Deshaun Watson's decision: Falcons or Saints? Breaking down what each team can offer QB, Texans
The fate of Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson may be the most intriguing subplot of the 2022 NFL offseason, given the sordid circumstances which kept him off the field in 2021 and the certainty that – unlike Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady – Watson will be switching teams.
Last week, a Harris County, Texas, grand jury decided the three-time Pro Bowler wouldn't be indicted despite accusations of sexual misconduct by two dozen women during massage appointments. Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits and will probably incur a suspension from the league even though the Texans essentially put him on paid leave last season.
What has been clear for a year is that the 26-year-old franchise passer is disenfranchised with the Texans and won't play for them again, a realization team brass eventually accepted. And while the fallout from the allegations surrounding Watson is foremost, it seems his football future is about to crystallize.
Watson's four-year, $156 million contract extension – signed before the start of the 2020 season – kicks in this year, armed with a full no-trade clause that enables him to approve or veto any prospective deal Houston constructs. According to multiple reports, the Texans required interested trading partners to submit sufficient offers – presumably including at least three first-round picks – before allowing them to meet with Watson. The known suitors have been the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, and it seems Watson's decision boils down to Falcons vs. Saints.
Assuming that proves true, let's dig into the considerations of Watson moving to Atlanta or New Orleans.
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Watson's perspective: He grew up about an hour from Atlanta, which is also close to Clemson University – where Watson became a hero after delivering a national championship to the school with the 2016 team. While going home can be a major distraction for high-profile athletes, it might be ideal for Watson, who has said he wants to rebuild his reputation as a positive force in the community.
Falcons perspective: After 57 seasons, they're still awaiting their first Super Bowl victory and should be in full-on rebuild mode. What better way to accelerate that process than by making an established quarterback entering his prime as the centerpiece? Before current QB Matt Ryan was drafted in 2008, Michael Vick left this organization in disgrace. Watson might arrive in disgrace as Ryan's replacement, yet Vick could serve as the perfect mentor and guide Watson through effective and meaningful ways to change his life while trying to make amends. On the field, Atlanta hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Watson was in college, but coach Arthur Smith wants to run the ball and use multiple tight-end sets, which will include budding star Kyle Pitts. Imagine Watson at the helm of an attack that turned Ryan Tannehill into one of the league's more effective QB1s.
Texans perspective: Atlanta's 7-10 finish in 2021 means the Falcons are picking earlier in each round of the draft than the Saints, who were 9-8. In addition to the No. 8 pick of the draft, the Falcons also have two in the second round courtesy of last year's Julio Jones trade. Though that would only mean a starting point for the freight owed Houston, having multiple top-10 picks – the Texans select third overall – this year would be an awfully nice way for GM Nick Caserio to begin replenishing what's arguably the league's worst roster. It's also worth wondering if Pitts' inclusion might have been a necessary component of any competitive bid. Given Atlanta is unlikely to be particularly good in 2022, the value of the Falcons' 2023 draft picks would almost surely be more appealing to Houston. One very intriguing element of any deal would be what to do with Ryan, who's owed a $7.5 million roster bonus next week. The 2016 league MVP turns 37 in May and trading him now would result in a cap hit of nearly $41 million in 2022. Would the Texans want Ryan in order to flip him for more draft capital? Would the Falcons do it themselves, perhaps to try and find a soft landing for an exceptional soldier? Does a third team get into the mix, given Houston undoubtedly doesn't want to see Ryan in, say, Indianapolis? Regardless, it would make sense for the Falcons to eat Ryan's hefty financial hit this year given Watson is unlikely to be available for the full season anyway – though that could mean extensive roster maneuverings in addition to accounting for Watson's $35 million base salary in 2022.
New Orleans Saints
Watson's perspective: If he wants to win immediately, joining a team that fell a tiebreaker shy of the 2021 playoffs – despite a quarterback patchwork – makes a lot of sense. And who wouldn't want to operate behind a solid offensive line while handing off to RB Alvin Kamara and throwing to WR Michael Thomas, all while backed by a top-10 defense? And though Brady's Buccaneers are the NFC South's presumptive favorites in 2022, a Watson-led Saints team could quickly revive as a divisional powerhouse. And the city's Saints-crazed fan base also seems a decent bet to embrace Watson despite the claims against him.
Saints perspective: Though Year 1 post-Drew Brees was hardly a train wreck, largely because the defense kept this team viable, matters only get more challenging as this franchise attempts to move forward with uncertainty at quarterback and the void left by departed head coach Sean Payton. Onboarding Watson would theoretically make the Saints a playoff-caliber squad in what projects as a top-heavy conference and secures the longer-term outlook of a small-market operation trying to sustain the most successful era in its 56-season existence.
Texans perspective: New Orleans can offer the 18th and 49th overall picks this year and owns a pair of compensatory third-rounders. Given the state of the Texans' rebuild, inquiring about Saints veterans is less desirous. And given the chances New Orleans will at least remain on the fringes of the playoffs this year, Caserio might be eyeing more sugar from a team that will probably draft later than Atlanta again in 2023.
The decision ultimately lies with Watson, and let's hope he's making far better choices now given what he's brought on himself the past two years and the once-revered off-field reputation he's destroyed. Let's also hope that making a positive difference outside of football is perhaps a leading consideration as he weighs his next move. From Houston's viewpoint, dealing with the Falcons seems far more optimal – though hard to believe Watson is overly concerned about what's best for the Texans.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.