In the seemingly unlikely event that Watson would push his way out of Houston, logic was dictated by which teams had the right draft ammunition and salary-cap space. The Miami Dolphins were a natural fit. So too were the New York Jets, who had lost out on their dream of landing Trevor Lawrence. And if you were willing to get outside the box, you could envision a team like the San Francisco 49ers, who appear hellbent on upgrading the quarterback spot and can suddenly create a nice cap surplus by offloading Jimmy Garoppolo. These were sensible destinations. As the weeks have rolled on, we’ve begun to float toward fantasy trade island.
Now as January comes to a close, we’re officially beached there under a coconut tree — with half the NFL being touted as a Hey, Maybe landing spot. The formula has been simple: If there’s even mild discontent at the quarterback spot, that franchise is now entered into the Deshaun Watson qualifier race. Hell, even the Arizona Cardinals (“Kyler Murray is from Texas!”) and Green Bay Packers (“Aaron Rodgers isn’t happy!”) are being entered into the increasingly crowded field of Wild West speculation.
And why not? If you’re an NFL team without a top-10 quarterback or a budding star of your own, you should probably be interested in Watson. Whether you have the ability to make it happen is another story. The vast majority of teams being speculated don’t. And to emerge from the field of have-nots, you really need to blow an offer into the stratosphere.
There is one team in the highly unlikely crowd of contenders that should consider blowing up the obvious destinations with an overwhelming offer. Regardless if the move is out of character for this particular team or would prove costlier than the head coach is usually comfortable with, it’s worth one franchise really pressing forward and trying to upend this whole thing.
The New England Patriots. It’s a team that has far longer odds than what Las Vegas would probably put on any Watson pursuit.
It’s not hard to stack up why it could never work. The team’s 15th overall pick in the 2021 draft isn’t remotely close to what several other contenders can offer. And from an overachievement standpoint, the Patriots are the kind of team that will likely always be selecting players in the lower half of drafts, sheerly driven by the coaching and culture Bill Belichick has instilled. That doesn’t bode well when a team is weighing New England’s picks in an offer. And the draft compensation also doesn’t take into account that Belichick may not love the idea of paying any quarterback a steep deal — even Watson’s five-year, post-trade average of $29.3 million per year, which is very economical for his considerable skills.
If it all ended there, the Patriots would already be in bad shape in the Watson trade talks. But it doesn’t. There’s behind-the-scenes beef between Patriots ownership and All-Pro NFL Svengali Jack Easterby, who has become an infamous executive inside the Texans and seems to be lurking under the fingernails of virtually everything that team owner Cal McNair reaches for. Even with former Patriots personnel man Nick Caserio potentially being amenable to working out a deal with the Patriots, it’s highly unlikely Easterby wouldn’t work to kill the possibility. We also can’t ignore that Watson didn’t seem to enjoy his time under former coach Bill O’Brien, leaving the possibility that he’d never want to go play for O’Brien’s close friend Belichick, even with Belichick having immense respect for Watson’s talent.
Taken altogether, that’s not just a formidable bucket of cold water thrown on a Patriots pursuit of Watson — it’s a tsunami of icebergs washing away fantasy trade island. That doesn’t mean Belichick shouldn’t make the call.
Dealing for Garoppolo will undoubtedly be cheaper. Drafting Mac Jones will be less of a cap hit. And maybe fishing around for some other unforeseen option will produce a surprise. But Belichick turns 69 in April. The compound in Nantucket and relaxing afternoons on his fishing boat can’t be confined to the summer break forever. And if we didn’t learn it in 2020, we’ll never learn it: You can’t compete or even rebuild anymore with middling quarterbacks. Another hopeful veteran reclamation is asking for another Cam Newton disappointment, punctuated this season when the elite QBs dominated the conference title games.
And lest we forget, Tom Brady’s week is coming up. If there was ever a week to feel motivated to resolve the quarterback spot in New England, this is it. Oh, and probably next season, too, given that it appears Brady and his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers family is committed to 2021 as well.
While it wouldn’t be Belichick’s style to be driven to make a personnel move based on the post-Patriots success of Brady, it absolutely would be his style to recognize Watson for what he is. And that’s a brand of special that makes him a top-five quarterback. Belichick himself has said it in the past, making comments similar to those that endeared him to Newton when Newton was at his best.
“Deshaun’s a very talented player — certainly one of the top players in the league at his position that we’ve faced,” Belchick said on a conference call with Houston before facing Watson and the Texans in 2019. “[He] does a great job on the deep ball, has very good touch and accuracy, is a good decision maker — obviously very athletic kid that can do a lot. … He’s a very good passer. [He] can extend plays and make throws out of pocket, make throws in the pocket. And if he has to run the ball to convert a third down, he is certainly capable of doing that.”
Belichick’s praise of Watson doesn’t mean everything, of course. He compliments good players all the time who he’d never try to acquire in a frenzied trade market. And Watson doesn’t fit the bargain shopping that Belichick likes to engage in. But every once in a while, if a player is special, Belichick will go outside his habitual structure and reach for a difference-making talent. He did it for Stephon Gilmore, when the price tag in free agency was as high as it could be. He did it for Antonio Brown, when the chemistry risk was through the roof. And he did it for Darrelle Revis when it was a rental situation that made sense inside the championship window. All of which shows that there are acquisitions for all seasons, even with someone who tends to play it close to the vest more than most.
Belichick’s history of incoming trades is one of yielding fairly good results for very reasonable draft compensation. Guys like Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Aqib Talib were basically bargains in terms of the draft picks surrendered. If anything, Belichick has shown a far more significant propensity to send players away for high picks than to bring them in. But with someone like Watson on the board, this could be an exception.
We’d be remiss to forget the Patriots have spent some serious draft picks for someone special. It just wasn’t a player. It was Belichick himself — for a league-stimulated first-, fourth- and seventh-round picks, which is probably one of the greatest deals in NFL history, let alone the Patriots franchise. Twenty-one years later this month, there’s an opportunity on the table to at least make the call for what would immediately slot as the second greatest deal in Patriots history. Maybe it would take a blowout deal, including a multitude of first-round picks and maybe a few probing young players. Maybe it would take a call to Watson himself, in hopes that he would waive his no-trade clause to go play for another coach who has some hallmarks of O’Brien when it comes to making football more of a job than a fun career endeavor.
It might be a low percentage shot that requires more than New England is willing or capable of surrendering. But if 2020 taught the franchise anything, it’s that special comes around only once in a long, long time at quarterback. Letting it go can be as costly as watching it flourish in the Super Bowl only one year later. And there’s no better way to respond to that new piece of information than by taking a shot that might set the franchise’s future in place long enough to move it past Tom Brady, rather than fumbling for years beneath the shadow he’ll cast for years to come.
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Originally published January 28, 2021, 8:49 PM