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Can the Broncos win a trade war for Deshaun Watson?

Let’s take a look.

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After listening to constant chatter that he isn’t available, Broncos Country may be relieved to learn that John McClain believes the Houston Texans are going to trade Deshaun Watson.

The news comes a day after the Texans signed Tyrod Taylor to a one-year deal with plenty of incentives should he become the starting quarterback. It also follows a report from The Athletic’s Michael Lombardi that while Houston hopes to make a deal with the Miami Dolphins or New York Jets, Deshaun Watson prefers the San Francisco 49ers or the Denver Broncos.

While there’s been plenty of rumors and speculation since it first became clear Deshaun Watson wanted out of Houston, the news comes after the 5-11 Broncos did close to nothing in the opening days of free agency. They brought back players that made no sense to part with and dumped Kareem Jackson to free up an additional $10 million in cap space. That’s it with one exception.

If Ronald Darby can stay healthy for the second time in his career it will surely help, but the Broncos have almost $30 million in cap space. Why aren’t they spending it when there’s veteran help available on the market unless George Paton hopes to retain as much flexibility as possible going forward? Remember, a Watson trade would eat into the Broncos’ draft capital for the next few years, so retaining the talent on hand will be critical.

However, we know the Broncos won’t be alone in their pursuit, so I thought it would make sense to take a look at who appears to be the biggest competitors for Deshaun Watson.

For the sake of clarity, I can only guess that the draft cost will fall around the ballpark of Chicago’s failed attempt to land Russell Wilson: three first round picks, some day two draft capital, and two veteran players. By NFL rules, teams can’t trade draft picks more than three drafts in advance, so I will make note of what each franchise can offer from the upcoming draft with the assumption Houston will make a deal before the middle of July. Obviously if that changes, everything else follows suit.

When and how the market materializes could drastically change this, but it seems like a decent place to start.

San Francisco 49ers

What they could offer Houston:

  • The current 2021 draft capital: 12, 43, 102, 117, 155, 172, 180, 193
  • Jimmy Garropolo would be an easy trade chip, as his contract carries just $2.8 M in dead money.
  • From there it comes down to what Houston wants. If it’s core defensive players, the Niners have Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Fred Warner, Dee Ford, or Jimmie Ward. George Kittle or Mike McGlinchey could also hold some appeal. Trading any of them will carry a dead cap hit, so the math becomes tricky. Armstead alone would blow through a $21 million dead cap onto the books, while Kittle is right behind him at $16.65 million.
  • San Francisco had roughly $20 million in cap space before their historic deal with Trent Williams.

Should Deshaun find them appealing?

Yes for a number of a reasons, Kyle Shanahan first and foremost. Shanny’s offense carried two different franchises to Super Bowls with Matt Ryan and Jimmy Garropolo under center. The 49ers have spent years collecting talent to fit the current offense, so losing pieces to acquire an elite QB may not cripple them.

While Robert Saleh left for the New York Jets, the cupboard is quite full on the defensive side of the ball right now. If DeMeco Ryan can make the most of what’s left post-trade, they could be quite scary.

Lastly, the 49ers exist in an NFC West where Arizona hopes to save Kliff Kingsbury’s job with a playoff run and the Seattle Seahawks look headed for a messy divorce with Russell Wilson. Los Angeles has a strong defense, an older quarterback with a significant injury history, and no draft capital. Watson and Shanahan could run the division for the foreseeable future.

Carolina Panthers

What they could offer Houston:

  • The current 2021 draft capital: 8, 39, 73, 114, 152, 193, 222, 226
  • Trading Teddy Bridgewater would cost the Panthers $10 million in dead money.
  • From there it comes down to what Houston wants. Taylor Moton has already signed his franchise tender and could be moved. Players like Robby Anderson, Shaq Thompson, Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Brown, D.J. Moore, Jeremy Chinn, and Brian Burns could all intrigue. Thompson, McCaffrey, and Brown would cost the most in dead money, while Panther fans seem to blanch at the thought of sending Burns to Houston.
  • The Panthers currently have north of $20 million in cap space.

Should Deshaun find them appealing?

While trading for Watson is referred to as “Plan A, B, and C” for the Panthers, we’ve received little indication they’re high on his list. Post-trade, Carolina’s roster could look concerning. The Panthers were a 5-11 team last season and most of their best players are at low impact positions like running back and linebacker. If Carolina’s best offer contains Burns, they’ll find themselves counting on Haason Reddick as their best pass rusher.

Where the Panthers could tempt Watson is their management and coaching staff. David Tepper is a new owner in the NFL, but has shown he’ll do whatever it takes to build a competitive roster. Matt Rhule is considered a culture-builder in league circles, Joe Brady is a year removed from guiding the LSU Tigers, and Joe Burrow is arguably the best offensive season in NCAA history.

The Panthers play in the NFC South. In the short-term, things could be pretty tough, as Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers look set to defend their title and the Atlanta Falcons shouldn’t be a laughingstock with Arthur Smith calling the shots. Sean Payton is in cap hell, but the New Orleans Saints will be back if he can figure out the quarterback spot.

New England Patriots

What they could offer Houston:

  • The current 2021 draft capital: 15, 46, 97, 121, 140, 159, 195, 197, 243
  • Trading Cam Newton would carry a $2 million dead cap hit.
  • If Bill Belichick wants to move pieces, there are a few to choose from. Trent Brown only just arrived via trade and would cost New England nothing to part with. Stephon Gilmore has dealt with trade rumors for awhile now, while Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Jones, and J.C. Jackson could all intrigue Nick Caserio.
  • While the Patriots were aggressive in free agency, they still have roughly $15 million in cap space.

Should Deshaun find them appealing?

Cam Newton seemed to love New England, so there may be something to be said for Watson finding the lure of Bill Belichick appealing. Beyond the memes and deadpan press conferences, Belichick is on the short list for the best coaches of all time. I would think that has some sway.

Digging beyond the coaching staff, it gets a bit more murky. New England threw down in free agency to fill a bunch of holes because they’ve drafted poorly for years now.

One consistent issue that caused problems for both Tom Brady and Cam Newton was the dearth of pass catchers in the McDaniels offense. Belichick spent $77.5 million in guarantees to try to address the issue. The Patriots could become a 12 personnel monster with an affordable quarterback at the helm like Cam Newton. They are a little long in the tooth on defense, however.

Zoom out a little and the AFC East only looks marginally better than the AFC West if Watson’s got his eyes on the dance. Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills don’t look like they’re going away, while the Miami Dolphins have the ammo to turn into a contender. Even the hapless Jets have a chance at a franchise quarterback.

New York Jets

What they could offer Houston:

  • The current 2021 draft capital: 2, 23, 34, 66, 87, 108, 147, 155, 186
  • 2022 draft capital: In addition to the Jets’ own draft picks in rounds 1-7, they have the Seattle Seahawks’ first and fourth round pick as well as a couple of extra day three picks.
  • Trading Sam Darnold would cost $5,019,581.
  • If the Texans are interested in players as part of a package with the Jets, the ones that make the most sense from a dead cap vs. value perspective are C.J. Mosely, Corey Davis, and Jamison Crowder. If the Jets aren’t worried about dead cap or losing core pieces, I would assume the Texans could be interested in Mekhi Becton or Quinnen Williams, but it’ll hurt the books. As I write this, Marcus Maye hasn’t signed his franchise tender and thus can’t be part of any trade.
  • Per Over the Cap, the Jets currently have $50 million in cap space.

Should Deshaun find them appealing?

Back when Watson first demanded a trade, there were reports that he would want to play for Robert Saleh. If that’s true, it could matter a great deal. While the last year with Adam Gase wore some of the shine off his shoes, Joe Douglas was considered a great hire when he joined the organization.

Looking beyond the front office and coaching staff, the roster is a huge mess. They were rebuilding when they traded up for Sam Darnold and have done little but tread water since. LeVeon Bell and C.J. Mosely were big time free agent busts and beyond Becton, Williams, and Maye, there isn’t a whole lot on the roster that suggests they’re ready to win big soon. I like Denzel Mims as much as anyone, but he got hurt last year and remains an unknown.

Beyond issues with the AFC East that I’ve laid out above, joining the Jets would mean the New York spotlight for Watson. For some that would be a huge draw, as it will surely mean opportunities off the field that many markets simply can’t provide. For others, the media landscape has to look daunting. It’s impossible to know where Watson lands on it right now.

Miami Dolphins

What they could offer Houston:

  • The current 2021 draft capital: 3, 18, 36, 50, 82, 124, 207, 259
  • Trading Tua Tagovailoa would cost $14,683,875.
  • The Dolphins have a few players that could be moved without huge dead cap hits, such as Xavien Howard, Ereck Flowers, Emmanuel Ogbah, or Bobby McClain. If cost isn’t an issue, other assets like Byron Jones, DeVante Parker, Christian Wilkins, Noah Igbinoghene, and Austin Jackson could intrigue the Texans.
  • The Dolphins have a little more than $23 million in cap space by Over the Cap’s estimates.

Should Deshaun find them appealing?

Lebron James chose South Beach, so it’s hard to imagine Watson wouldn’t find ways to enjoy it as well. Florida also means no state income tax. Beyond those perks, Brian Flores is a coach Watson was linked to when he first asked for a trade. In his second season since becoming a head coach, Flores brought Miami to the doorstep of the playoffs before Ryan Fitzpatrick’s injury led to a blowout loss with Tagovailoa at the helm.

If Watson is looking at rosters, post-trade Miami is in a weird spot. All things considered, they overperformed their talent level a season ago thanks to Flores’ blitz scheme, good special teams play, and Fitzmagic. There are still very real needs for the Dolphins to solve in their receiving corps. and pass rush, and the young offensive line remains a work in progress.

Like the other AFC East teams on this list, the division should be considered. AFC vs. NFC should be as well. Fair or not, it looks like it will be a lot harder to make it to the Super Bowl from the AFC side for years to come.

Denver Broncos

What they could offer Houston:

  • The current 2021 draft capital: 9, 40, 71, 115, 153, 191, 237, 239, 254
  • Trading Drew Lock would cost $1,559,388.
  • The Broncos have a number of assets that may intrigue the Texans. If Houston wants receivers, the Broncos have Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, and K.J. Hamler. If it’s edge talent, George Paton could deal Bradley Chubb, Malik Reed, or even Von Miller. Along the defensive line, the Broncos have Dre’Mont Jones. The only player on the current Broncos roster that they won’t trade is Justin Simmons. Until he signs his franchise tender, he can’t be moved.
  • Per OTC estimates, the Broncos have more than $25 million in cap space.

Should Deshaun find them appealing?

Pat Shurmur is probably the biggest question mark as far as the coaching staff. The Broncos’ offensive coordinator has been mostly average or worse outside of his miracle season with Case Keenum and the Minnesota Vikings. Vic Fangio’s on the hot seat in part because of injuries and quarterback play, but few question his defensive acumen. After watching the dumpster fire around J.J. Watt to start his career, that may set Watson’s mind at ease.

What I think makes the Broncos most appealing, however, is their talent. Where teams like the 49ers or Patriots could trade pieces and feasibly survive it, the Broncos have depth at the three positions Houston probably wants to look at in a trade outside of QB. If Denver deals Courtland Sutton, they still have Tim Patrick to play the X-receiver spot. If Paton sends Bradley Chubb, the decision to retain Von Miller looks brilliant. Dre’Mont Jones? Well, Shelby Harris is still in town.

One factor that can’t be overlooked is that the AFC West is brutal any way you slice it. Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in football and he doesn’t turn 26 until three days after Deshaun Watson.

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