The question, posed to a longtime NFL general manager, was simple: Where do you draw the line in trade compensation if the Houston Texans are willing to trade Deshaun Watson?
“They can’t trade him. He’s too good. I don’t see how they can trade him,” the former GM said in our phone conversation the other day.
What if he threatens to become toxic — which would run counter to his sterling reputation — or threatens to hold out if he’s not traded?
“I still don’t see how you can trade a 25-year-old franchise quarterback as good as he is,” the ex-GM said.
But let’s say they do. Would you offer Tua Tagovailoa and Miami’s picks at 3 and 18 in the first round of April’s NFL Draft?
In a heartbeat, the veteran executive said.
What if Houston wanted even more than that, such as the 36th pick or another first-rounder in 2022? “Would still do it,” he said.
But “I will be shocked if they trade him,” the former GM said. “The other question is the value they place on Tua.”
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported Sunday: “There is now a growing consensus that Watson will force his way out of Houston... Just a reminder: Watson has a no-trade clause in his contract. Sources confirm that the Dolphins remain a preferred destination and by the way, another side benefit is Florida has no state taxes just like Texas.”
ESPN’s Adam Schefter said Watson isn’t returning the Texans’ calls and that “he is one unhappy camper and has no plans to be with the Houston Texans any time soon — if ever.”
NFL Draft Scout’s Matt Miller recently reported that new Texans general manager Nick Caserio — who worked for the Patriots until the past two weeks — loved Tagovailoa coming out of Alabama.
The Dolphins have distanced themselves from the Watson rumors, even downplaying interest to at least one NFL person who informally asked them about it. If Watson is made available, I would expect Miami to pursue.
One of the questions raised is whether the Dolphins would have the resources — both with the salary cap and draft picks — to fill other needs if they could acquire Watson for, say, Tagovailoa, the third pick, the 18th pick and even a pick early in next year’s draft if needed.
The short answer: Yes. It would be challenging, but doable.
Let’s look at the salary cap ramifications first.
After initial projections of a $175 million cap (down from $198 million this season), there’s now speculation that the 2021 cap could be higher than that. Pro Football Talk suggests it could approach $195 million.
To be conservative, let’s say the 2021 cap is $180 million. The Dolphins have $157.5 million committed for their top 51 players signed for 2021. (The top 51 counts against the cap.) So that leaves $22.5 million in 2021 space. But the Dolphins also can carry over $15.4 million in unused 2020 space.
Now let’s remove Tagovailoa’s $6.9 million 2021 cap hit in that scenario. That increases Dolphins 2021 cap space to $45 million.
The most realistic ways to create even more space: Cutting Clayton Fejeledem saves $2.5 million against the cap. There’s a $2.9 million cap savings if Miami cuts Albert Wilson and $6.4 million in savings if Miami releases Bobby McCain and designates him a post-June 1 cut.
Miami would save $4.1 million in cap space if it cuts Jakeem Grant with a post June 1 designation, though he has value on punt returns (third in the league this past season). If Miami cuts Allen Hurns with a post-June 1 designation, that’s another $2.4 million in savings.
So if Miami cuts McCain (who had a good year), Grant, Wilson, Hurns and Fejedelem, that pushes 2021 cap space to about $63 million with the hypothetical $180 million cap.
A quick aside: We’re not advocating that Miami cut McCain, Grant, Wilson, Fejedelem and Hurns; the first three of those have particular value. We’re merely listing the players that present opportunities to save cap space. Aside from Eric Rowe ($4 million cap savings if cut), there’s no other veteran I could see being cut for cap purposes because it would either be foolish or would come with a cap penalty.
If Miami traded for Watson, his 2021 cap hit would be only $10.54 million, NFL salary cap expert Joel Corry conveyed to us.
But here’s the bad news: Tagovailoa’s Dolphins cap hit — which would be $6.9 million in 2021 if he remains a Dolphin — would be a $14.7 million Dolphins dead money hit if he’s traded to Houston (or traded anywhere).
So in this scenario of adding Watson and trading Tagovailoa, that would lower the Dolphins’ 2021 space in this scenario from $63 million to $38 million. (Remember, this scenario involves cutting McCain, Grant, Wilson, Fejedelem and Hurns.)
Now here’s the good news: By sending the third and 18th picks to Houston in a Watson trade, Miami would need to allocate only $5.8 million for its 2021 draft class.
So that leaves Miami with $32 million in 2021 cap space for a practice squad (about $2 million), a center (free agent Ted Karras earned $3 million this past season), a couple of backup linebackers (free agents Elandon Roberts, Vince Biegel or a couple of entirely new backups could cost $3 million), a backup quarterback (maybe $5 million), exclusive rights free agent Nik Needham ($850,000), cheap backup safeties to replace McCain, free agent Kavon Frazier and Fejedelem ($3 million), free agent punter Matt Haack (about $2.5 million) and a backup defensive tackle to replace free agent/former starter Davon Godchaux (maybe $2 million).
All of those moves could leave Miami with just $10 million or so without even addressing receiver. And keep in mind the Dolphins and most teams like to save space for during the season in case they need it.
Here’s one positive: Even if Miami gave Chicago former Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson a four-year, $80 million deal, his cap hit could be as low as $9 million or so if the deal is structured with a big signing bonus and small base salary in year one.
But to acquire Watson, absorb Tagovailoa’s big dead money hit, sign a receiver of the quality of Robinson or Kenny Golladay or Will Fuller - and have a little space to take into the season - there will need to be tough decisions beyond simply the five hypothetical cuts above (McCain, Fejedelem, Grant, Hurns, Wilson).
Maybe Miami will need to go very cheap with a backup QB, draft a punter instead of paying Haack, find a No. 3 defensive tackle and No. 3 safety in the draft and/or maybe restructure one or two veteran contracts and sign only backup linebackers at the minimum to conserve cap space to sign a receiver.
So if the Dolphins traded Tagovailoa, the 3rd and 18th picks for Watson, there is a way to add Watson, absorb Tagovailoa’s big dead money hit and sign a receiver of Robinson’s caliber. But it won’t be easy and it will hurt your depth somewhat.
One thing this doesn’t factor in: any restructured deal for Xavien Howard, who wants more money. That’s going to be very difficult to accommodate from a cap standpoint. He’s signed through 2024.
If the cap lands at $190 million instead of $180 million, that obviously would give Miami more needed breathing room in the scenario of adding Watson and a high-end receiver.
Watson’s Dolphins cap hits beyond 2021 would be $35 million (2022), $37 million (2023), $32 million (2024) and $32 million (2025). So Miami could have significant salary cap challenges beginning in 2022, requiring tough decisions.
And here’s another thought: It would save Miami $7.9 million against the 2021 cap to give the Texans picks 3, 18 and Miami’s first-rounder next year instead of 3, 18 and Tagovailoa. That would also solve the Dolphins’ backup QB situation, though Miami at some point would likely want to trade Tagovailoa for an early round pick if Houston trades Watson to Miami but passes on Tua.
From a draft standpoint, losing the third and 18th picks would obviously be hurtful. But Miami would still have picks at 36, 50 and 81.
And those picks could be used on a running back (perhaps Clemson’s Travis Etienne if he’s there at 36 or UNC’s Javonte Williams or Ohio State’s Trey Sermon at 50, presuming Alabama’s Najee Harris is off the board by 36);
a receiver (UF’s Kadarius Toney, Minnesota’s Rashod Batemon, LSU’s Terrace Marshall, UNC’s Dyami Brown and Purdue’s Rondale Moore could be second round options);
a front seven player, such as edge defenders Carlos Basham (Wake Forest), Jayson Ohew (Penn State), Jordan Smith (UAB), Rashad Weaver (Pittsburgh) or Joe Tryon (Washington) or a linebacker such as UNC’s Chazz Surratt, Alabama’s Dylan Moses or Missouri’s Nick Bolton. All could be available at 36 or 50.
Coming Tuesday: A look at the Dolphins’ cap situation if they don’t get Watson.