Deshaun Watson wants to play football this year. Regardless of the reality that he’s still signed to a football team he’s refusing to play for, nd he’s mired in sexual assault allegations, Watson is working to get ready for the 2021 NFL Season.
Both the Houston Texans and the NFL have been quiet about the allegations against Watson. The Texans trust the legal process. The NFL takes the allegations very seriously. Yet no one has any idea if Watson will be suspended, and if so, how many games he would be suspended for. What was already complicated is even more so.
A crucial date is coming up on the NFL calendar. June 1st allows teams to sign existing free agents without having to worry about compensatory pick calculations. Players who weren’t cut from a previous contract no longer have comp pick ramifications. The door is open. Say goodbye to mid and late round draft pick compensation. June 1st also changes how the bonus money is structured if a player is traded or released. Rather than having to account for the entirety of the unaccounted bonus money all at once, the existing prorated amount would affect the salary cap for this season; the rest of it would be tied to next year’s salary cap.
The Texans decided not to trade Deshaun Watson this offseason. They could have traded him to add first and second round selections in 2021, something they missed because of the horrific and disastrous Laremy Tunsil trade. They could have quickly moved on and meaningfully invested in the quarterback position in a deep quarterback class. Tom Savage wasn’t a meaningful investment; neither is Davis Mills. Instead, Watson is still on Houston’s roster.
From a salary cap standpoint, trading Watson wouldn’t crush the 2021 Houston Texans. The 2021 Texans are going to be an atrocious football team. Spare the one-possession record stats you ignored going into last season. The Texans were 2-8 in one-score games in 2020 only because Watson carried a terrible team to close losses. The Texans would take on a $21.6 million dead cap hit if they trade Watson before June 1st, but because they wouldn’t have to pay his current cap number, they would only lose $5.6 million in cap space. A $5.6 million loss in cap space is nothing for a terrible football team.
If Houston traded Watson after June 1st, they’d only have to account for prorated bonus money of $5.4 million; the rest of the $16.2 million would affect next year’s salary cap. Since Houston wouldn’t have to pay for Watson’s base salary, the Texans would receive a cap gain of $10.54 million if they traded Watson after June 1st.
None of this should matter for the Texans, though. Cap space isn’t important for a rebuilding team. Draft capital is what matters. Great football teams are built from acquiring keystone players through the NFL Draft. Cap space retains these drafted players; free agency dollars fill the holes where the ceiling is exposed. The salary cap is a mystical and arbitrary figure for a four win team. Acquiring young talent and adding draft capital is the name of the game.
Because of this, Nick Caserio has to know what the Texans are getting if they trade Watson. They cannot, and I repeat, cannot trade Watson before or during the 2021 NFL season. Caserio has to know what any newly acquired draft picks are worth before he acquires them. The overall selection is more important than the round picks are acquired. A team with Deshaun Watson under center, unless he’s suspended for the majority of the 2021 season, should in theory be good enough to find the NFL Playoffs—Bill O’Brien’s 2020 Texans were a special case in futility.
$10.54 million in cap savings should not grease Caserio’s wheels. Although that money could be spent on ten more veteran linebackers, it shouldn’t be a large enough number to move Watson without knowing what the draft selections are worth. This cap space is a small sum compared to what the Texans would add if they move him after the season anyways. If the Texans make the correct decision, and if Watson sits out 2021 to deal with his legal issues, Houston would create $24.2 million in cap space after paying a dead money hit of $16.2 million by trading the QB at the conclusion of the upcoming season.
Houston has to maximize the return from any Deshaun Watson trade. The package they get for the franchise quarterback has to springboard the next ‘good’ Texans team, if not, the Texans’ rebuild is for the long-term instead of the short-term. Failure to nail the trade means we’ll be looking ahead to 2025 instead of 2023. The difference between selecting 5th and 15th overall is not worth saving $10.54 million in 2021.
The black spots on the map have to be clear. The decision is simple. Keep Watson in Houston this season. Trade Watson in 2022.