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The illogic of building a team around a blockbuster trade for Deshaun Watson

Team owner David Tepper was said to be “all in” on a Watson trade earlier this year. At what cost?

NFL International Series-Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I have made my feelings clear on the biggest reason why a trade for Watson is wrong. But I also want to take the time and talk about football on this blog. The Panthers are not good enough to mortgage their future on a single player. A trade for Watson is a plainly and sufficiently wrong move for the football operations of the Carolina Panthers as to make it a nonstarter.

First, Watson is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the National Football League. He’s also potentially available to interested teams—we’re assuming here that he would waive his no-trade clause for the Panthers. Carolina is in desperate need of an upgrade at quarterback, so it makes sense that fans and other removed parties (Hi, NFL Network) quickly connected the dots here. I’m not blaming anybody for trying to fit the quarterback-sized player into the quarterback-sized hole in the Panthers roster.

The challenge is the asking price. Houston was reportedly looking to receive three first round picks and two second round picks as compensation for a Watson trade. Watson would also be making about $40 million per year for the next four years. His contract is unlikely to change, but the trade compensation might be somewhat depressed at the moment. How depressed is debatable as there are apparently multiple bidders at present. After making this trade, the Panthers would not have a top-100 pick in the NFL draft until 2025 while also devoting 20% of their salary cap to a single player. That is untenable for a rebuilding team.

The Panthers next season would have about $2.5 million in cap space and trying to make the case that they don’t miss their first two picks because they couldn’t afford their contracts any way.

Can Watson even play this season?

The highest likelihood of this scenario would still involve Sam Darnold—of the fully guaranteed fifth-year option in 2022—as the Panthers starting quarterback because they could not afford to either cut him or sign anybody else. I say that because Watson shouldn’t be available until he has resolved the 22 allegations of sexual assault that he is facing in Texas civil court. That is not my opinion, that is the precedent set by the NFL for players in similar circumstances. Jameis Winston was suspended for three games for allegedly groping an Uber driver in 2018 and Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games after being accused of sexual assault in a Georgia night club in 2010.

Watson is facing larger and more serious accusations and has only avoided suspension so far because the Texans have voluntarily not played him this season, thus absolving the NFL of a perceived need to act on their own. That would not be the case if a franchise, such as the Panthers, paid a king’s ransom in draft picks to acquire Watson now.

Who is still on the Panthers when he can play?

Let’s say that legal situation plays out and Watson settles or is found not guilty in court. We have no idea when that would be, but it seems as if it will be at least next year if not sometime after. To build a team around him, Scott Fitterer would have to both nail every third, fourth, and fifth round pick he made and sign a bunch of bottom-rate veterans on minimum contracts just to fill out the roster. Watson’s contract and draft cost would prevent the team from betting big on free agent talent or acquiring obviously promising rookies in the draft.

By the time they had a first round pick again, in 2025, the Panthers would likely have lost DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, Donte Jackson, Jeremy Chinn, Shaq Thompson, Brian Burns, and Derrick Brown to free agency while having Jaycee Horn—if they can afford his fifth-year option—Taylor Moton, and whatever is left of Christian McCaffrey in contract years. And that’s just the players that fans like.

Moton, McCaffrey, and Horn are the only two players currently or potentially under contract through that 2025 season. Obviously, nobody has their whole team under contract for the next three to four years, but teams also expect to have draft classes to both replenish depth and add talent. The Panthers would barely be able to do either in this scenario.

The last time the Panthers succeeded in building that shallowly around a franchise quarterback they ended up injuring his shoulder and his foot in a sequence of events that ultimately saw him run out of town with nothing coming back in return.

How do you build a team?

An NFL team is either built young and cheaply around an expensive quarterback or expensively around a young and cheap quarterback. Trading the farm to pay top dollar for a quarterback prevents a team from pursuing either strategy.

A Watson trade at a high price would be a reactionary move that, through one single mistake or episode of bad luck, could derail the franchise for a decade. It robs the immediate future of players to support the investment and it robs the post-Watson future of veterans that could see the franchise through the next transition.

One player, even a quarterback, cannot make a team by themselves. They can lose games, for sure. That is true nowhere more so than it is at quarterback, but it doesn’t go the other way. The Panthers need a quarterback. That quarterback will need a team. You can’t sell the entirety of one to buy the other and call yourself improved.