The first major move of the 2021 NFL season happened this past weekend as the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams kicked things off with a blockbuster trade. After the Lions blew up their front office and coaching staff, ultimately adding Brad Holmes as general manager and former Miami Dolphins interim head coach Dan Campbell as their new head coach, it became clear the Lions were starting over and entering a rebuild period. For 33-year-old quarterback Matthew Stafford, a rebuild would likely take away any chance of reaching the Super Bowl. Both Stafford and the Lions agreed to part ways this offseason.
The move to send Stafford to Los Angeles landed Detroit a plethora of draft picks, and their presumed starting quarterback. The Rams’ gave the Lions a 2021 third-round pick, a 2022 first-round selection, a 2023 first-round pick, and former number-one overall draft pick Jared Goff. It is the first time in NFL history two former number-one overall picks were traded for each other.
The deal cannot be made official until the new league year begins on March 17. With Goff moving to the Lions, the Rams will eat $22.2 million in dead money this season, while the Lions add the four-year, $106.6 million remaining on his contract - a deal signed in 2019. The Lions will see $17.8 million in dead money this season from Stafford, while the Rams will add the two years, $43 million remaining on his deal.
Which then brings up the possibility of Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson being traded. Stafford is 33, was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2014, has a career 62.6 percent completion rate while throwing for 45,109 yards with 282 touchdowns and 144 interceptions, giving him a career 89.9 passer rating. He was 12th in the league in passing yards in 2020, throwing for 4,084 yards, with 26 touchdowns (tied for 12th), and 10 interceptions (tied for 18th). He is the fastest quarterback to reach the 20,000-, 30,000-, 40,000-, and 45,000-passing yards marks.
Watson is 25, has been selected to the Pro Bowl each of the last three season, has a career 67.8 percent completion rate while throwing for 14,539 yards with 104 touchdowns and 36 interceptions, giving him a career 104.5 passer rating. He led the league in passing yards in 2020, throwing for 4,823 yards, with 33 touchdowns (tied for 7th), and 7 interceptions (tied for 7th).
Two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and a 26-year-old, former first-overall selected, two-time Pro Bowl quarterback with a 91.5 career passer rating was the price for Stafford. Watson, who has a no-trade clause but has formally requested a trade from the Texans, is going to be more expensive. The Texans do not want to make a trade and lose a franchise quarterback in the prime of his career. They have to trust they can work out the issues that has made Watson this unhappy with their franchise. A deal to get Watson is likely going to require at least three first-round selections and probably a star player in return - as the starting position. According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots. and Carolina Panthers were all interested in landing Stafford. The bidding war for Watson is expected to be more involved than that.
Of course, Watson’s no-trade clause could allow him to veto teams, using the clause to drive down the asking price to protect the draft picks for his new team. But there is no reason to think the Texans would agree to a deal that does not reach historic levels. They can simply call Watson’s bluff. If he chooses to sit out, they recoup money. If he chooses to retire, they recoup money - and his signing bonus is no joke and he would have to repay at least some of it.
Watson signed a four-year contract extension with the Texans back in September. He received a $27 million signing bonus. If the Texans were to trade Watson before June 1 - thus able to get draft picks for this year - they would see a $21.6 million cap hit in dead money, about $5.7 million more than his $15.9 million cap number this season. The new team would then have cap numbers of $10.5 million in 2021, $35 million in 2022, $37 million in 2023, $32 million in 2024, and $32 million in 2025. Watson’s salary in 2021 and in 2022 is guaranteed. On the fifth day of the 2022 season, Watson’s 2023 salary and $17 million roster bonus become fully guaranteed. Watson has an escalator in his contract that, should he play 50 percent of the offensive snaps and the team wins the Super Bowl, his salary increases by $1 million the next season. (All contract details via OvertheCap.com.)
Reports have indicated the Dolphins are a preferred location for Watson, with the team having won 10 games last season and just missing the playoffs. The coaching staff has the team playing well and there is clearly growth all across the roster.
For comparison, Miami’s current starting quarterback, last year’s fifth-overall pick Tua Tagovailoa, has a contract worth a total of $30.3 million. He has cap numbers of $6.9 million in 2021, $8.3 million in 2022, and $9.6 million in 2023. If Miami were to trade him - a sensible presumption if they were to add Watson - Tagovailoa would account for $14.7 million in dead money, or $7.8 million more than his cap number for this season.
Watson is a generational talent and a player any team would love to have. He is a player who could solidify the quarterback position for a decade for a club. He will be expensive, and, in the case of a team like Miami where having four picks in the first 50 selections in the 2021 NFL Draft would allow them to quickly build weaponry around the quarterback, that expense could become debilitating. Would adding Watson, but not being able to get the weaponry he needs to succeed, be worth the expense?
The Dolphins have holes on their roster. They need to upgrade several places. They need wide receivers, offensive line, and running back help. Using the draft picks to trade for Watson gives the team a franchise quarterback. Using the picks to full multiple holes on the roster could allow the team to find out they already have a franchise quarterback in Tagovailoa. Which way is the right way?
Did the trade of Stafford show just how expensive a Watson trade could be? Did it just price out a team that is young and developing? It might be hard to justify losing that much draft capital if they cannot add the pieces around Watson that would let the quarterback find success.