Nearly a month has passed since Deshaun Watson reportedly requested a trade from the Texans, and it was clear he wanted out weeks before that. In that time, Watson has been Photoshopped into almost every NFL team’s jersey. And while three starting NFL quarterbacks—Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz—were each traded to new squads in that span, Watson appears no closer to a deal. Houston hired a new head coach and firmly dug into its stance: “We have zero interest in trading the player,” general manager Nick Caserio said in late January. We’ve reached the point in the old western gunfight scene where the only action happening is the rolling of a tumbleweed.
The NFL draft is still months away. With draft capital obviously playing a role in any potential deals, the Texans will have their choice of pick-heavy overtures. On Monday morning, NBC Sports’ Peter King wrote that the Texans aren’t listening to trade offers for Watson yet, despite at least two unnamed teams submitting proposals. For now, they don’t have an incentive to immediately act. Tactically, this makes sense for Houston: Refusing any initial offers could potentially drive up the price for a trade or prompt Watson to reconsider life with the Texans. Yet we’re seeing a change in the buzz around Watson. While the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins remain likely destinations due to their abundance of draft capital, the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers keep nudging their way into the theoretical mix for Watson. The question is: why?
On Monday morning, FanDuel betting lines listed Denver as its favorite at +150, with the Panthers (+250) and Texans (+250) closest behind. That’s bound to raise eyebrows, considering neither Denver nor Carolina can offer the type of draft capital that Miami or New York can. Nonetheless, both teams do own top-10 selections in this year’s draft, and it’s worth examining both teams’ cases for landing Watson.
Notable draft capital: No. 9 overall pick (2021)
2021 QBs under contract: Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien
Projected cap space (per Spotrac): $39.8 million
It’s obvious why the Broncos would be interested in Watson, aside from his own talent. Denver’s roster is constructed to win now, and new general manager George Paton has already revealed that he’s determined to upgrade the QB position. The Broncos were reportedly in play for Stafford, and according to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, they wanted to make a pick swap equivalent to “a late-first-round pick.” Aggressive? Sure, but Paton and Co. understand that the window to compete with Denver’s current defense won’t stay open forever.
Watson would make the most of the talented Broncos receiving corps. Despite his drop issues, wideout Jerry Jeudy proved to be one of the NFL’s most explosive rookies last season, recording 26 receptions of 15 yards or more downfield (second most among rookies), per Pro Football Focus. KJ Hamler, another 2020 rookie, flashed the big-play ability that made him a second-round selection out of Penn State. Receiver Courtland Sutton will return after only making one appearance in 2020 because of a season-ending knee injury. Tight end Noah Fant, who led the team in receptions (62) last year, and former undrafted receiver Tim Patrick, who led the team in receiving touchdowns (six), are also intriguing options. Additionally, Melvin Gordon headlines Denver’s backfield after rushing for 986 yards and nine scores. Lock, who battled injury during the year, struggled to consistently elevate that supporting cast, finishing 29th in QBR (48.9) and completing 57.3 percent of his passes. Watson would be a clear upgrade.
The Broncos defense, however, is also built to compete. Last season, Denver’s defense ranked 13th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, but the team finished 30th in offense. The Broncos are set to return several key contributors to their unit, headlined by pass rushers Bradley Chubb and Jurrell Casey, and cornerback Bryce Callahan. A crucial decision remains in re-signing star safety Justin Simmons, who will be one of the hottest defensive commodities available this offseason, but could be a franchise tag target. Denver also must decide whether to pick up team options on veterans pass rusher Von Miller and safety Kareem Jackson, whom Spotrac project to account for a combined $35.1 million (or 17.3 percent of Denver’s 2021 cap). Denver is projected to have the NFL’s eighth-most cap space ($39.8 million) this offseason, so it would be curious to see how Watson—who signed a four-year, $156 million extension last year—would figure into their cap situation.
Watson could be a perfect fit in Denver, but what would it take to acquire him? On Monday, Pro Football Focus’ Anthony Treash put together a mock draft in which Denver acquires Watson in exchange for the Broncos’ no. 9 overall pick, a 2021 second-rounder, a 2022 first-rounder, a 2022 second-rounder, and a 2023 first-rounder. That scenario requires North Dakota State’s Trey Lance (currently Danny Kelly’s no. 11 overall prospect) to be available at no. 9, but considering the amount of QB-needy teams at the top of the draft, there’s no guarantee Lance is still on the board for Houston to make that pick.
The Broncos present a viable trade partner, but the reasons betting against them landing Watson are pretty clear. Denver’s current pick could be out of range for one of the draft’s top four QB prospects: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, and Lance. That would mean Houston wouldn’t be able to nab an immediate Watson successor, unless Houston felt that Lock could be a solution under center. Perhaps Denver offers a slew of veteran players, but who would move the needle enough for Houston to make the move? Left tackle Garett Bolles and one of the young wideouts might make sense, but trading decent players would detract from the favorable environment the Broncos have established for a QB to inherit. Perhaps Paton is clever enough to put together a strong offer for Watson, but it might take even more than a medley of draft picks to make it happen.
Last week, Broncos beat writer Troy Renck reported that the team would pursue a trade for Watson if the Texans make him available. It’s also been rumored that Watson would consider waiving his no-trade clause to join the Broncos, but that’s odd considering that Watson would have to compete with the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes twice a season for the foreseeable future. For what it’s worth, Houston Chronicle longtime reporter John McClain guaranteed that Watson won’t be traded to Denver. We’ll see whether that holds up.
Notable draft capital: No. 8 overall pick (2021)
2021 QBs under contract: Teddy Bridgewater, Phillip Walker, Will Grier
Projected cap space: $39.9 million
The Panthers were feisty in 2020. They weren’t good, despite their upward trajectory following coach Matt Rhule’s first season. That’s why they’ve been quite a surprise player in the way-too-early Watson sweepstakes. Like Denver, Carolina was involved in trade talks for Stafford, but GM Scott Fitterer was significantly more aggressive, reportedly offering the no. 8 pick and veteran QB Teddy Bridgewater to Detroit.
The signs of a dissolving relationship between the Panthers and Bridgewater are there. One season into a three-year, $63 million contract, Bridgewater has unfollowed the Panthers’ official accounts on Instagram and set his account to private. Rhule’s comments this offseason have suggested that he wasn’t committed to Bridgewater, with the coach describing Alabama QB prospect Mac Jones as an “alpha” after the Panthers coach worked with him during the Senior Bowl last month. There’s been speculation that Jones—The Ringer’s Danny Kelly’s no. 5 QB prospect, no. 32 overall player—won’t fall beyond Carolina at no. 8, should he be available.
Carolina seems serious about upgrading at quarterback. Bridgewater was too conservative to be more than an average QB last season. He ranked 20th among passers in EPA per play (0.128), but seventh in completion rate over expectation (72.5 percent, four points higher than expected), according to Ben Baldwin and Sebastian Carl’s database. Bridgewater’s lack of aggression downfield—his 7.3 intended air yards per pass ranked 11th lowest among passers, per Next Gen Stats—capped the potential of the Panthers’ passing game a bit. Comparatively, Watson finished sixth in EPA per play (0.228) and fourth in CPOE (73 percent, 6.5 points higher than expected). Watson also averaged 9 intended air yards per attempt, which was tied for sixth most among passers. It makes sense why Carolina would try to move from Bridgewater to Watson.
Just like the Broncos, the Panthers boast an appealing offensive supporting cast. Christian McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s best dual-threat running backs, and D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Curtis Samuel form a versatile trio of receivers. But the Panthers defense isn’t nearly as stout as Denver’s. Pass rusher Brian Burns was one of the league’s breakout stars and safety Jeremy Chinn was one of the NFL’s most impressive rookies. There’s a sound foundation for Rhule to continue building on, but for now it’s only potential. Last season, Carolina’s defense ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings; the offense ranked 17th.
The Panthers perhaps see a window of opportunity in the NFC South in the near future, as the Falcons will have to address their pairing with QB Matt Ryan after another losing season; the Saints are set to lose QB Drew Brees to retirement any day now; and the Buccaneers, well, they’re the reigning champions, but Tom Brady won’t actually play until he’s 50 years old … right? Getting Watson would instantly make Carolina a contender in their division and give the NFC its youngest and brightest star at the sport’s most important position.
But the Panthers face a similar problem to the Broncos in that they pick too late in the first round for their selection to guarantee one of the consensus top-four QBs in the draft. (There’s a chance they’ll be in position to take Mac Jones, though, whom The Ringer’s Danny Kelly recently mocked falling to the Bears at no. 20.) Regardless, with that in mind, it would take quite an impressive haul from Carolina to convince the Texans to make a trade.
There was a firestorm on Twitter last week when a fantasy football writer misinterpreted ESPN reporter David Newton’s “bold prediction” for a roundtable discussion surrounding what a Panthers trade for Watson would look like. The hypothetical deal involved McCaffrey and three first-round draft picks, and while there is no indication that such a deal is on the table, it isn’t a stretch in regards to what the Panthers would need to exchange to get Watson. King’s hypothetical deal in his Monday column included Carolina sending McCaffrey, Bridgewater, Anderson, its 2021 first-round and second-round picks, its 2022 first-round pick, and 2023 third-round pick. That’s a haul. And even with McCaffrey, it’s not even clear that’s enough—but considering Tepper and Rhule’s efforts to acquire a starting QB who can offer the Panthers offense more production, it doesn’t seem like a reach.
Carolina has been among the more aggressive teams in making personnel moves this offseason, having already released veteran defensive tackle Kawann Short and safety Tre Boston. The Panthers have also restructured starting center Matt Paradis’ contract to create $4.7 million in cap space. According to Spotrac, they are projected to have the seventh-most space of any team this offseason. Perhaps these moves will pay off even without an acquisition of Watson. Regardless of what happens at quarterback, Carolina is a team to watch—even if the results of their efforts aren’t likely to be realized anytime soon.