NFL experts debate Deshaun Watson trade fits, playoff teams on upset alert, Steelers’ future and bold predictions
The Deshaun Watson saga in Houston grabbed some headlines during wild-card weekend, and we’re now down to a final eight in the NFL playoffs. Two teams that didn’t win the AFC North made big statements, but can either win on the road again this week?
We asked our experts about Watson and about the four games this weekend. Which teams should make a big push for the Texans’ quarterback? Which home team is on upset notice this weekend? How about a bold prediction with some conviction?
Let’s give the Texans some advice: What should the organization do right now to improve its relationship with Deshaun Watson?
Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Improve the lines of communication with Watson. From an organizational standpoint, the Texans can be more transparent in terms of their top targets at the head-coaching position, with a goal of maximizing the Texans during Watson’s prime playing years.
Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Stop making promises you don’t keep. If the central issue is Watson was told he’d be involved in the hiring process of a general manager and head coach, then wasn’t consulted at all, maybe stop doing that. Make him a part of the interview process with your top head-coaching candidate — get them on a whiteboard together, drawing up possibilities on the field — to get positive vibes reestablished. Then get the man some playmakers on offense via free agency. There are a dozen marquee pass-catchers who would instantly improve the attack.
Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Re-sign WR Will Fuller V. Look, this is an accumulation of stuff with Watson and the organization, right? They traded DeAndre Hopkins last season, and Watson still managed to make the offense work with Fuller, Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb. If you aren’t going to bring in the coach he wants, signing free-agent Fuller (who might even come at a slight discount given his injury history and still-current drug suspension) is an olive branch that tells Watson you won’t keep making it tougher on him.
Jason Reid, The Undefeated senior NFL writer: Give Watson significant input in the head-coaching search. Regardless of whether there’s simply a good-faith misunderstanding between team CEO Cal McNair and Watson or McNair badly erred in misleading the organization’s franchise QB, this much is clear: The Texans are in an awful place and need to get out of it. Quickly. Mending fences with Watson should top the Texans’ to-do list — even ahead of hiring a new HC. Watson just completed his age-25 season. In terms of passers in the league in Watson’s age bracket who possess similar talent, one can count them on one hand. In terms of the future of their franchise, the Texans must get back to being on the same page with Watson. Or something as close to it as possible.
Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: Don’t just interview Eric Bieniemy. Hire him. He’s a great coaching candidate, first off. But also there’s this: Projecting head-coaching performance is a process filled with uncertainty. Even if Bieniemy isn’t Houston’s first choice, the difference between what the Texans would expect from him and what the Texans would expect from their first choice — whoever that might be — surely is smaller than the difference between Watson and, well, not having Watson.
Field Yates, NFL analyst: They just did it, by requesting to interview Bieniemy. Maybe it’s too little, too late. Maybe an interview with Bienemy would not amount to an offer. That’s fine. The Texans need to take any and all steps to work to appease their quarterback, and it’s not a mystery that Watson respects the work Bienemy has done in Kansas City. This doesn’t solve everything — far from it — but it’s just one of several steps the team can take to work to smooth things over.
If the Texans and Watson can’t work things out, which team should go all out to try to trade for him?
Bowen: Dolphins. I don’t see the Texans moving Watson, but if we are putting together a potential package, then maybe the Dolphins fit here. That deal would send quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, plus this year’s No. 3 and No. 50 picks, to the Texans for Watson.
Fowler: Washington. When you talk to league personnel people about which teams might exhaust QB options this offseason, Washington keeps coming up as a possibility. This team is better than many expected, has stability under Ron Rivera and will look to find the same for its quarterback position.
Graziano: 49ers. You could put any of about 25 teams here, but I’ll throw a dart and say the Niners should offer the 12th overall pick as part of a package that pairs Watson with Kyle Shanahan. The team owes Jimmy Garoppolo no more money and can cut him without penalty. The roster is deep and talented and just about HAS to be healthier next year than it was this year. Watson returns it to title-contender status immediately.
Ryan Clark reacts to Deshaun Watson’s frustrations with the Texans’ GM-hiring process.
Reid: Dolphins. Let me make this clear: I highly doubt Watson will be traded. Truth is, teams don’t trade QBs of Watson’s ilk. That established, I never thought the Texans would be in this position, especially so soon after making Watson the second-highest-paid player in NFL history. If the situation in Houston continues to deteriorate, however, Miami has the draft assets, in combination with QB Tua Tagovailoa as the foundation of any trade package, to at least pique the Texans’ interest.
Walder: Patriots. I legitimately think roughly 25 teams should consider trading for Watson. But let’s go with the Patriots. They need a quarterback, are out of range of the top tier in the draft and have the cap space to absorb Watson — though he isn’t expensive in 2021 — and spend to make improvements elsewhere. To land him? It’ll take a lot to beat out the other teams interested. I’m dealing running back Damien Harris, the RFA rights to J.C. Jackson, this year’s first-, second-, fourth- and fifth-round picks plus 2022 first- and third-rounders. And Jarrett Stidham, if they want him. But the upside? Pairing football’s greatest coach with a top-five quarterback again.
Yates: Jets. No team has a more alluring package of picks available than the Jets, who could offer four first-rounders in the next two drafts (their own plus two from Seattle). While the Jets might decide this offseason that the best realistic plan for them is to stick with Sam Darnold and use the second pick to either trade down or build around him, it’s obvious that such a plan would be subject to change if Watson were available.
Which home team is most likely to lose this weekend?
Bowen: Bills. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ multidimensional run game could present challenges for a Buffalo defense that has struggled to maintain gap control and defeat blocks. Look for the Ravens to lean on their counter run game, with misdirection, to get both numbers and speed on the perimeter.
Fowler: Saints. In the eight games since his Week 9 dud against New Orleans, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady has passed for 2,616 yards and 22 touchdowns. He has figured something out, and not many offenses are hotter than Tampa’s. Plus, Brady seems to want this matchup as a personal challenge. Marshon Lattimore always gives Mike Evans problems downfield, but the Bucs have enough weapons to overcome that.
Graziano: Bills. No team went into the playoffs hotter than the Bills, and I don’t necessarily think they will lose this game. But you’re asking for which one is MOST LIKELY, and the success the Colts had running the ball against Buffalo last week makes me wonder whether Baltimore’s run-heavy attack could pose even bigger problems for the Bills’ defense. Plus, the Ravens’ defense looked pretty locked in against a very good Tennessee offense. Baltimore might be the sneaky team peaking at just the right time to make trouble.
Reid: Bills. The full power of the Ravens was on display in their wild-card-round road victory over the Titans. QB Lamar Jackson was impressive in his first career playoff victory, but can we talk about that Baltimore defense? The Ravens limited Derrick Henry to 40 rushing yards and a 2.2-yard average. Enough on that. Although the Bills were hot entering the playoffs, the Ravens were sizzling as well, and have won six straight, including the postseason. This week, they’ll extend their streak to seven in a row.
Walder: Bills. Last week, Baltimore’s defense shut down the Titans’ ground game. This week the challenge is stopping Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs through the air. But that’s the thing about this Ravens defense: It’s strong in more ways than one. It ranked fourth in EPA allowed per rush play but fifth in EPA per pass play allowed. Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith are going to give the Bills’ receivers a hard time.
Yates: Saints. I don’t have a strong feeling on any home team losing this weekend, but the Buccaneers have played strong football for the past five weeks, even while I concede that their schedule has not been daunting. And winning against the same team three times in a season isn’t easy. I could have made this argument much simpler: Tom Brady.
Give us a bold prediction for this weekend’s games that you feel strongly about.
Bowen: The Rams will limit Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing game. With multiple fronts and schemed pass-rush matchups, Brandon Staley’s defense can create pressure versus Rodgers. And that plays into Staley’s split-safety coverages, with Jalen Ramsey in situational matchups versus Davante Adams.
Fowler: The Bills beat the Ravens handily. Lamar Jackson breaking through for his first playoff win was the storyline last week in Tennessee, but the Ravens’ offense didn’t look very explosive against a Titans team with limited pass-rush and secondary play. Expect Buffalo’s defense to limit big plays and force Jackson to beat it with the intermediate passing game. Josh Allen will do the rest.
Graziano: The Saints will blow out the Buccaneers. I think this is a bad matchup for Tom Brady’s bunch. I don’t buy the old adage that “it’s tough to beat a team three times,” because since 1970 teams that beat a team twice in the regular season and saw them again in the playoffs are 14-7 in the rematch. I’m a little more hesitant than I would have been a week ago, because I was very impressed with Tampa Bay’s pass protection against Washington’s front. But I think being a four-time defending division champ against a thrown-together upstart is a point of pride for the Saints, and I think Drew Brees will find a way to win his last game against Brady.
Dan Orlovsky and Adam Schefter analyze Pittsburgh’s options regarding quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Reid: After all the talk the past couple of weeks about Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who probably will win the Associated Press Most Valuable Player Award, Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes will remind the NFL that he’s pretty good, too. The reigning Super Bowl MVP will put on a show to lead the Chiefs to their third consecutive AFC title game.
Walder: What the heck, I’ll do it: The Browns will knock out the Chiefs. It’ll take a Myles Garrett takeover game on defense and the performance of Baker Mayfield’s life, but … anything is possible. I think the Browns try to embrace high variance — how about a surprise onside kick? — and hope the ball bounces their way.
Yates: The Browns will hang around against the Chiefs. Pulling another upset after thumping the Steelers feels unlikely to me, but the Browns are a resilient bunch and that gives me confidence they’ll make things uncomfortable for the Chiefs for a while on Sunday. Sometimes we try to give you very specific, nuanced insight as to how something can happen, while other times it is important to boil it down to the basics: If the Browns can run the heck out of the ball early and make Patrick Mahomes a spectator, they have a chance to be frisky.
Should the Colts bring back Philip Rivers or look for a new quarterback?
Bowen: Bring back Rivers. With a run-heavy system and a pass game that leans on crossers and in-breakers, Rivers is still the best fit for the Colts. Adding another middle-of-the-field target for Rivers — with dynamic traits — should also be a priority this offseason for the Colts.
Fowler: Elsewhere. Rivers acquitted himself well in Indy, but the Colts signed him to a one-year deal for a reason: He was a stopgap. The bigger play should be enticing Detroit on Matthew Stafford, who might be over the Lions’ constant rebuilding. The Colts’ roster is ready-made now and needs an elite quarterback in his prime (Stafford is 32) to put the team over the top.
Graziano: Both? Why not bring back Rivers and draft a QB because Rivers obviously won’t be there forever? We don’t even know yet what Rivers wants to do, but assuming he wants to return to the very Rivers-friendly situation in which he played this season, the Colts can try to make another run with him while also thinking about what comes next.
Reid: Bring back Rivers. The Carson Wentz talk is interesting and all, but who knows what the Philadelphia Eagles will do? Next season, the Colts will lean even more on standout running back Jonathan Taylor. For one more season, they can make it work with Rivers.
Walder: Bring back Rivers, but be willing to use their first-round pick on a quarterback of the future and/or take a flier on a younger quarterback who could be available (Tua Tagovailoa? Sam Darnold?). It’s a bit of a tricky spot, but they have to start throwing some darts at long-term quarterback upside.
Yates: Bring back Rivers. While rumors will persist surrounding the possibility of acquiring Carson Wentz, it’s not certain that he would be an immediate upgrade over Rivers. Moreover, Rivers had terrific moments for the Colts this season and was an indispensable part of their culture, an area that both coach Frank Reich and GM Chris Ballard so truly value.
The Steelers have an aging quarterback and cap issues. What should be their offseason priority?
Bowen: Fix the run game. The Steelers’ inability to run the football with consistency — especially in short-yardage situations — must be addressed. Use free agency and the draft to upgrade the offensive front, with linemen who bring movement traits to boost the zone run game.
Fowler: Run it back one more year with Ben Roethlisberger but with significant changes on the way. Look, Roethlisberger won’t retire and the Steelers won’t cut him just to keep $22 million of dead money on their books, so the cleanest path is to restructure his contract with voidable years to lessen the $41.3 million cap hit on the final year of his deal. But make it clear this is the last year by retooling the quarterback spot — either by trading for a bridge option such as Sam Darnold, drafting a quarterback, or giving Mason Rudolph more chances. Start to reimagine an offense that relies heavily on five-wide, no-huddle sets without a steady running game. And find a semblance of a running game to return Pittsburgh to its tough-up-front roots.
Graziano: Find Roethlisberger’s successor. Even if Ben is back (and I can’t see how he comes back on his current contract), the specter of his retirement will be a constant presence in Steelerland until it happens. They have to figure out what their next step is at QB, whether they take it this year or in 2022.
Reid: This one is simple: Rebuild the run game. Both in the draft and free agency, the Steelers must fix a run game that is in a glaring state of disrepair. This can’t continue. Well, not if the Steelers want to get back to being the Steelers.
Walder: Quarterback, one way or another. If Roethlisberger hangs it up, I’d look at Jameis Winston as a short-term fix for cheap while taking a long look at the Trey Lance/Mac Jones/Kyle Trask tier of quarterbacks in the draft. But even if Roethlisberger is back on the roster, investing in some lottery tickets at QB now is better than later.
Yates: Extend T.J. Watt. Watt could wind up winning the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, an incredible feat for the Steelers’ dominant edge rusher. While such a reinvestment would not be motivated by the chance for cap flexibility, a deal would almost assuredly create a healthy amount of cap space for Pittsburgh in 2021, a key tangential impact on top of Watt’s value to the franchise. He’s its best player.