Every morning, the television in my studio at SportsRadio 610 is tuned into ESPN's cadre of debate shows, and every morning one of the front burner topics is some form of "the Houston Texans are NOT trading Deshaun Watson." It was that way again this past week, and yet, the Texans' corresponding "chess" (checkers? Candy Land?) moves were to cut the team's existing center who Watson allegedly likes (Nick Martin) with two years remaining on his deal, and sign a veteran center who hasn't played since 2019 because of injury (Justin Britt) to a cheap one year deal.
Just to be clear, I am no fan of Nick Martin, and honestly, I'm not sure Deshaun Watson truly is either. Watson seems to be able to find the good in anybody (not named Cal or Jack). Cutting Martin for salary cap purposes is fine with me. But to be equally clear, cutting players in their prime years to replace them with one year Band Aids is not the sign of a team gearing up to roll out the red carpet and welcome home their disgruntled quarterback.
Moves like these, moves like re-signing washed up David Johnson to a one-year deal last week, these are the moves of a team getting ready for a total teardown, a total tank job, a totally focused effort to get the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Texans can pay lip service all they want to their desire to keep Deshaun Watson. Nothing they've done (or NOT done, when it comes to terminating Jack Easterby) indicates they are building this team for Watson to thrive in 2021.
Indeed, even if Watson were coming back around on feeling amenable to being a Houston Texan again, he might be better served to sit out 2021 anyway, for self preservation reasons. So I'm assuming the Texans' "we ain't trading Watson" stance right now is posturing, and a total rebuild is on the horizon. If so, with some key dates coming up on the NFL calendar (March 9 is the deadline for franchise tags, and March 17 is the beginning of free agency), here is my to-do list over the next several weeks for Texans GM Nick Caserio:
Don't be afraid to look to 2022 and beyond
The year 2021 is going to be a total Texans clown show, and quite honestly, "clown show" is the goal if you're going to get the first pick in 2022, right? Let's get loaded for the 2022 draft, and pick as high as possible. To that end, I wouldn't get overly focused on making sure all your upcoming trades for draft picks (Watson being the biggest one, by far) load up in the 2021 draft. The biggest reason for this is that, with COVID, the normal scouting cycle has been shattered into pieces. There's no scouting combine this year, there are a ton of players who opted out of the college season in 2020, and the season itself was completely unconventional. In other words, the intel on players in this draft is a fraction of what it would normally be. So why not load up on drafts in 2022 and 2023 when you'll be better informed as a personnel department?
Keep your signings this offseason short and simple
The biggest reasons I am cool with the Justin Britt signing is that it is a short term deal (one year) for relatively little money (up to $5 million, with incentives). Also, Britt is a free agent who was released from an existing contract, not a conventional free agent whose contract expired. Why is that important? Well, without getting too technical, Britt won't count against the Texans' compensatory picks formula for 2022, so if and when they lose conventional free agents like Will Fuller, Tyrell Adams, or anybody else, Britt won't cancel those free agents out when the league doles out compensatory draft picks for 2022. It's a little thing, but it all matters in a rebuild.
Put the franchise tag on Will Fuller
Speaking of Fuller, reports are that the Texans plan to let him hit free agency in a couple weeks, which means he is probably gone. Hell, he might have a robust market with potential Watson landing spots, based solely on being Deshaun Watson's favorite target last season. Still, though, I would put the franchise tag on Fuller if I were the Texans, and then try to trade him for a draft pick, or include him in a Watson trade as a sweetener. It's a bit of a risky move, because the price of the tag might be Fuller's best option financially (any team trading for him will need to sign him to a new deal), but if the worst case is the Texans get stuck with Fuller for around $15 million for a year, then so be it. He would then leave after the 2021 season in free agency.
Sensibly flip any and all remaining player assets into draft capital
You're trying to load up on draft picks, if you're in rebuild mode, so take a look at the rest of the roster and see who else you can flip without massacring your salary cap. WR Brandin Cooks is a player who might fetch a third or fourth round pick, and trading him would clear $12 million off the books. CB Bradley Roby had discipline and PED suspension issues in 2020, but he is on a reasonable deal, has decent upside, and might fetch a reasonable draft pick for you. Trading left tackle Laremy Tunsil would be a complicated thing, and a sure sign Watson is not coming back, but you have to entertain those talks, as well. Beyond that, the remaining players with value are all still on rookie deals — Justin Reid, Tytus Howard, maybe one or two others — so I'd keep them as potential long-term Texans. I might even see if I can get Reid locked in on a long term extension, coming off a down season, because you might catch a price break, if he regains his 2018 and 2019 form.
After creating a bidding war, trade Deshaun Watson to the Jets
The last big bomb that you drop before starting to reconstruct is trading Watson. I've written several pieces about this topic, and rest assured, there will be several more in the coming weeks. The bottom line is that it will never lay out more perfectly to maximize the return for Watson than this spring, with the Jets and Dolphins owning the second and third overall picks in this draft, each owning a second first round pick in this draft, and with both of them in the same division so that you can create a bidding war. Ultimately, the Jets have more to give — two firsts this year, two firsts in 2022 — so that's where I'm hoping Watson lands.
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