There are a few reasons Deshaun Watson isn’t a slam-dunk option for the New York Jets, but one reason stands alone.
It’s recently been said often and by many Twitter accounts: Whatever your team is willing to give up for Deshaun Watson, it’s not enough. Leave it to Twitter to keep life so simplistic.
From a backyard, strap ’em up point of view, sure, it’s true. Watson is among the handful of NFL quarterbacks that are either in the invaluable category or are mighty close. Acquiring the exciting dual-threat righty makes sense for most professional squads.
Unfortunately, not all of us view football from the backyard. We know Joe Douglas can’t afford to. We also know the New York Jets better not view it from such a simplistic scope. Professional football will hammer those who do.
The NFL is abuzz over Watson’s displeasure with his current employer, the Houston Texans. Watson is “extremely unhappy” with the Texans after they informed him he’d be a part of the hiring process (general manager and head coach) but brought on Nick Caserio without as much as a call, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
It’s led to trade rumors abound. Every quarterback-hungry franchise now finds itself in the middle of a Watson trade-rumor storm. Naturally, this includes the New York Jets.
Picking second in the 2021 NFL draft, Douglas can theoretically solve his quarterback problem with Ohio State’s Justin Fields or BYU’s Zach Wilson. He can obviously solve the issue with Watson, which is the sentiment that forces the majority of the fanbase to hop on the existing-superstar train.
A superstar quarterback in New Jersey? Yes. A household name leading the Jets in the next installment of Madden? Where do I sign? That sentiment is a tough one to combat with just a few minutes of time or 280 characters on the internet.
Once the topic is dug into a bit, it’s obvious that Watson to the Jets is no slam-dunk option.
By no means should anybody be dead-set against a Watson deal. If choosing between Watson, Fields, Wilson or Sam Darnold—with everything else being equal—the answer is obvious: Watson is the guy.
Not everything is equal.
It’s (sort of) all about the Benjamins
It’s all about the Benjamins. Well, not really. What’s lost on many folks when thinking about the salary cap is that it’s not all about the Benjamins. The actual money end of it is the least important part for a front office.
No salary cap, no problem. Give up the assets and bring the Clemson product in immediately. In a world George Steinbrenner wouldn’t be able to stand, however, much more is at play.
The salary cap is about a parameter. It’s the tool in which general managers build out a team, the entire pie from which each player must be dedicated a specific slice.
Watson signed an extension in 2020 that made him the second-richest quarterback in the land. His $39 million annual average places him just behind Patrick Mahomes‘s $45 million. The deal included $110.7 million in guarantees. How Houston could even trade the kid with so much guaranteed money owed is the first major roadblock. (It’s absolutely possible, but it’ll significantly hurt Houston’s cap situation by way of dead money.)
The next logistical issue surrounds Watson’s no-trade clause. It’s not a dead-end issue, but it’s something else that complicates matters.
This language is in Deshaun Watson's contract (no trade clause).
Club shall not be permitted to trade Player's Contract to any other Club in the NFL during the 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 or 2025 NFL League Years without Player's prior written consent.
— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) January 7, 2021
More importantly, for the Jets, acquiring Watson would drastically change Douglas’s team-building trajectory.
Everything immediately changes
At this moment, Douglas has a plethora of draft assets, the No. 2 pick he can use on a quarterback and over $62 million in cap space (which could turn into much more), per Spotrac. The last piece of it is the most critical.
The rookie salary wage forced general managers to turn on a dime. Instead of wasting away years with a terrible quarterback pick at the top of the draft, suddenly, these rookies weren’t making as much as they did in prior years. The structured rookie cap allowed teams to snag a young quarterback and more easily and rapidly build the team around that guy who was making peanuts (when compared to his actual value).
The Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks are just two teams who used the rookie quarterback window to their benefit. Plenty of other examples—such as the Philadelphia Eagles—also exist. Opening that quarterback rookie salary window is the most beneficial move to any NFL general manager today.
A Watson acquisition would mean the Jets cannot take that tried and tested route.
A rookie quarterback (No. 2 pick) would earn around $8-9 million a year over four years—prior to his fifth-year team option. This would allow Douglas’s cap space to remain firm and his long-term plan solid. It would also allow for much more flexibility. Players that are missed on can much more easily be replaced in a world of such breathable space.
Watson, on the other hand, would come in and immediately gash the cap. His cap number in 2021 is $15.9 million. That would make New York’s $62 million in space turn into a little over $46 million right away (and more if any guarantees carry over).
The 2021 season wouldn’t take an enormous hit, but starting in 2022, major cap room would be tied up in Watson. His cap number is $40.4 million in 2022, $42.4 million in 2023, $34.7 million in 2024 and $32 million in 2025, per OverTheCap. How Watson’s $62.5 million in guarantees remaining works out via trade is the real rub. How much would Houston pay and how much would (or could) New York take?
In the best-case scenario, Watson’s cap hits are enormous moving forward. The Jets’ entire team-building trajectory would automatically change. The flexibility is no longer there over the long-haul and the window moves from perhaps a three-year one to a near-win-now vibe. With Watson, much less cap space and fewer assets (that would have to go in the Watson deal) would have that happen.
Can the Jets roster be good enough in 2021 to handle that mentality with Watson?
Douglas is no dummy. He’s a first-year general manager who has his eyes on the real prize at the end of the tunnel: a Super Bowl. It’s part of the reason he made sure he signed a six-year deal to come to New York. And if that wasn’t the case, he would have pulled a Mike Maccagnan “aggressive rebuild” last offseason—creating a team just good enough for seven or eight wins and bad enough to halt future progress.
He’ll never relent any value, no matter the situation. Every dollar matters under the salary cap, and only when every dollar is maxed out responsibly can special things happen for an NFL franchise year in, year out.
By no means should anybody be dead-set against acquiring Deshaun Watson. His ability makes it clear that he’s among the top quarterbacks in the league and every professional team would be lucky to have him.
Just be careful. It’s not a slam-dunk idea by any means. The entire Joe Douglas team-building trajectory changes on a dime, forcing the New York Jets’ future window to be smaller and open for a shorter period of time.
It would signal a significant risk based on the organization’s current and correct strategy.