in my book. But he’s here because he is entering the final year of his rookie contract and would want a new deal. (McGlinchey is in exact same position, too.) Houston could view them as cornerstones for the rebuild.
Or . . .
• SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS/MINNESOTA VIKINGS. This is centered on the premise that San Francisco would not want to rip apart a team and a future, and might be willing to take a lesser deal for a quarterback Shanahan has long admired. And also that Caserio, in the heart of the draft room in 2014 when the Patriots made Garoppolo a second-round pick, would want to try again with Jimmy G. It’s a wing and a prayer, but fascinating to me.
Peter King Proposal: The Vikings send quarterback Kirk Cousins to San Francisco. The Niners send Garoppolo to Houston, if, of course, he’d waive his no-trade. The Texans send Watson to Minnesota. In return: the Niners send their first-round pick in 2021 (12th overall) to Houston, and they’re out. (So San Francisco would be trading Garoppolo and a one to Houston and getting Cousins with two years left on his contract.) The Vikings would send linebacker Anthony Barr and running back Alexander Mattison plus their first-round picks in 2021 (14th overall) and 2023, and second-round picks in 2022 and 2023 in exchange for Watson. Houston’s haul: Garoppolo, two ones this year, a one in 2023, and two second-round picks.
• MIAMI DOLPHINS. You’d hear a big, loud, “We’re not trading Tua if the Dolphins weren’t at least pondering Watson.” Why wouldn’t they be? It’s extremely hard, after seeing one year of Tua Tagovailoa, to think his mega-upside would equal the 2021 Watson. It’s logical to at least look into it.
Peter King Proposal: Miami trades defensive end Christian Wilkins, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, first-round picks in 2021 (third overall) and 2023, and second-round picks in 2021 and 2022 for Watson. In essence, Miami is trading the 13th overall pick in 2019 (Wilkins) and the fifth overall pick in 2020 (Tagovailoa), plus two ones and two twos for Watson. Advantage for Miami is the deal would leave the Dolphins with first-round and second-round picks this year and their first next year while giving them a quarterback to play on equal footing with Josh Allen in the AFC East for the next decade.
• THE OTHERS: Denver does have the ninth pick plus some good young pieces (Garett Bolles?) to offer, and a quarterback with minimal value in Drew Lock, so don’t count new GM George Paton out . . . Chicago would certainly be interested, but drafting 20th this year is a big negative, with no QB other than Nick Foles to deal; the lack of significant young talent to package is a negative too . . . Washington is intriguing because of its strong young defense, but WFT might have to trade off too much of what makes it an attractive future team—Chase Young and another promising youngster—a well as its three or four very high picks. Not impossible, but a major challenge, and I bet Houston would have better offers.
I can hear many of you now: Price tag’s too steep! You’re crazy! I’m not. If Watson gets traded, it’s going to have to include a gigantic package, maybe the highest price ever paid for a player in league history. It’s justified. Twenty-five-year-old franchise quarterbacks never come on the market. But the price isn’t for everyone. It may not be for the Jets.
If I’m Caserio, calming the waters now is the best plan. Over the next two months, you want to try every way you think might work to rebuild a bridge with Watson. But if it gets to the point that you can’t by late April, that’s when the best offers will be out there. Carolina might be the best option, willing to do the most to get Watson. The Tepper factor tells me that. After the draft, if the Texans still have Watson, there’s a danger of sitting on him and having a nightmare cloud over the franchise’s head—as if there’s not already one there.