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Making sense of the Deshaun Watson-to-Falcons trade reports

Attempting to answer the big questions surrounding a potential deal.

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Atlanta Falcons v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Falcons have been gearing up for another low-key, ho-hum offseason. The first day of legal tampering passed with barely a whisper from this football team, and they told us they’d be patient and think long-term as they try to rebuild a shaky roster. They were quiet, and it was fair to expect they’d stay quiet until free agency actually starts.

Suddenly, they aren’t. Even slight interest in Deshaun Watson would qualify as earth-rumbling news, and given that the team is reportedly meeting with Watson tomorrow with a decision expected on his next destination this week, it’s more than seismic. The Falcons are trying to stop their division rivals from getting Watson and nab him themselves, shaking up the NFC South and profoundly altering the trajectory of the franchise. It would be a shocking move—the interest alone is stunning—and one that comes with a raft of questions and myriad implications.

If you’re reeling from finding out about this like I am, let’s go through some of the biggest questions together.

Why are the Falcons interested?

Watson is a franchise quarterback who will be 27 years old shortly after the season begins. You have to start there to understand why Atlanta would have even passing interest in getting this done. In terms of on-the-field ability and potential, Watson is great now and will likely be great for many years to come.

The Falcons have talked about not making moves that cost them in the future at the expense of the now, and this would fit the bill if looked at through the right prism. Watson’s deal will be costly, yes, but it becomes more reasonable and has built-in outs beyond the 2023 season if the Falcons want to take them or extend him. He’s a decade younger than Matt Ryan and would figure to be good for a long time, so the Falcons would be making this trade with the expectation that they’re acquiring their next franchise quarterback for anywhere from five years to a decade, and they’d obviously be hoping for the latter.

It’s been said many times that the quarterback is the most important position in football. The Falcons would no longer be looking at rolling the dice on a quarterback from what’s being looked at as a shaky class, hoping Ryan can play at a high level once the roster is fixed up, or navigating a middle ground and hoping they’re in a position to draft a great quarterback in the near future. They’d have someone who threw for 4,800 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2020 for a miserable Texans team and is still young. The short-term costs associated with a trade would make building the roster up more difficult, but once they do they’d have one of the better quarterbacks in the league at the helm of the offense. The appeal of that is not hard to understand.

It’s also worth noting that acquiring Watson would prevent the Panthers and Saints from doing so, forcing one division rival (it’s not clear who would be the frontrunner for Watson) to look elsewhere for a quarterback and likely setting them back significantly on their quest for relevance. I’m not saying the Falcons are setting out specifically to try to put the screws to their most loathed rivals, but I am saying it has to be viewed as a perk in Flowery Branch.

What are the obstacles to a trade?

There are many, many obstacles, and we’re not even going to talk about compensation just yet.

The first is Watson himself. He demanded a trade from the Texans before the 2021 season and found himself facing legal trouble starting on March 16, 2021, when attorney Tony Buzbee announced he was filing suit against Watson on behalf of women Watson had allegedly harassed and sexually assaulted. The allegations came from massage therapists who said Watson inappropriately exposed himself and touched them, as well as coerced more than one into performing oral sex on him. With those allegations looming, Watson went silent beyond a brief statement, and spent the entire 2021 season awaiting placement on the commissioner’s exempt list (that never happened) and did not play a single down for Houston.

A grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Watson earlier this month, but he’s still facing 22 civil cases and potential NFL discipline. Any team acquiring Watson has to believe in his innocence, or (more cynically) that at least that he’ll ultimately come out on the other end of his lawsuits without damning evidence of wrongdoing coming to the forefront. They’ll have to hope that he will not find himself embroiled in any further allegations, that he’ll avoid frequenting massage therapists who will be justifiably wary of having anything to do with him, and they’ll have to answer to everyone who justifiably wants to know why they’re comfortable acquiring a player who 22 women have said sexually pestered them at best and assaulted them at worst.

You can presume innocence and still understand that these are deeply serious allegations, and that it is notoriously difficult for women to be taken seriously and/or achieve any sort of justice when actions like those outlined in the cases against Watson do happen.

That brings us to a second item, which is a looming league suspension. The Falcons may well just internally agree that 2022 is going to be a bit of a lost year if they make this trade, but it’s quite possible that Watson could face a multi-game suspension that could range from a couple of games to (and I think this is less likely) a full season. The team would need a good backup on hand to ensure they could get through that stretch, whatever it ends up being, and know that they’re going to be acquiring a quarterback with an uncertain 2022 outlook as a result.

The third is the cap picture. The Falcons will have to eat major dead money to move Matt Ryan—and they will move him, obviously, if they make this trade—and absorb a $40 million cap hit from Watson when he arrives in Atlanta. If Ryan’s restructure hasn’t been applied—and it has reportedly not been finalized—he’d eat up something like $28 million in cap space. That would mean the Falcons would have to find close to $70 million in room to accommodate a trade, which would likely in turn involve a major extensions or trades, even if they can make adjustments to Watson’s contract to make life easier once he arrives with the Falcons.

Atlanta just re-signed Younghoe Koo to a lucrative multi-year deal, too, which depending on structure could impact their space this year at least a little bit. The implications of making those moves would be significantly decreased cap flexibility in the short term, potentially a mass exodus of talent now, and potentially an even weaker roster with basically no wiggle room under the cap this year and fewer draft resources. They’d be looking at more space next year, but depending on what they do to Watson’s contract, it’s not clear they’ll be sitting on a lot.

The Falcons would obviously absorb significant criticism for doing this trade and would risk losing personal seat licenses, merchandise sales and support from those in the fanbase who would feel alienated by the addition of a player still facing serious allegations, criminal or no. Arthur Blank and the Falcons have been shy in the past about adding players who have off-field issues that could damage the team’s brand, so this would be a significant departure from the recent norm for them, and they’d have to reassure fans, team staff, local and national media and a host of other stakeholders that they’ve done their due diligence and believe Watson’s version of events. That in turn opens them up to further criticism, though cynically they likely know enough fans will be energized to offset the fans quitting the team and that time will cause the furor to subside to the background. If I may be even more cynical, they’ll probably be correct.

Finally, Matt Ryan has a no-trade clause. Assuming Houston even wants him—a big assumption given that they are not a team that looks like they’re ready to be major contenders in a stacked AFC the next two years—would Ryan want to go? That’s not the most significant stumbling block here, but it’s worth noting.

What would it cost the Falcons to make a trade?

The price appears to be something like three first-round picks, potentially additional picks, and players. I have no idea what the parameters of the deal would look like for Atlanta, but let’s say it was a 2022 first and second, 2023 first, and 2024 first, plus a couple of veterans Houston had interest in.

That hypothetical price is steep, and would make much more sense for Atlanta if they already had a roster that was built to contend in the NFC. Even if that isn’t an accurate price at the end of the day, it’s very unlikely that the Falcons would acquire Watson for anything less than multiple first-round picks and additional assets. Adding Watson would obviously improve the team to some extent, but losing out on top draft choices and navigating extremely limited cap space this year and more limited cap space next year is going to make it that much more challenging for the Falcons to build a contender around him.

Bottom line: It’s doable given the Falcons’ resources, but it will be expensive.

What happens with Matt Ryan?

This is a big question, too. Maybe the Texans really want Ryan, feel they can contend now and would be thrilled to roll with him for the next two-to-five years. We know that Ryan seems well-regarded around the league and hasn’t appeared to fall off significantly enough that the league’s perception of him should have changed. Perhaps you can take a second-round pick off the table in exchange for Ryan if that’s the case.

It’s not at all clear it will be the case, however. The Texans have Davis Mills entering his second year and are not, on paper, good enough to be among the AFC’s elites. Hell, they may not even be a playoff team this year or next, which would lead one to wonder why they would take on a veteran quarterback who by dint of age and contract is a player you’d like to try to win with right now. If Houston’s not interested, you have to find a new home for Ryan.

Your options at this stage of the game would be limited. If the Browns are exploring Watson, perhaps they would be interested in Ryan as a consolation prize. The Colts still don’t have a quarterback and have a roster that would benefit from a steady, reliable player like Ryan at the helm of the offense. Beyond that, they don’t seem to have any compelling options unless they’re willing to trade Ryan to the Panthers or Saints, which would seem to be a complete non-starter. It’s not clear what they’d get back for Ryan if they did find a trade partner, either, though it would at least help offset the cost of dealing for Watson.

Will it happen?

The fact that the Falcons are even involved in the pursuit of Watson tells you there’s a chance, as improbable as that would have seemed as recently as a few hours ago. It just seems to be a slim chance.

To do this, the Falcons would need to outbid the Panthers, Saints and Browns, find a trade partner for Matt Ryan, empty a war chest of picks, somehow navigate around close to $70 million in cap space and dead money tied up in a quarterback set to play for them and one they’d be dealing away, and deal with the public relations fallout such a move would entail. These are not insurmountable challenges for a team motivated enough to make the move, but the confluence of those issues and the fact that there are other suitors who have been aggressively pursuing Watson for some time suggests the Falcons are the longshot Adam Schefter is hearing they are.

All we can do in the meantime is sit back and see what happens, as nerve-wracking as that is. There will plenty of time to consider the fallout of Atlanta’s interest in Watson, whether they land him or not, but hopefully reading this gave you a sense of the stakes.