Even though there is a Super Bowl in 10 days, the NFL news cycle has been dominated this week by Deshaun Watson and Matthew Stafford. Two quarterbacks who, at fault or not, went a combined 9-23 last season. Each quarterback has reportedly told their teams that they aren’t interested in continuing their careers with those respective franchises, which appears to be opposite of the case with the Rams and Jared Goff.
In LA, it‘s the team that’s saying “It’s not me. It’s you.”
In Houston, the word on Thursday is that Watson officially requested a trade from the Texans “weeks ago” per Adam Schefter, and that the hiring of new head coach David Culley will do nothing to change his mind.
Deshaun Watson officially has requested a trade from the Houston Texans, per league sources. He actually did it weeks ago. Their new head-coaching hire, David Culley, has not and will not alter Watson’s thinking.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 28, 2021
Watson had the best statistical season of his career in 2020, leading the NFL in passing yards (4,823) and yards per attempt (8.9), and posting career-highs in completion percentage (70.2%), touchdowns (33), net yards per attempt (7.64), and a career-low seven interceptions.
There is no lack of talent when it comes to Watson, an upgrade at quarterback for the majority of NFL teams, but I’m surprised that more hasn’t been made about the fact that a quarterback — of all positions — is forcing his team to trade him less than six months after signing a four-year, $156 million contract that has a no-trade clause and doesn’t even start until 2022.
I’m not here to defend the Houston Texans, an organization that clearly has had issues winning playoff games and retaining stars, but J.J. Watt is entering his 11th season with the organization and as far as I know has never made threats of abandoning ship. Maybe at his own detriment, but Watson isn’t a draft hopeful attempting to carve out a better path to his career or a player buried on the depth chart looking for an opportunity; he signed a massive contract with $76 million guaranteed in September.
And I don’t care whether or not he was able to have input on hiring a general manager and a head coach anymore than I would care about any player having input on those decisions, which has never been expected. The Packers didn’t guarantee Aaron Rodgers input on the Matt LaFluer hire. The Seahawks didn’t tell Russell Wilson to “go out and get your offensive coordinator.”
Deshaun Watson hasn’t spoken to new Texans general manager Nick Caserio nor executive Jack Easterby. Watson is moving on and waiting to see where his NFL future takes him. https://t.co/heLvCjpEXu— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 28, 2021
Watson is a fantastic quarterback who put up great passing statistics (mostly while the Texans were trailing) but abandoning a mission that was specifically catered to you is a red flag to me. And not a cheap red flag: Watson could cost at least three first round picks and he has a $35 million fully guaranteed base salary in 2022.
It’s possible that Watson is at least unintentionally forcing Houston’s hand at exactly the right time given that a top-five pick in 2021 should result in a high-end quarterback prospect.
In the case of Matthew Stafford, I have fewer leadership concerns but that trade would be for a significantly less talented player. Not that Stafford is “bad” — there’s a reason he will have a busy trade market — but as the rest of the league has improved their passing statistics across the board, what Stafford seems able to do has become far easier to find than it used to be.
Stafford, 33, completed 64.2% of his attempts for 4,084 yards, 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 7.7 yards per attempt and 6.89 adjusted net yards per attempt. These are fairly typical numbers for Stafford, regardless of whether he was playing for Matt Patricia or Jim Caldwell or Darrell Bevell or Jim Bob Cooter.
Entering his 13th season, Stafford has a career 0-3 record in the playoffs. He dealt with broken bones in his back in 2018 and 2019, missing half of the latter season. Though Stafford didn’t miss a start in 2020 and he was reportedly “fully healed” from his back injury, is that something that anyone is ever “fully healed” from?
While Watson wants to ditch his team more than a year before his raise even kicks in, Stafford only has two more years remaining on the extension he signed in 2017 and the salary hits for each season are reasonable. I believe that acquiring Stafford in 2021 would be somewhat similar to the Colts acquiring Philip Rivers in 2020; he should be able to give a good non-playoff team a real opportunity to become a playoff team.
In the best case scenario, Stafford might even be able to elevate a playoff team (example: the NFL’s number one defense) into a Super Bowl team.
For any pre-approved team that doesn’t have the resources to acquire Watson, which will eliminate most teams, Stafford might be more than attractive “consolation prize”; Stafford could also be more desirable than Watson given that he should also give his new franchise more flexibility when it comes to improving other positions.
So where does this leave the Rams and Jared Goff?
In the past, a quarterback of Goff’s age and caliber hitting the trade market would be the headline news of the winter. That’s not to say that Goff has even earned a starting job next season — he would reportedly have to beat out John Wolford first, if he does return — but it has been rare to see a former number one pick become available when:
- He’s only 26
- He hasn’t started his contract extension yet
- He has posted a winning record in each of the last four years
- He helped the team win three playoff games in the last three years
It’s obvious to see that Goff has not been helpful enough over the last two and a half years to justify being a “franchise quarterback” but there should be some level of awareness — or fear — that given a new system, Goff could become the next Ryan Tannehill.
And Tannehill was far less attractive as a trade acquisition than Goff would be today. The Dolphins essentially got a fourth round pick for a player who would start his Titans career as Marcus Mariota’s backup. LA might not receive a first round pick in exchange for Goff, but I believe the Rams should be able to more than just “dump salary” if they choose to look for a serious trade partner in the offseason.
Though the salary dump would be important. Per NFL.com:
Goff is due $27.5 million in guaranteed salary in 2021 and carries a cap number just shy of $35 million, accounting for over 19 percent of the Rams’ total cap space, per Over The Cap. That type of deal isn’t typical of a player a team is clearly and actively trying to move.
Los Angeles would save $12.75 million of that cap number by trading him anytime between now and June 1, but would still have to carry the other $22.2 million in dead cap. A post-June 1 deal would create even greater savings ($28.15 million), but would come at the end of the ideal deal-making window, more than a month after the draft and roughly six weeks from the start of training camps. At that point, the Rams are shedding salary more than anything, and finding a trade partner would likely prove to be a fool’s errand.
I find the idea of trading Goff after June 1 to be less scary than Around the NFL’s Nick Shook finds it to be. I believe Shook is looking at this from the lens of a “typical NFL year” but clearly we are not living in a “typical world” anymore. As quarterback contracts become more prohibitive, quarterback movement has become more common.
Both the Colts and Bucs improved by four wins in 2020 after acquiring veteran quarterbacks in the offseason. Being aggressive in upgrading the quarterback position has also recently benefited the Chiefs, Bills, Ravens, Browns, Titans, and Cardinals. And as the quarterback carousel gets more crowded, that should leave more starting caliber players available after June 1.
Last year, it was Cam Newton. This year, it could be someone much better than Cam Newton.
Even if the Rams simply decided to go into the season with Wolford, which reports would suggest they are perfectly fine with, Los Angeles might be able to make the rest of the team better due to having additional cap space and draft capital if they find a trade partner for Goff. And teams feeling that they won’t be in a position to get a starting quarterback through the draft or free agency — and they didn’t land Watson or Stafford — could feel compelled to be involved with discussions for Goff.
Teams to not be ruled out based on need could include the Panthers, Broncos, Patriots, Raiders, Football Team, Bears, Colts, Steelers, and Saints. And what if the Texans trade Watson but don’t necessarily replace him in the aftermath of the trade? What if the Lions trade Stafford but don’t choose to replace him in the draft? What if the Cowboys lose Dak Prescott?
Other quarterbacks who may become available include Sam Darnold, Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, Drew Lock, Mitchell Trubisky, Teddy Bridgewater, and Tua Tagovailoa. I’m less convinced about Carson Wentz now that the Eagles tailored their coaching search towards someone who will attempt to “fix” him, and I won’t buy any hype around Aaron Rodgers’ availability until the day he’s actually on another team. Which I can’t imagine will happen in 2021.
Given the probability of Dallas retaining Prescott, none of the realistically available quarterbacks other than Watson and Stafford would seem to be upgrades over Goff. The market for Goff’s services should be expansive and remain alive even when you eliminate teams that will take one in the draft.
It is possible though that the trade market will be slow to develop given that some teams might not be convinced they won’t draft a QB until the first round is actually completed.
Les Snead acknowledges that it would be difficult to move on from Jared Goff because of the salary cap, but also says that "Anything can be done" in the salary cap.— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) January 26, 2021
Everybody will rate Watson as the most attractive quarterback on the market this year and he could be the most accomplished QB to ever be traded prior to his 26th birthday. (Steve Young and Brett Favre might be more talented, but hadn’t done anything in the NFL yet.) But after that, I would not be surprised if the consensus on Goff and Stafford is closer than many outsiders expect. It’s not as though Pro Bowl appearances are important, but it is telling that Goff was drafted seven years after Stafford and yet he has been to more Pro Bowls already. (Two to one.)
Stafford has not been undeniable. Goff has not been exceptional. At this point, it seems as though the biggest difference in their situations is what the media has chosen to highlight on their way out:
- Goff is the disappointment who Sean McVay doesn’t think he can win with.
- The Lions are the disappointment who Stafford can no longer live with.
But Detroit is also choosing to part with Stafford. It’s not as though they’re going to draft Trevor Lawrence. Or even Justin Fields. The Lions pick seventh, not second. Accounting for whatever leverage they’ve lost due to this being a public separation, I can’t imagine that they will also be able to move up in the draft with this trade. There’s no guaranteed franchise quarterback on his way in; there is, potentially at best, a younger Matthew Stafford on the way.
Goff is seven years younger and his recently-broken thumb is not concerning. Not like a recently-broken back would be.
So while Stafford might be more attractive to the Rams than Goff, I’m not sure that the market will see Stafford as the more attractive trade acquisition. It will depend on whose calling and what they’re able to offer.
And at least they’ll know that Jared Goff won’t be afraid to make a commitment to his next team. Perhaps his greatest attribute will be knowing that he needs to fight for his next opportunity, not that he’s fighting to avoid one.