Deshaun Watson wants out of Houston: That much is clear. ESPN’s Adam Shefter reported as much last month, and despite the Texans’ apparent plans to keep Watson anyway, he appears steadfast in his demand to be traded or released. This comes just four months after Watson signed a 4-year contract extension worth up to $156 million, and weeks after Watson wrapped up the best statistical year of his career, putting up career highs in passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. The Texans went 4-12, however, and Watson was reportedly unhappy with the hiring process for the team’s new head coach Nick Caserio, and the fact that his suggestions to fill the team’s general manager vacancy were ignored. Now, both parties are at an impasse, as a new era of increased player movement is underway in the NFL, and with situations like Watson’s, an era of player empowerment rivaling that of the NBA may be underway as well.
In a sport with guaranteed contracts like the NBA, players will always wield a certain amount of power over organizations, because (generally speaking) the lone requirement for the player to earn their money is showing up. The NFL has been able to circumvent this for years with their non-guaranteed deals, where even the most talented and powerful players were only able to guarantee portions of the contracts, often signing bonuses that could be prorated and spread out across multiple seasons in order to lessen the damage to the salary cap should things go awry.
That’s where Watson stands, as his new extension isn’t even set to start until after the forthcoming 2021 season, and he’s only due $15.94 million next year. Of that money, $5.4 million is a portion of a signing bonus due to him by the Texans, so if a team does acquire Watson they’d only be on the hook for $10.54 million this season, a pittance for a 25-year-old franchise quarterback coming off a career year despite less than ideal circumstances. All of this makes Watson the most tradeable asset in football right now. That’s quite the chip for a franchise with no first or second round picks, sending the No. 3 and No. 36 overall picks to the Miami Dolphins in a trade for left tackle Laremy Tunsil in 2019.
For the Texans, with JJ Watt officially released last week, ending his 10-year tenure with the franchise, Watson is the lone face of their franchise going forward.,. But the path towards improvement appears murky at best and they’re currently $16 million over the cap, meaning they need to shed their roster rather than add to it. And going forward, when Watson’s salary jumps from less than $16 million this coming season to a fully guaranteed $35 million in 2022, the salary cap situation will get even tighter. So, as odd as it sounds, it behooves the Texans to swallow their pride and give in to Watson’s trade demand, open up shop and see if there’s a monster deal out there to be had.
In trading Watson, the Texans will essentially set the market for franchise quarterbacks entering their prime. Matt Stafford was the most prolific Detroit Lions quarterback in franchise history, and even at 33 years old, he was able to net the team two first round picks, a third round pick and a starter-level quarterback when he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago. In acquiring Watson, a team will get a younger, more marketable superstar under team control until 2025, whereas Stafford is only under contract for the Rams until the end of the 2022 season. Watson is the most valuable commodity in football right now, and any deal to acquire him will likely make the haul for Stafford seem like chump change.
So, armed with a no-trade clause and suitors across the league, Watson seems in prime position to get his wish. It makes sense, as painful as it would be, for the Texans to build their future off the cachet of assets they’d acquire in a Watson trade, even though that likely means they’d be off to search for another franchise quarterback, the rarest commodity in sports.
For the NFL, it seems the league itself has entered a new era, rivaling the player movement and empowerment seen in the NBA. There, James Harden was able to politely leverage his power as a superstar to be shipped out of town despite three more seasons under contract. The Rockets received up to seven years of draft capital, forced to scramble to find the best deal they could for their disgruntled star. As more stars grow more frustrated in each league, the Houston duo won’t be the last to leverage all-time talent into a more appealing situation. If nothing else, Watson and Harden are showing their peers what is possible.