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What Would a Trade for Deshaun Watson Even Look Like?

It’s hard to see the Texans moving on from a bona fide star quarterback, no matter how disgruntled he may be. Is there any precedent in NFL history for a deal that involves a player like Watson?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week, Houston moved on from an iconic player. Unfortunately for Deshaun Watson, it wasn’t him. James Harden might have escaped his unfavorable situation with the Rockets, but Watson appears to be stuck with the Texans, at least for the time being. And as the franchise enters another offseason lacking clear direction and falling under increased scrutiny, the possibility of Watson forcing his way out continues to be a topic of NFL discussion.

When Watson inked a four-year, $160 million deal in September, it was met with plenty of praise. Watson, a former no. 12 pick, delivered the best season of his career, emerging as one of the NFL’s best signal-callers this year. The problem: Houston was still one of the league’s worst teams, accentuated by a lengthy track record of dysfunction. Watson got his money, but potentially at the expense of wasting the beginning of his prime tethered to a franchise that’s proved incapable or unwilling to maximize its potential. No matter how unlikely it seems for a team to part ways with a franchise quarterback, it’s looking more and more realistic that a divorce is in the future. On Sunday morning, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Texans are starting to sense that Watson has played his final snap with the team:

Tension between Watson and the Texans has been building since even before this season. Houston has made a habit of not including its franchise QB on franchise-altering decisions; Watson hadn’t been warned ahead of Houston’s jettisoning of DeAndre Hopkins, his no. 1 target, last offseason. Back in November, Watson met with Texans CEO Cal McNair to address that. During the meeting, McNair reportedly suggested he would consider Watson’s input on the team’s next steps. Instead, McNair hired Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ director of player personnel, ignoring a search firm’s recommendations and Watson’s suggestions. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the hiring process pushed Watson’s dissatisfaction to “a 10.” Watson reportedly has pushed for Houston to consider hiring Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, whom the Texans did not request an interview with until Tuesday, for its head-coaching vacancy. That means Houston missed a chance to meet with Bieniemy during Kansas City’s wild-card bye and will have to wait until the Chiefs are out of the playoffs, which could be a while. In the meantime, each of the other five teams with a head-coach opening after Black Monday already interviewed Bieniemy.

The Texans are behind the eight ball again. Their list of missteps is long, and their roster mismanagement is well-documented. In 2019, general manager Brian Gaine was fired roughly a year and a half after replacing Rick Smith. Head coach Bill O’Brien was made de facto GM following Gaine’s ousting, and in a year’s span, he traded Jadeveon Clowney for a third-round pick and two players; traded a package including two first-round picks for tackle Laremy Tunsil without having agreed to a contract extension with him prior; and traded away All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins for running back David Johnson and change.

Toxic culture developments have become public over the years, too. In October 2017—a few weeks after President Donald Trump took public aim at NFL players for protesting during the national anthem—Texans owner Bob McNair reportedly described players as “inmates running the prison” during a meeting between NFL owners, team executives, and players’ union representatives. After a 0-4 start this season, O’Brien was fired. In November, Houston fired Amy Palcic, the Texans’ VP of communications, saying that she wasn’t “a cultural fit” even though reaction from around the league suggests she’s clearly considered highly by her peers. After Gaine was fired in 2019, team executive vice president of team development Jack Easterby—formerly a character coach who shifted into a personnel role—assumed more power within the franchise. Sports Illustrated’s Jenny Vrentas and Greg Bishop wrote in December that, among other things, Easterby had a role in “undermining other executives and decision-makers” and compared him to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. A follow-up story published Saturday uncovered even more cracks within Houston’s culture that are rooted in Easterby’s role. Easterby, who has a close relationship with McNair and was heavily involved in the decision to hire Caserio, appears to be keeping his job, and Watson “just wants out,” a person close to Watson told Sports Illustrated.

If you find all this to be exhausting, that’s because it is. J.J. Watt, a longtime face of the organization, certainly appeared to be over the dysfunction this year. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has been outspoken in explaining how much losing “sucks” for Texans players and fans. Watt even apologized to Watson for Houston’s 4-12 finish, telling the QB “we wasted one of your years” following a 41-38 loss to Tennessee in the Texans’ season finale:

One can only imagine how frustrating things have been for Watson. Former Houston star receiver Andre Johnson sees the writing on the wall, and tweeted that Watson should stand his ground. “The Texans organization is known for wasting players (sic) careers,” he wrote.

It was Johnson’s first tweet unrelated to advertising Crown Royal since April 2019. And he wasn’t alone. On Twitter, Hopkins agreed with Johnson, writing: “when Dre speak listen.” Former Texans running back Arian Foster also chimed in, noting that Johnson wouldn’t “get this outta pocket” without something suspicious going on behind the scenes. Johnson met up with Watson on Tuesday night at a Rockets-Lakers game, snapped a photo, and shared it on Instagram with an all-caps caption: “STAND YOUR GROUND!!!”

It would appear that Watson has every reason to want out. But the Texans also have every reason to want to keep him. Watson is coming off a career year, and for a team lacking in assets and in an unsavory cap situation, Watson is the brightest beacon of hope.

As of Thursday, there haven’t been reports of Watson asking for a trade, though Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio recently reported that Watson has at least “quietly broached with teammates the possibility of requesting a trade.” Watson, 25, is a franchise QB who signed an extension less than five months ago and is only entering his prime. Trading such a player would be an anomaly. Last week, Pro Football Focus’s Brad Spielberger and Kevin Cole explored realistic trade possibilities, and each of their top four hypothetical scenarios involved at least three top-35 picks being sent to Houston in exchange for Watson. But history suggests the asking price could—and should—be even higher. To get a sense of what it would take to trade for Watson, here are some of the largest trades in league history:

July 25, 2020: The Jets trade S Jamal Adams and a 2022 fourth-round pick to the Seahawks in exchange for a 2021 first-round pick, a 2021 third-round pick, a 2022 first-round pick, and S Bradley McDougald.

We’re including the Adams deal because it’s the most recent blockbuster trade we’ve seen in the NFL. One season into the transaction, it looks like the Jets got the better deal, nabbing two first-round picks and a starting-caliber safety (though McDougald played in only seven games in 2020 because of a shoulder injury, and is likely to move on after this year as an unrestricted free agent), while Adams overcame injuries (he’ll undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder and two broken fingers during the offseason) to earn his third consecutive Pro Bowl nomination. If it took two first-round choices to land a box safety like Adams—who still hasn’t negotiated a new contract; his current deal will be up in 2022—then the haul for a franchise QB entering his prime would be considerably larger.

April 20, 2016: The Browns trade the no. 2 pick (QB Carson Wentz) and a 2017 fourth-round pick to the Eagles in exchange for a 2016 first-round pick (no. 8), a 2016 third-round pick, a 2016 fourth-round pick, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick.

April 14, 2016: The Titans trade the no. 1 pick (QB Jared Goff), a 2016 fourth-round pick, and a 2016 sixth-round pick to the Rams for a 2016 first-round pick (no. 15), two 2016 second-round picks, a 2016 third-round pick, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2017 third-round pick.

These draft-pick deals enabled both the Rams and Eagles to select their franchise QBs of the future, and the transactions set a precedent for compensation required by a QB-needy team to move up in the draft. However, these deals were for players who hadn’t yet played a snap in the NFL. Neither Goff nor Wentz was even regarded as an immediate franchise-changer like, say, an Andrew Luck. Considering that Watson has proved himself capable of playing at a consistently high level, the compensation for a certified starter like him should be even higher.

March 9, 2012: The Rams trade the no. 2 pick (QB Robert Griffin III) to Washington in exchange for the no. 6 pick, a 2012 second-round pick, a 2013 first-round pick, and a 2014 first-round pick.

Another example of a team unloading multiple first-round picks to select its rookie signal-caller of choice, Washington jumped four spots to get Griffin. The former Baylor star was highly regarded, which enticed Washington to make the ambitious move to acquire him. This deal helped set a precedent for what it would take for a team to aggressively pursue a rookie passer who wasn’t yet a proven commodity like Watson is.

April 2, 2009: The Broncos trade QB Jay Cutler to the Bears in exchange for QB Kyle Orton, a 2009 first-round pick (18th), a 2009 third-round pick, and a 2010 first-round pick.

This is the deal that’s most comparable to any potential Watson trades, though that isn’t saying too much. Cutler was the same age as Watson currently is (25) and was coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he’d thrown for 4,526 yards in Denver. The Broncos fired head coach Mike Shanahan after the 2008 season, and new head coach Josh McDaniels never saw eye to eye with Cutler. Cutler asked for a trade that offseason, and the Broncos moved him to Chicago in exchange for a pair of first-round picks, Kyle Orton, and a third-rounder. There is one key difference, though: Cutler was a good quarterback, Watson is a superstar. While Cutler never lived up to the hype in Chicago, Watson appears to be worthy of an investment that is even bigger than this deal.

April 17, 1999: Washington trades the no. 5 pick (Ricky Williams) to the Saints in exchange for a 1999 first-round pick, a 1999 third-round pick, a 1999 fourth-round pick, a 1999 fifth-round pick, a 1999 sixth-round pick, and a 1999 seventh-round pick, plus a 2000 first-round pick and a 2000 third-round pick.

Back in the day, running backs were valued much differently than they are now. Mike Ditka ransacked the Saints’ cupboards of draft picks and sold literally his entire draft—plus some future picks—to acquire Williams, who lasted three seasons in New Orleans before joining the Dolphins; Ditka was fired after the 1999 season.

October 12, 1989: The Cowboys trade RB Herschel Walker to the Vikings in exchange for LB Jesse Solomon, LB David Howard, CB Issiac Holt, DE Alex Stewart, RB Darrin Nelson, a 1990 first-round pick, a 1990 second-round pick, a 1990 sixth-round pick, a 1991 first-round pick, a 1991 second-round pick, a 1992 second-round pick, a 1992 third-round pick, and a 1993 first-round pick.

Before the Saints gifted Washington eight draft picks to get Williams, the Vikings surrendered the most outrageous haul for a star running back nearly a decade earlier. The Cowboys received five players in addition to three first-round picks and three second-round picks just for Herschel Walker. It stands as the largest trade in league history. The question that immediately comes to mind is this: If a star running back in that era could command this kind of haul, shouldn’t a proven, superstar QB in the league’s current era warrant similar compensation? Three first-round picks and three second-round picks may seem hefty, but if Watson sustains his current level of play, he could finish as one of the best QBs of his era.

April 6, 1976: The Patriots trade QB Jim Plunkett to the 49ers in exchange for QB Tom Owen, two 1976 first-round picks (nos. 12 and 21), a 1977 first-round pick, and a 1977 second-round pick.

The 49ers gave up three first-round picks to get Plunkett, who won 11 games across two seasons before leaving after the 1978 season. This deal feels somewhat similar to the Cutler trade; Plunkett was a young star passer who’d been selected no. 1 in the 1971 draft. However, Plunkett hadn’t been as successful; Plunkett completed just 48.5 percent of his passes, averaged 3.6 adjusted net yards per attempt, and tossed an interception on 5.8 percent of his attempts during his five seasons with New England. If Plunkett could command three first-round picks and a veteran QB in return at that point in his career, then Watson is easily worth a similar haul when considering his production.

March 7, 1967: Vikings trade QB Fran Tarkenton to Giants in exchange for a 1967 first-round pick (no. 2) and a 1967 second-round pick, a 1968 first-round pick (no. 1), and a 1969 second-round pick.

January 27, 1972: Giants trade QB Fran Tarkenton to Vikings in exchange for QB Norm Snead, WR Bob Grim, FB Vince Clements, a 1972 first-round pick (no. 24), and a 1973 second-round pick.

Perhaps no QB has caused more draft capital to be swapped between two teams than Tarkenton, whom Minnesota originally dealt in 1967 because of a rift between the young star passer and HC Norm Van Brocklin. Five years later, the Vikings re-acquired Tarkenton from New York. Between the two deals, a total of six draft picks were exchanged, including three first-round choices. Tarkenton was a nine-time Pro Bowler, an MVP, and, ultimately a Hall of Famer. Still, it feels like you’d have to put both of these trades together to approach the value that Watson carries today. The NFL of the ’60s and ’70s was just a different league, and in the 21st century, a star quarterback is everything.

May 26, 1958: The Rams trade QB Norm Van Brocklin to the Eagles in exchange for the no. 2 pick, OT Buck Lansford, and DB Jimmy Harris.

Before Van Brocklin came to power in Minnesota, he was the Rams QB. In 1958, the then-32-year-old signal-caller was shipped to Philadelphia in exchange for a no. 2 pick—which was used to draft a fullback—and a pair of veterans. He made three straight Pro Bowls and was named league MVP during his Eagles tenure.

October 6, 1958: Lions trade QB Bobby Layne to Steelers in exchange for QB Earl Morrall, two undisclosed draft picks.

The Lions were the defending NFL champions when they traded Layne to the Steelers in 1958 for QB Earl Morrall and a pair of draft picks. The quote was never published, but Layne allegedly said the Lions would “not win for 50 years” after he was traded. Considering Detroit hasn’t won a championship since then, the “Curse of Bobby Layne” doesn’t sound as fictitious as one might initially think. Luckily for the Texans, Watson has a no-trade clause in his contract, so he won’t be moved anywhere he doesn’t want to be. Perhaps it’ll save them from Watson cursing their franchise for 50 years like Layne did to Detroit.

Throughout NFL history, there are plenty of examples of franchise players who were traded, either because they became disgruntled with their current circumstances or because their team surprisingly decided to move on. Watson is among the most empowered players we’ve ever seen, and he has the ability to push for a move. While he hasn’t officially submitted a request to leave, trading him isn’t impossible—but the Texans sure would expect to get a lot for him.

Only a handful of teams can even theoretically pony up enough to acquire Watson. The Dolphins stand as the most logical of them, boasting the no. 3 pick (actually the Texans’ own, traded to Miami as part of the Tunsil deal) and the no. 18 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. PFF’s Cole and Spielberger have suggested the Dolphins package those picks, their 2022 first-round pick, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last year’s no. 5 pick who was named Miami’s starter midseason but struggled and split time with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, for Watson. The Jets are considered the second-best option, touting this year’s nos. 2 and 23 picks, a 2022 first-round pick, and QB Sam Darnold. The idea is that with Darnold in tow, Houston could trade the no. 2 pick for additional draft compensation from another team, and then use those picks to inject its cash-strapped roster with cheap, young talent.

Any of those deals coming to fruition currently feels like a pipe dream. Instead, teams will likely have to wait to have a realistic shot at signing Watson after his current deal expires in 2026, when he’ll be 30 years old. According to Spotrac, there’s also a potential out for the Texans in 2024. If Watson were to be moved before then, it would take considerably large compensation like the deals mentioned above. It might even take the biggest deal in NFL history.