You saw the report yesterday from Shaun King about Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, now a member of the media, reported that he was given information during the day contending that the Pittsburgh Steelers are Watson’s preferred destination in a trade, and that if his day in court tomorrow went well, he was expected to be traded fairly soon after that.
What we’re not here to do is to try to vouch for the validity of that report. It should be pointed out that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Gerry Dulac subsequent to that report communicated that the Steelers “ARE NOT interested in signing DeShaun Watson”, who of course would have to be acquired via trade.
What we want to do here is gauge the plausibility of the very idea in the first place, and that starts with examining their situation. Obviously, they are in a position right now in which they are exploring every avenue to pursue their next franchise quarterback, not simply their next starter, and they’ve implicitly acknowledged that that’s probably not Mason Rudolph.
Head coach Mike Tomlin has been beating the ‘quarterback mobility’ drum for the past year. And Watson has been trying to get traded for the past year, as well. He reportedly asked for a trade from Houston prior to the accusations of his repeated misconduct with message therapists surfaced, tied to the same organization dysfunction that had franchise mainstay J.J. Watt running out of the city last offseason.
Watson doesn’t want to be in Houston anymore. At the very least, Houston doesn’t want his cap hit on the books any longer. They were able to bide their time through the 2021 season because there was no new business to tend to. But Watson is a $35 million anchor around their neck right now, which is the base salary he is owed for 2022. They currently have a little over $18 million in cap space.
Additionally, on March 22, the $20 million in base salary and $17 million signing bonus for the 2023 season on Watson’s contract will become fully vested, which is to say, it would become fully guaranteed. While the trading team would still inherit that $37 million, and those totals could still be restructured, it is just another factor likely motivating the Texans into action, as, if they do intend to move him, they would likely want that done beforehand.
Earlier today, Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported via Twitter that it is believed there are “several” teams that are willing to move forward with a trade for Watson depending the result of tomorrow’s court appearance. If criminal charges are dropped, there are multiple teams willing to make a deal even if civil cases remain. He added that the Miami Dolphins were the outlier team last season in regards to wanting to have Watson’s civil cases fully resolved before moving forward with a trade; in other words, other teams were willing to inherit active civil cases.
It is believed several NFL teams would be willing to move forward with a possible trade with the Texans for Deshaun Watson if the grand jury decides Friday against criminal charges. Interested teams would have to be comfortable with the possibility of an eventual NFL suspension.
— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) March 10, 2022
It is believed that the Dolphins were the outlier in wanting the civil lawsuits resolved before they would have proceeded with a potential trade for Deshaun Watson last season. For some NFL teams currently interested, the issue for a trade seems to be the criminal proceedings.
— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) March 10, 2022
The plausibility of Watson playing quarterback for the Texans ever again remains low. The odds of him playing somewhere in 2022, barring a year-long suspension, I believe are high. But with each passing day, their leverage decreases. There were reports during the season last year that they turned down trade offers that were not robust enough for their tastes, even among teams who were willing to deal without a resolution in Watson’s legal situation. They can’t afford to wait anymore. Deadlines spur creative resolutions. And bargaining and compromise.
Now back to Pittsburgh. We have Mike Tomlin in an unprecedented situation, which is, not having a franchise quarterback. And we have one of the most talented young quarterbacks in football theoretically available who fits what he wants almost to a T. We have general manager Kevin Colbert on his way out, and he reportedly wants to do everything he can to make sure to leave the organization in good hands at the quarterback position. Everybody who has spoken has left the trade option very much on the table.
There were even reports recently from Mike Florio that they were at least engaging in dialogue with Aaron Rodgers’ representatives about a possible trade, which obviously did not materialize, and they are one of the most cited destinations for trade candidate Jimmy Garoppolo. Couple that with reports that Tomlin doesn’t want to ‘start over’ with a rookie, and you have a lot of establishing pieces building a case for the Steelers having the motivation to make the move. Now, is that something that they can realistically do?
The first thing that they need in order to make such a move is to clear cap space. They can get to the requisite number of $35 million simply by restructuring Cameron Heyward’s contract in the coming days, rolling his due $4.5 million roster bonus and all but the minimum of his $6.5 million base salary into a signing bonus.
After getting Watson’s cap number on the books, they would then look to immediately restructure his deal and dramatically lower his cap hit down from $35 million, with the ability to clear up about $25 million in the process—not far from where they started.
The next question is, do they have the resources that it would take to trade him? Well, possibly. Here’s the thing. If Pittsburgh is Watson’s “preferred destination”, he can help the Steelers land him, if they genuinely want him.
He has a no-trade clause in his contract, and even though he wants to be traded, he can manipulate his leverage to try to land in the destination that he wants. Houston having that anchor around them limits their ability to ask for top dollar. Russell Wilson was recently dealt for two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and three notable players.
But Russell Wilson didn’t have a motivated seller on the eve of free agency. He doesn’t have Watson’s highly concerning legal and moral baggage behind him. The clock is up for the Texans to make a decision about him if they want to be able to function at maximum efficiency in free agency, and let’s just say their roster needs a lot of work.
Realistically, there can’t be more than a small handful of teams who are not only willing but functionally able to trade for Watson at this time. The Steelers at least are functionally able to do so. Are they willing? We do not know. We don’t even know if they have any interest, let alone willingness.
But one can foresee the scenario at which they can get a better trade deal than might be expected for Watson’s talents, given the circumstances. As mentioned, the Texans are on the clock, and surely ready to move on. If he invokes his no-trade clause to veto one of very few potential suitors, and they want his $35 million gone, they could settle for a lesser deal. Say, two first-round picks, a mid-round draft pick, perhaps a third, and a notable player like a Chase Claypool. That’s a price more than worth the man on the field. The man off the field is another story.
The Steelers have a culture that would be strong enough to weather the inevitable storm that would come from signing a player like Watson who has his off-field background. And needless to say, all of this rests under the assumption that he can get himself legally cleared—which doesn’t bar him from being suspended by the NFL, as Pittsburgh well remembers, given Roethlisberger’s own suspension in 2010.
The question is, would they be willing to go down that road? I genuinely don’t know. I am not advocating for it. But the reality is, there is not a single thing that they can do, as an organization, to better their franchise for the foreseeable future on the field than to trade for the quarterback play of Deshaun Watson in the coming days.
The only reason that he is a tradeable commodity in spite of his legal concerns is the fact that he is just that good a talent. If the Steelers were to acquire him, they would be Super Bowl contenders in 2022. Period. Full stop. And they would be contenders again for years to come. They would have their franchise quarterback.
Did I mention that he’s 26 years old? He made the Pro Bowl in every year that he was the primary starter, between 2018 and 2020. He went 1060-for-1544 (68.7%) for 12,840 yards with 85 touchdowns to just 28 interceptions and a 104.7 quarterback rating during that span.
That was while playing behind a shaky offensive line that allowed him to be sacked 155 times. During that time, he also rushed for 1,408 yards with 15 touchdowns with his legs, and the play-making ability as a passer that his mobility can create cannot be quantified in traditional statistics.
On the field, the Steelers trading for Watson would be an amazing feat that is worth whatever the cost, and they would have every reason to want to and be willing to do it. They have the resources to make it happen. They can clear the requisite cap space and make the subsequent moves to continue to do business.
If the story ended there, great. It doesn’t, of course. He has to be legally cleared first, at a minimum. They have to be willing to take on his baggage, even after he’s cleared. But for the right price, there is a plausible scenario in which their theoretical interest in Watson would not only make sense, but would be workable.