Would you rather have a million dollars or a mystery box that could contain a million dollars? That’s the question facing the Jets, who can either draft a quarterback this offseason and spend the next few years dreaming that he becomes as good as Deshaun Watson or go all out to acquire Watson, who reportedly has requested a trade from the Texans and considers the Jets his preferred destination.
I don’t fully understand why Watson would prefer the Jets over all the other teams in the NFL. I’m a Jets fan. When I explain my fandom to people, I tell them to think of New York’s other two sporting laughingstocks—the Knicks and Mets—but with fewer championships, less recent success, and fewer lovable stars. I’ve spent large swaths of time getting mad about the fact that I became emotionally attached to this team: whose greatest moments in my life heavily feature Mark Sanchez, and whose worst moments in my life also heavily feature Mark Sanchez. Watson wants to join us? He must be hallucinating a different version of the organization, with a rich history of success and a stacked roster.
But it doesn’t matter: We must capitalize on this hallucination. The Jets must do whatever it takes to get Watson. There is simply no price too high for a quarterback as good as he is.
Quarterback is the most important position in football. You can learn this from watching any teen movie, or from looking at this NFL postseason. It’s no coincidence that the league’s final four teams standing were four of the best passing teams in the sport. Football Outsiders tabulates a stat called defense-adjusted yards above replacement; in that metric, the four QBs who played in last weekend’s conference championship games—Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Josh Allen—rank first, second, third, and fourth. Watson ranks fifth, just below the elite of the elite. Watson is also fifth, behind just the four championship game starters, in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Pro Football Focus graded the four conference title game quarterbacks as four of the NFL’s top five passers in the regular season—and had Watson third, below Rodgers and Brady and ahead of Mahomes and Allen. Quarterback play is clearly a strong factor in determining whether a team can make the Super Bowl; Watson was a Super Bowl–caliber QB on a team that managed to finish a million miles from that stage.
Watson made the playoffs in his first two full NFL seasons as a starter, after missing much of his rookie campaign with a knee injury. Despite the Texans trading away his best wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, last March, Watson delivered the best statistical season of his career in 2020—and arguably the best season of any passer in the NFL. He led the league in passing yards (4,823), yards per attempt (8.9), completed air yards per attempt (5.3), and completion percentage over expectation (4.8). To summarize: Watson threw for more yards than anybody else, his passes were more effective than anybody else’s, his passes were deeper than anybody else’s, and his completions were more difficult than anybody else’s. And we haven’t even talked about his ability to make plays with his feet.
A competent team with Watson is automatically a contender. Yet the Texans finished 4-12 this season because they otherwise seemed like they were trying to fail. They surrounded Watson with one good teammate on offense (left tackle Laremy Tunsil) and a historically bad defense. They allowed the sixth-most yards and recorded the second-fewest takeaways of all time. (Of the league’s 32 teams, 28 had at least 17 takeaways this year; the Texans had nine.) That Houston fell way short of contending in 2020 is not Watson’s fault, but a damning statement about an organization that lost touch with how football works and how to treat its players.
It seemed like many of the problems were caused by megalomaniacal head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien. The Notorious BOB sent Hopkins to the Cardinals for a package structured around subpar running back David Johnson. He also traded away most of Houston’s draft picks and allowed what once was a top-tier defense to wilt away. But the team did nothing to acquit itself after O’Brien’s firing in October, elevating his friend, Jack Easterby, to interim GM and ultimately hiring Easterby’s friend, Nick Caserio, to fill that role full time. Easterby, for those unfamiliar, is a former team chaplain turned character coach who was the subject of a Sports Illustrated exposé that compared him to Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. SI reported that Watson—who signed a four-year, $156 million extension in September—was told that he would “have input in the search for the franchise’s next general manager and head coach.” In reality, Easterby accompanied team owner Cal McNair on a flight to court Caserio without first discussing the plan with Watson, and the team hired its new GM despite not adhering to the protocol of its consulting firm and not publicizing the meeting with Caserio.
The Texans also reportedly ignored Watson’s requests as they looked for a new head coach before realizing they were close to losing Watson. Their decision Wednesday to hire Ravens assistant David Culley for that job seems unlikely to save the relationship. Watson wants out.
There is no such thing as a fair return on Watson. Not only is he one of the best players at the most important position in the sport, but he is also only 25 years old. I’d consider him one of the three most valuable players in the NFL; I’d put Mahomes and mayyyyybe Allen above him, but that’s it. And the Texans won’t simply be able to shop around for a Godfather offer: Watson’s contract includes a no-trade clause. Unless the Texans are willing to keep Watson and risk having him hold out, they will have to settle for the best offer from a team that the quarterback is willing to play for.
And apparently he is willing to play for the Jets. Again, I’m not sure why. The two franchises are shockingly similar. New York has won 44.42 percent of its games all time, 27th best of the NFL’s 32 teams. Houston has won 44.41 percent of its games, 28th best. The Jets also have exactly one good offensive player, a left tackle, Mekhi Becton. The Texans’ awful defense allowed 29.0 points per game this season, ranking 27th; the Jets’ awful defense allowed 28.6 points per game, ranking 26th. The Jets’ ownership situation is also just as ugly as the one in Houston. Owner Woody Johnson is fresh off a stint as Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, which prompted a State Department investigation into Johnson’s use of racist and sexist language. (Johnson’s highlight in office was a failed attempt to get the British Open to play at Trump’s course in Scotland.)
If the Jets acquire Watson, he would be the best quarterback in franchise history by the time his press conference starts. If his 2020 season had been played for the Jets, it would have set team records in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passer rating. (Unbelievably, the Jets’ franchise leader in single-season passing touchdowns is Ryan Fitzpatrick, with 31 in 2015. Nine quarterbacks would have set the Jets record this season.) Over Watson’s four years in the NFL, he has had more seasons with a passer rating above 100 (three) than the Jets have in 50-plus years as a franchise (two). Watson also has made more Pro Bowls (three) than any Jets QB since Joe Namath—Ken O’Brien made it twice, while Boomer Esiason, Vinny Testaverde, and an ancient Brett Favre made it once. Many of the Jets’ franchise passing records are still held by Namath, who had a losing record as a starter and played in an era when it was acceptable to throw more interceptions than touchdowns. (He did this in 11 of 13 NFL seasons.)
Here is a list of the Jets’ Week 1 quarterbacks dating back to 1990. Keep in mind, Favre was 39 in his lone Jets season, and played in New York only after coming out of retirement.
- Sam Darnold
- Josh McCown
- Ryan Fitzpatrick
- Geno Smith
- Mark Sanchez
- Brett Favre
- Chad Pennington
- Vinny Testaverde
- Glenn Foley
- Neil O’Donnell
- Boomer Esiason
- Browning Nagle
- Ken O’Brien
If Watson wants to play for the Jets, the team has to do anything in its power to get him. It’s true that the Jets have the no. 2 pick in April’s draft, which would enable them to take the second-best quarterback in this class. Even if they had the top pick, though, I’d advise them to trade it for Watson. Trevor Lawrence is an incredible prospect, one of the best anybody has ever seen—but he’s still just a prospect. (A prospect who, notably, had a comparable three-year Clemson career to Watson. Both had 90 touchdown passes and went 1-1 in national championship games, although Watson tore his ACL during his freshman year and Lawrence was healthy for all three of his seasons.) There is always a chance that Lawrence could bust, like several highly-drafted quarterbacks before him. There is also a chance that he could have a long and successful NFL career and yet never turn into the top-three quarterback that Watson is now. And, of course, the Jets presumably can’t draft Lawrence—they have the second pick, thanks to an inexplicable late-season surge. Remember when they beat the Rams?
Maybe the second-best quarterback in the draft could turn into someone like Watson. But the second-best quarterback in this draft could also turn into someone like … I don’t know, Sam Darnold, whom the Jets picked as the second quarterback off the board in the 2018 draft. It’s possible that a coach who isn’t named Adam Gase could turn Darnold’s career around. It seems clear, however, that Darnold will never be as good as Watson. A new scheme won’t change that.
I am not trying to downplay the pro potential of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, or Trey Lance. It’s just that the odds of any of them being as good in the NFL as Watson are slim. There have been 34 quarterbacks taken in the first round of the draft since 2010. Here’s the list. How many, at any point in their respective careers, have been as effective as Watson is now? I’d say five: Mahomes, Allen, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, and Lamar Jackson (and Jackson’s inclusion is just because he won MVP last season—I’d rather have Watson long term).
There is no pick or player the Jets should take off the table in trade negotiations. They should happily give up the no. 2 pick to get Watson. They should also happily give up the 23rd pick (acquired from Seattle in the 2020 deal for Jamal Adams), their second-rounder, and their third-rounder. If the Texans want all of the Jets’ draft picks this year, they can have them. (Only one team has ever traded away all of its picks in one draft: The Saints, who wanted the fifth pick in 1999 so they could get Ricky Williams. That trade is rightly remembered as a disaster, but Watson would be worth far more than Williams was. Watson is one of the five most valuable players in the sport; Williams was the fifth pick in his own draft.)
If the Texans want some of the Jets’ picks in the 2022 draft, they can have those too. It probably wouldn’t take this much to get a deal done—ESPN’s Bill Barnwell suggested this week that the Jets could land Watson for the two 2020 first-round picks and a 2021 first-rounder. I’d hit accept on that trade as soon as it popped up on my screen. The Jets would instantly have a franchise superstar. They wouldn’t be able to build out the rest of their roster through top picks, but they have the third-most cap space entering 2021, and could use it to bring in receivers for Watson. The defense should improve under new head coach Robert Saleh. The Jets would go from a laughingstock to a playoff contender overnight.
The Jets need to get the Texans on the phone and say yes to the first offer that comes out of Caserio’s mouth. Thanks to their failures, the Jets have a lot of mystery boxes—but the Texans could give them a grand prize.