We are all familiar with the Watson timeline. The team has self-imploded under Cal McNair. At the end of last season, Watson demanded a trade. Then the multiple, disturbing allegations against Watson emerged. I initially wrote this article after the trade demand but before the allegations. It was never published. I rewrote the story now that trade talks seem to be intensifying to examine two factors. The value of Deshaun Watson in a vacuum: his value absent the allegations. And, now, his value in light of the allegations.
Pre-Allegation Assessment of Watson’s Value
Unlike the NBA, NFL star players do not get traded. There is little doubt that 29 NFL General Managers have called the Texans to inquire about a trade. (Neither the Chiefs nor the Chargers are interested) There is even less doubt that the 31 other NFL owners have called the Texans imploring them not to trade Watson. The league fears Watson on and off the field. This article is not about what such a trade would say about the NFL and player empowerment. This article is not about the massive forces at play in this Shakespearian drama. This article is concerned only with establishing the fair market value for Watson. The mathematics indicate that his market value is an astonishing 7.28 first-round picks.
Suppose you find yourself, as Christina Pagniacci did in the 1999 movie Any Given Sunday. Her Head Coach, D’Amato, just announced his departure from Pagniacci’s Miami Sharks. He simultaneously announced he would become the new head coach of the expansion Albuquerque Aztecs and signed the Sharks’ franchise quarterback, Willie Beamen.
Or suppose you find yourself as Cal McNair currently does. Under your stewardship, the Houston Texans retained inept coaches, brought on a former chaplain and allowed him to influence personnel decisions, made a series of absurd trades, and your franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, announces he wants out. Either way, the question facing Pagniacci and McNair are different ends of the same coin, what is the actual value of a franchise quarterback in his prime? What follows is a statistical look at every NFL Draft since 2000 to find the fair market value of a franchise quarterback in their prime.
NFL teams have drafted 262 quarterbacks since the 2000 draft. There is insufficient data on the most recent 37 draftees (2018-2020) to reach any conclusions. Moreover, while Brady, Brees, and Wilson are post-first-round franchise quarterbacks, they are the exceptions. The only three exceptions in this dataset. I anticipate someone taking issue with me, leaving Prescott off the list. First, I will not apologize for leaving him off a list that includes Brady, Brees, and Wilson. Second, the argument is academic as the dataset is ultimately trimmed to first-round selections only. If we have Prescott in post-first-round picks, the odds move only slightly to 1.9%.
The odds of finding a franchise quarterback in the first round are daunting. The odds of finding one outside of the first round are minuscule, 66.5 to 1, or 1.48%. To put that in perspective, a team would need to spend all six post-first-round picks on a quarterback for 11 straight years to make it probable that they would find one franchise quarterback. So we can reasonably pare our dataset down to quarterbacks drafted in the first round only.
The dataset now contains the 48 first-round quarterback selections between 2000 and 2017 of the NFL Draft, ten of whom became franchise quarterbacks. In the interest of transparency, the ten franchise quarterbacks are Roethlisberger, Rivers, Eli Manning, Rodgers, Ryan, Stafford, Newton, Luck, Watson, and Mahomes. We can quibble on the margins, but the point to take away is that the more players added, the lower the value. Conversely, the more you take away, the higher the value.
The selections can be divided into two distinct groups, number one overall selections and non-number one overall picks. The first group contains 12 quarterbacks, of which four attained Beamen-Watson status. That equals a success rate of 33.33% on the first overall selections. If you take a quarterback number one overall, your odds of landing a franchise quarterback are identical to picking the correct door on Let’s Make A Deal. The second group contains 36 quarterbacks, of which six attained Beamen-Watson status. That equals a success rate of 16.67%—the same odds as predicting the outcome of the toss of a single die.
Using the draft value chart popularized by Jimmy Johnson, we can determine that teams spent a total of 84,385 points drafting the 48 first-round quarterbacks in our data set. Since ten of those selections became franchise quarterbacks, we can determine the average price of a franchise quarterback by simple division. A franchise quarterback is worth 8,438.50 points on a draft chart. The average value of a first-round pick on the draft value chart is 1,158.28. Consequently, a franchise quarterback, your Willie Beamens and Deshaun Watsons of the world are worth 7.28 first-round draft picks in trade value. While the price may seem absurd, it is fair market value.
Suppose now that you are John Lynch or Mickie Loomis. These are examples only; you are free to use just about any team in the league. Your phone rings and the caller ID reveals 281. Houston is calling. Their ask is simple: Garoppolo or Hill or Winston, and your next six first-round draft picks for Deshaun Watson.
Before you answer, let me remind you of your organization’s six most recent first-round picks. For Lynch, those picks are Aiyuk, Kinlaw, Bosa, McGlinchey, Foster, and Thomas. For Loomis, those picks are Ruiz, Davenport, Ramczyk, Lattimore, Rankins, and Anthony. In exchange, you get Deshaun Watson. With Watson on your team, it is reasonable to assume that your next six first-round picks, on average, will be lower in the draft than your previous six picks. This illustrates the point that the value of draft picks, even six first-rounders, pale compared to the value of a franchise quarterback in his prime.
Before you answer the phone call from Houston, consider one more scenario. It is the second Sunday in February 2022. Your team is playing. The clock is ticking under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. It is a one-score game, and your team has the ball. It is third down and four yards to go. You have two plays called from 12 personnel. One of your tight ends motions across the formation so your quarterback can get a read on the defense. In the pandemonium of the moment, your head quiets. You hear Coach D’Amato from Any Given Sunday, “the inches we need are everywhere around us.” Whom do you want making the call under center?
Now pick up the phone; it is rude to leave people waiting and make the trade. It is a no-brainer.
Post-Allegations Assessment of Watson’s Value
Or, at least it was a no-brainer. Watson is only 25 years old. He is one of the four best quarterbacks in the league. If you are Denver, for example, in a vacuum, you much prefer Watson to Rodgers based on age alone. With Watson on the roster, they are in the legitimate conversation as a Super Bowl contender. Then the allegations against Watson became public. Watson is no longer a no-brainer. He is an expensive gamble.
If the allegations bear out in court, he is facing a massive suspension from the league. More importantly, the new face of your franchise is going to be the subject of intense backlash. To complete the hat trick, he could face criminal penalties. Mitigating these hurdles is the fact that he is 25, under contract through the 2025 season, and the allegations do not, to my knowledge, involve force. If we are realists, the biggest mitigation stems from the fact that Watson is supremely talented. Owners, general managers, and coaches will be willing to withstand the criticism. Watson changes the fortunes of a franchise, gets everyone paid, and brings the Lombardi within reach.
So, Watson still has enormous value. NFL teams are going to have to decide precisely how much value. The fair market pre-allegation price for Watson was 7.28 first-round draft picks. Let us assume that the Texans would have received 85% of that value back in a trade. That is the equivalent of 6.1 first-round picks/players or 7,172.72 points of value on a draft chart.
To determine what discount from that price the Texans will have to accept, we can look to prior marquee players at high-leverage positions traded under less than ideal circumstances. There are two problems with that approach. First, we have never had allegations comparable to the ones against Watson made against another similar player. Second, the NFL has traded very few elite, game-changing players in their prime.
The only players that would qualify as elite and in their prime were traded solely based on contract demands or obscenely overvalued. In the first camp, we have Dickerson and Mack. Dickerson garnered three first-round picks and two second-round picks. Mack garnered two first-round choices and a third-round selection. In the latter camp, we have the granddaddy of them all, the Walker trade. Walker netted three firsts and three seconds.
There is one other trade that may provide a comp. Although the player did not have any of Watson’s issues, Charles Haley had his baggage. Author Jeff Pearlman wrote a book detailing many of the stories around Haley. Pearlman described an out-of-control Charles Haley taking a swing at San Francisco head coach George Seifert, urinating on 49ers teammate Tim Harris’ BMW, and the often lewd gestures and comments Haley made in the 49ers and Cowboys locker rooms.
However, Haley was sensational. At the time of the trade, he was just 28 years old. Haley was the best player on San Francisco’s defense. Perhaps the best defensive player in the league. In his first six years in the league, he had tallied 65 sacks. He was an All-Pro. He was, at the time of the trade, a two-time, back-to-back Super Bowl Champion. He now owns five rings and has his bust in Canton.
The Cowboys only gave up two picks for Haley, a second and a third. Approximately 600 points of value on the trade chart. Fair market value would have placed Haley in the 2,200 point range. It is quite possibly a more astonishing coup than the haul they received for Walker. The Cowboys got Haley for twenty-seven cents on the dollar. They also won three of the following four Super Bowls. Aikman called Haley the greatest teammate and the player that put them over the top.
While the allegations against Watson are much more severe than those against Haley, I am not sure the NFL’s 1992 mentality would have seen it that way. Haley took a swing at his coach. He urinated in a teammate’s car. Haley, he will readily admit, was a nightmare for the 49ers. Watson is also a quarterback, so his price will not drop as steeply as Haley’s dropped.
There is one other factor that needs to be addressed. The rest of the league has zero respect for the Houston front office. They are the laughing stock. Cal McNair has engaged in some serious, hard-core self-destruction since taking over. We can point to the incomprehensibly low trade package Houston received for Hopkins, the way he ran Watt and Watson out of town, and the hiring of Easterby and Culley. Teams will low-ball the Texans and wait for them to do something stupid. They will.
With the Haley trade as a guidepost, the best offer Houston will receive equates to forty cents on the dollar or 2,869.09 points of value. The trade will be two firsts, a third, and two players. I am not going to judge the allegations. The math is simple, if Watson plays, that trade will be the most significant coup in the history of the NFL.