NFLTR Review: The NFL Trade Deadline Just Got Interesting

We were headed toward a snoozefest of a trade deadline before talks between the Dolphins and Texans about Deshaun Watson suddenly roared back to life. There’s a ton to dig into with this story, so let’s get right to it.

  • Why now? 
  • Can Watson even play?
  • What happens to Tua?

Every Angle Of The Latest Watson Rumors

A week ago, here’s where we were with the whole Deshaun Watson saga. Talks had seemingly died down due to the combination of uncertainty surrounding Watson’s ominous legal situation and Houston’s enormous asking price. It really seemed like this situation was set to drag out until sometime in the 2022 offseason when there was more clarity all around. 

Then on Wednesday, John McClain and Mark Berman, sages of the Texans beat, reported the team was working on a trade that could finally send Watson to the Miami Dolphins — long believed to be his preferred landing spot — before the November 2 trade deadline and as soon as the end of this week

We’ve had months and months of Watson trade rumors but the tenor and timing of this report are different. There’s no guarantee a deal gets done, as a number of later reports pumped the brakes on a deal being “imminent.” But for the first time since the start of this whole saga, it really feels like a trade might be on the verge of coming together. 

What can we learn from all the reports the past two days? 

There’s obviously a lot that’s come out in the past 48 hours or so on this topic, and it can be difficult to sort through it all to figure out what’s legit and what’s not. To start I think it’s important to tell you a little bit about our process here at NFLTR. We’re a “rumors” site but we do have high standards for what we publish. Just because you read it on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true. If a report doesn’t come from a reporter or outlet with a verified track record of accuracy, we don’t run it. 

Now reporters sometimes make mistakes and NFL people have no issues lying or stretching the truth when it suits them. So it can be instructive to look at all the recent reporting on Watson and ask a few questions:

Where is this coming from? 

Who does it benefit to have this information out there? 

Here’s what we’ve got so far when it comes to Watson:

  • The initial reports, linked above, from Texans beat reporters saying the two sides were negotiating a deal. McClain, who has been covering Houston sports for nearly 50 years and is as plugged in as anyone in that market, also published a follow-up Thursday saying the two sides have continued to negotiate
  • A follow-up by the Athletic’s Jeff Howe and Aaron Reiss, also linked above, downplaying the seriousness of talks and pointing out teams often try to drum up interest close to the deadline. Howe formerly worked the Patriots beat and just moved to a national role, while Reiss is the Texans beat reporter. In an appearance on the Pat McAfee Show, NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport also said he didn’t get the sense a deal was imminent. 
  • Armando Salguero, a former Dolphins beat reporter who just recently moved from the Miami Herald to Outkick, had two reports on the subject, one saying Miami is in negotiations with Houston and a third team regarding Watson and a separate player in another deal believed to be Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa; the second saying he’s gotten conflicting reports from sources with differing agendas on where a trade stands. Aaron Wilson, a Texans beat reporter formerly with the Houston Chronicle, had a similar report about the third team and player, though he didn’t name Tagovailoa. 
  • ESPN’s Dolphins beat reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques reported that a close source to the situation called all the rumors surrounding Miami’s role in the situation “false.”
  • A number of beat reporters from the Broncos and Washington tweeted rebuttals to their teams being the mystery third team involved for Tagovailoa (here, here, here and here). All the Houston reporters are on the same page in reporting the Texans aren’t interested in Tagovailoa as part of a return for Watson. 
  • Beat reporters covering the Panthers saying Carolina isn’t interested right now, though there’s some dispute about to what degree they have engaged recently in talks with the Texans. Panthers HC Matt Rhule publicly put his support behind incumbent QB Sam Darnold

 Going back to our questions above, we see a clear trend of reporters with Texans connections taking a much more optimistic tone regarding a trade. As the Athletic report points out, it does help Houston to have as many teams interested in Watson as possible to try and leverage as much of a return as possible. 

That doesn’t mean Miami isn’t interested, regardless of what they may have told ESPN. It’s in the Dolphins’ best interests to deny anything involving Watson right up until they have a deal done to avoid damaging the locker room. Frankly, that’s true of Carolina too, as well as the reports around Tagovailoa and other teams. 

At this point, it appears it’s the Dolphins or bust for Watson. They’re the only team that’s been seriously connected recently and more importantly, McClain’s second report stated Watson is willing to waive his no-trade clause to go there. 

McClain rarely misses, so when he says Watson, the Texans and the Dolphins all want to get a deal done, that should carry a lot of weight. What it will come down to is whether they can agree on the price. 

We’ve heard about a Watson trade for months. Why should this time be different? 

Ben makes a fair point here. But there are a few things about this report that suggest it could be different. First of all, there’s the upcoming trade deadline on November 2. Deadlines drive action and for all of their posturing, the ideal situation for Houston at this point is to move on. 

That doesn’t mean they’ll just dump Watson. The Texans can’t trade him without getting fair value and they do have time on their side. But if they don’t trade Watson before the deadline, they can’t do a deal until 2022. 

There are also the events in London on Sunday, as the Dolphins lost in embarrassing fashion to the Jacksonville Jaguars, previously the league’s biggest dumpster fire and owners of a 20-game losing streak. Miami expected to take a leap forward this year and at minimum vie for a playoff spot. Instead, they’re 1-5. 

Tagovailoa wasn’t the team’s biggest problem on Sunday — in fact you can make a strong case that he was one of their best performers outside of a head-scratching interception that hurt, but didn’t doom, their chances. But he also wasn’t the solution, the type of transcendent player who could lift the team to victory like Chargers QB Justin Herbert has been, much to Miami’s chagrin after passing on him. 

It’s arguably the worst miss of GM Chris Grier’s tenure — but it’s far from the only one. Grier’s hit rate on all the picks he’s collected is disappointing, and HC Brian Flores is struggling to get the most out of his team right now. Owner Stephen Ross is 81 and ready to win yesterday. Though the team denies it, it’s also a poorly kept secret that Ross is infatuated with Watson. 

Add it all up, and you get a team that might finally be desperate enough to pay the exorbitant asking price the Texans have. 

Can Watson even play if the Dolphins trade for him? 

The short answer is it’s almost impossible to definitively say one way or another. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell might be the only person who knows for certain, as at this point Watson’s playing future rests almost solely in his hands. 

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about football so far, but we cannot and should not go any further without discussing Watson’s legal situation. He faces 22 civil lawsuits from separate massage therapists who say Watson did everything from exposing himself to trying to get them to touch him outside the boundaries of normal massage treatment to outright sexual assault. There are as many as 25 women who have come forward in total, and the Houston police have an open criminal investigation. The NFL is also investigating. 

Many former NFL players have noted how strange it is to churn through so many different massage therapists. It should also be noted that false accusations in these sorts of situations are rare — let alone when there are well over 20 women saying similar things. Watson is entitled to defend himself in court but I cannot impress enough just how serious these accusations are. I’ve been a Panthers fan for a long time, but if they traded for Watson, I would have some things to re-evaluate. 

Right now, there is theoretically nothing stopping Watson from playing. He has not been suspended, as the NFL investigation is still ongoing. And he has not been placed on the commissioner’s exempt list which essentially amounts to paid leave. Watson’s trade demands and legal status have created a situation where neither he nor the team want him to be on the field, The Texans have been content to essentially put him on informal paid leave themselves and just burn a roster spot. 

That’s also meant the NFL hasn’t had to make a decision about placing Watson on the exempt list. When trying to understand why, remember the NFL’s public relations strategy tends to be reactive rather than proactive. They won’t make a decision on Watson until they have to. As long as he’s in Houston, they don’t have to. 

If he is indeed traded to the Dolphins, that changes the situation dramatically. Miami would presumably be ready to get Watson onto the field as soon as possible. The NFL would have to make a decision on whether or not to place Watson on the exempt list at that point. In my opinion, their past history in these kinds of cases indicates they would hold Watson out. 

  • July 27, 2020: The NFL placed Broncos WR Cody Latimer, Giants CB Deandre Baker and Seahawks CB Quinton Dunbar on the exempt list. Baker and Dunbar were embroiled in that wild armed robbery/extortion incident, while Latimer had been arrested and charged with assault. 
  • October 23, 2019: Steelers OLB Anthony Chickillo landed on the exempt list after being arrested and charged in an incident with his girlfriend. He was removed from the list after the complaint was withdrawn a week later. 
  • November 30, 2018: Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt was placed on the exempt list after a video of him kicking a woman became public. There were no charges filed. 
  • October 21, 2016: Giants K Josh Brown is placed on the exempt list after evidence from a domestic violence case against him became public that the NFL had not seen before. 

Other prominent players like Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson have landed on the exempt list for extended periods of time. The common threads all these situations carry is that they were for serious crimes. Several players now have pending charges for things like DUIs that will likely result in suspensions eventually, but the NFL allows them to play in the meantime. If you’re charged or implicated in something as serious as assault or domestic violence, the league tends to step in. 

Looking at all of these cases, I have a hard time seeing how the NFL doesn’t put Watson on the exempt list should he be traded before November 2. Depending on when his legal situation wraps up and the NFL concludes its investigation, some kind of suspension in 2022 feels highly probable as well. 

For whatever it’s worth, Watson’s camp believes he’ll be able to play. Take that with a cup of salt. McClain reported Thursday the Dolphins have been trying to ascertain with Goodell if Watson will be available. He adds that Miami wants the quarterback to resolve his legal situation which I take to refer to a settlement. That would be the speediest resolution to a situation that could drag well into 2022 otherwise. 

What does Miami do with Tua? 

Tagovailoa is the collateral damage in this scenario. He played fairly well against the Jaguars in his first game back after broken ribs and between injuries, coaching and supporting cast, he hasn’t been dealt a great hand to start his career. But it’s also true that there are real questions about how high his ceiling as a quarterback is, which is why the Dolphins continue to be linked to Watson. 

Initially my gut reaction was that even if Miami did land Watson in the next 10 days or so, it didn’t necessarily mean Tagovailoa would be booted out the door immediately. As outlined, there are serious questions about when Watson would be available and Tagovailoa could start in the meantime. Perhaps he even balls out and raises his trade value. 

Realistically though, Tagovailoa is done the second Miami pulls the trigger on a deal for Watson. It will be clear the team has cast him aside, and that’s an untenable situation for a quarterback who’s supposed to command the locker room. Backup QB Jacoby Brissett is much better suited to be a placeholder until Watson can play, while the best thing for both the Dolphins and Tagovailoa is a trade. 

The going rate for damaged young quarterbacks (Josh Rosen, Darnold) has been roughly a second-round pick with some other pick swaps involved. That’s probably what Miami can expect to get back for Tagovailoa if they try to deal him after trading for Watson. 

As to who might be interested, there are quite a number of teams who could use a young prospect at the position. There’s a reason the Broncos and Washington were the subjects of so much speculation they had to put out rebuttals to their beat reporters. Neither team has a viable long-term option at the position on the roster right now. It’s worth noting Washington did a lot of work on Tagovailoa, including hosting him for a top 30 visit, when he was coming out. The Steelers and Saints are two other teams whose future is up in the air at quarterback. 

If Miami decides to hold onto Tagovailoa, or this whole situation gets delayed until 2022, some other teams like the Panthers and Lions could enter the fray. Carolina won’t trade for Tagovailoa without giving Darnold a look for the rest of this season and Detroit is in a similar boat with Goff for now. 

This Week In Football

  • If you’ve had to set a fantasy football lineup this week, you already know injuries have wrecked a ton of teams and taken down some of the game’s brightest stars. The list of injuries includes, but is not limited to:
    • Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey, who was placed on injured reserve after being downgraded in practice last week trying to come back from a hamstring injury. He’s now out three more games, minimum. McCaffrey’s last two injuries have been soft tissue injuries that worsened during rehab, so we’re at the point where concerns about his durability and workload have to be taken seriously. 
    • Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was placed on injured reserve, which still leaves an absence of just three games and a Week 10 return as a possibility. But there are some rumblings that might be too optimistic, which would be bad news for Seattle’s aspirations of contending this year. 
    • After trying to rehab unsuccessfully, Ravens LT Ronnie Stanley had his third ankle surgery in the past 11 months and will be shut down on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Baltimore has been able to survive all of its injuries so far but this is a huge setback for Stanley who has barely played since signing a massive extension with the Ravens. 
    • The beat-up Browns are at the point where they have it almost as bad as the Ravens. Starting QB Baker Mayfield is set to miss his first start with a torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder. He plans to play through the injury when it’s not a short week but he’s already dislocated it twice in a month and now is apparently dealing with a fracture. A number of other Browns are hurt but the most serious injury was to RB Kareem Hunt, who was placed on injured reserve with a calf injury. He’ll miss 4-6 weeks, along with a standout rookie, second-round LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who has a high ankle sprain. 
  • Not all the injury news is bad, though. Week 7 means that players who started the season on the PUP list are eligible to return for the first time, though all of them will need to ramp back into action to varying degrees. Panthers CB Stephon Gilmore might be the first to see the field this week, even if only in a part-time role, as he returns to practice. The Packers also got standout LT David Bakhtiari back at practice this week, though HC Matt LaFleur sounded like the plan was to be a little more patient with him. Saints WR Michael Thomas is still a couple of weeks from returning, as his ankle surgery was just in June following the delay and he has more recovery work left than the other two. Week 9 against the Falcons feels like a more realistic target date. 
  • Cam Newton is back in the news cycle, as the former MVP quarterback revealed he has been vaccinated, removing one major obstacle to his potential NFL return. Newton has had some contact with teams, most notably the Seahawks following the injury to Wilson, but it doesn’t sound like anything is really imminent as far as him returning to action. Seattle seems content to roll with Geno Smith if Wilson is going to miss just three games rather than try and catch Newton up midstream. If Wilson has a setback or Smith really flops, perhaps things change. 
  • That Texans win in Week 1 feels a long way away and at 1-5 there are no delusions that Houston has its eyes on anything but the future. That point was hammered home when the team cut veteran DE Whitney Mercilus this week, who was still owed a big chunk of guaranteed money and was going on 10 years all in Houston. His release frees up playing time for younger options. But it’s not all bad for Mercilus. He still gets his money and lands with the Green Bay Packers who have higher aspirations in the near future than the Texans do. 
  • Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones has fallen down the depth chart and is now clearly just there to spell Leonard Fournette in Tampa Bay. That’s prompted other teams to check in on his availability in a trade. Fantasy football managers would surely rejoice (*raises hand*) but Buccaneers HC Bruce Arians poured cold water on that idea. Arians made it clear the Buccaneers aren’t trading away anyone they think has the slightest chance of helping them win a Super Bowl this year. Jones isn’t on the block even though he’s a backup in a contract year. 
  • One running back who definitely is on the block is Marlon Mack in Indianapolis. The two sides have mutually agreed a trade would be best and the circumstances might actually be right for a deal. A number of teams are dealing with injuries at the position that have tested their depth sorely. The 49ers, Panthers and Saints have joined the Chiefs as teams who have inquired about Mack. Asking price will certainly play a role here but Mack’s contract isn’t burdensome at all. Even a swap of late-rounders might be enough to get this done. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

Last week, I wrote it was too soon for the Dolphins to hit the panic button. They can go ahead and hit it now…

This is embarrassing to the highest degree. And it gets worse…

That’s the brother of the opponent’s quarterback who filmed a Tik Tok dancing on Sean Taylor’s memorial…

This basically sums it up. There was a lot of optimism that hires like HC Ron Rivera and team president Jason Wright were the type of high-quality individuals who could turn around a truly dismal organization, both on and off the field. Instead, so far they’ve been pulled down by it…

In back-to-back offseasons, the Panthers and Rhule have gone after Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Darnold. Bridgewater was a career game manager who struggled to truly elevate his supporting cast, while Darnold was a talented yet shell-shocked passer with a lot of bad habits to unlearn from playing behind a poor offensive line. And somehow, Rhule has been surprised each time when Bridgewater and Darnold have turned out to be the exact same guys they were before…

I just don’t get how Rhule expected anything different from Darnold behind the offensive line they gave him. McCaffrey masked a lot of things the first few weeks, as did a weak schedule. But the answer isn’t giving it to Chuba Hubbard and Royce Freeman 30 times a game like he suggested in a screed this week…

What on earth are we even doing here…

It was stiff competition for the dumbest thing of the week between those three tweets…

Game management and his “embrace” of analytics have been popular points to beat Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy with, but this shows he might not be all hot air on the subject…

This passage from Seth Wickersham’s book about the Patriots and excerpted to Sports Illustrated actually says a lot about the 49ers to me…

“The 49ers’ coaching staff had quiet doubts about Garoppolo, even before the Super Bowl, feeling that it took an inordinate amount of energy to get his head ready for game day and that he perhaps lacked Brady’s extreme drive for excellence. In the playoffs, Shanahan had called plays like a coach with limited faith in his quarterback, leaning heavily on the running game. Some in the building felt that Shanahan was too hard on Garoppolo, causing him to play tentatively. The coaches liked Garoppolo personally—and so did his teammates, enough to elect him captain—but Shanahan was open to the idea of an upgrade….”

The critique about Shanahan’s coaching style stands out, especially with the curious way guys like Dante Pettis, Brandon Aiyuk, Trey Sermon and Trey Lance have been handled…

This might change this week after they play the Colts, but I don’t think the 49ers get enough criticism for letting DT DeForest Buckner go and not moving on from DT Arik Armstead instead. Armstead is solid but it’s clear Buckner is in another class…

It should not go unnoticed how the Packers have been in on a number of the big names to shake free so far this season — Stephon Gilmore, Jaylon Smith and Whitney Mercilus — and landed two out of three…

Ooof…

He’s had some bad interception luck (and some admittedly bad interceptions) but Patrick Mahomes is playing out of his mind right now and sometimes it just takes a shift in perspective to see that…

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