If you're a Vikings fan trying to contain your fever dreams about Minnesota somehow acquiring Deshaun Watson this offseason, two recent developments did you no favors:
First, the story went from the quarterback being "unhappy" with the Texans to reportedly requesting a trade. While Houston is under no obligation to facilitate such a deal, unhappy players often find a way to get what they want.
Second, ESPN's Bill Barnwell went through all 32 NFL teams to find out which ones could carve out plausible trade scenarios for Watson. He found 17 teams that he deemed to be possible destinations and ranked them. And yes, the Vikings were on the list as the 10th most plausible — still a long shot, but not out of the question.
Barnwell even created trade proposals for all 17 teams. Here is the one he concocted for the Vikings:
Vikings send:14th and 90th overall picks in 2021, 2022 first-round pick, 2023 first-round pick (to Texans), QBKirk Cousins(to Patriots)
Texans send:2023 fourth-round pick, QBDeshaun Watson(to Vikings)
Patriots send:2022 fifth-round pick, 2023 fifth-round pick, QBJarrett Stidham(to Texans).
That is ... quite a lot. Dealing away Cousins, an above-average quarterback, plus your next three first-round picks would be a very bold move for Rick Spielman. It would leave little room to make other necessary upgrades, including the continued pursuit of an upgraded offensive line — a yearly pursuit that has limited Cousins' effectiveness and would hamper Watson as well.
Even if I'm convinced there is a very close to zero chance something like that would happen in part because there seem to be a lot of QBs available this offseason and a team coveting one would probably go straight for Watson instead of settling for Cousins, it's the kind of haul that makes me want to examine a more basic question: How good is Deshaun Watson, and would a trade even make sense for the Vikings?
Is he at or at least very near the level of a Patrick Mahomes — a breathtaking mix of arm talent, mobility and playmaking that could lead a team to multiple Super Bowls?
Is he a half-step below that but still clearly a top-5 quarterback?
Is he full-step below that — great but not elite, maybe in the 5-8 range of QBs in the league?
Or does Watson settle in more like an above-average quarterback — the 7-12 range closer to Cousins than Mahomes (not so much in style as results)?
How we answer that question matters, of course. Let's call it the Jurassic Park logic that should always be applied to potential trades and free agents: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.
If we're using some synthesized advanced metrics, the picture is a little cloudy. Pro Football Focus graded Watson as the No. 3 QB in 2020 — behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, one spot ahead of Mahomes and seven spots ahead of Cousins — after he threw for 4,823 yards, 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions and ran for another 400+ yards and 31 first downs.
ESPN's Total QBR final rankings, though, had Watson just No. 12 in the NFL — suggesting some of his numbers were compiled in lower-leverage situations for the Texans, who slumped to a 4-12 record after winning a combined 21 games and back-to-back AFC South titles the previous two seasons.
The Texans had the No. 13 offense in DVOA, per Football Outsiders — good but not great. Their defensive demise explains their crash in the standings — from No. 5 in DVOA in 2018 to No. 30 this season — but it's worth noting that their offensive DVOA in 2018 (19th) and 2019 (17th) was decidedly average.
A good share of the blame for that inefficiency can go to a subpar offensive line, which graded out No. 23 as a unit per PFF in 2020 and was below average the previous two years as well.
Watson was sacked an absurd league-high 62 times in 2018, then 44 more times in 2019 and 49 times in 2020 (second-most behind Carson Wentz).
Then again, quarterbacks bear at least some responsibility for sacks. Per PFF, Watson spent 2.99 seconds in the pocket per dropback in 2020 — tied for third-longest in the league with Buffalo's Josh Allen. You'll find a lot of talented mobile quarterbacks near the top of that list — Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson and Mahomes are also in the top six.
Elusive quarterbacks tend to hold the ball longer and try to make plays by extending them. That's a major skill that Cousins, for instance, lacks. When a play falls apart, he's not great at freelancing and he's an average runner at best.
But is Watson less elusive than, say, Mahomes, who was only sacked 22 times this season despite holding the ball almost as long as Watson? Or is Mahomes simply playing behind a better offensive line (No. 11 in PFF's ratings) with better playmakers around him? Maybe a little of both?
Watson's early career reminds me a little of that of Wilson, and if that's the comparison it's a flattering one — though not as flattering as Mahomes or Rodgers. Wilson showed he clearly had talent early on and has progressed to become a bona fide star and franchise QB. Watson likely has another gear he could reach with better support and more experience.
It's instructive to note, though, that Seattle's two Super Bowl appearances and one win with Wilson came while he was still on his extreme bargain rookie contract. Since Wilson became more expensive, the Seahawks have been more pinched by the salary cap and — while still competitive every year — haven't even made it back to an NFC title game.
Watson is still relatively team-friendly in 2021 — any team that trades for him would have him for about a $10 million cap hit next year since the signing bonus part of his pay ($5.4 million) would stay on Houston's cap. That's what makes a Vikings swap even feasible. Cousins would count $20 million on Minnesota's cap in 2021 if he was traded because he is still owed that much in signing bonus, but that figure plus Watson's figure would be about the same as if the Vikings had Cousins next season.
But in 2022 and beyond, Watson will be playing on a second, expensive contract that will pay him like the top QB he seems like he is.
The question for any potential acquiring team, including the Vikings: Is Watson good enough to justify that expense? You would have to believe he was a top-5, no-doubt QB to do that with real confidence — at least if your goal was to win a Super Bowl.
Would the Vikings be any closer to a Super Bowl with Watson making $30-plus million instead of Cousins, minus three first-round picks and perhaps unable to meaningfully upgrade a continuously shaky offensive line?
I'm not sure they would be, but I'm not the one making that decision.
It's a question Spielman needs to answer before he would even pick up the phone and explore such a deal, as remote as it might be in the first place.