No player has been photoshopped into as many different jerseys as Deshaun Watson. In the dead week before Super Bowl week, we, the NFL media and fans, have seized the Watson trade storyline and run wild with it. But in a press conference last week, Houston general manager Nick Caserio stressed his commitment to Watson and said, "We have zero interest in trading the player."
If the Texans do eventually trade Watson, it'll be for a historic haul, and it will usher in an era of player empowerment the NFL has never seen before. But why would they part with their dynamic 25-year-old quarterback? Watson's unhappiness probably isn't enough to convince the new staff in Houston to let the cornerstone of their franchise move on.
Is this trade pursuit even remotely realistic?
One NFL general manager said he hasn't heard anything from Houston that makes him think Watson will be traded, and he suggested this is mainly a media-driven story.
According to two high-level executives from different teams in the quarterback market, Texans brass have told interested teams that they will not be having any conversations about trading Watson.
"We've been told 'no' from them directly," one of the executives said.
Interested teams are putting plans together, he continued. "But I don't think the Texans are listening."
The second executive said he isn't sure what to make of Houston not wanting to talk about a Watson trade. There's new leadership in town, but the organization has been such a mess.
"It's Houston right now," he said. "They don't have any rhyme or reason on what they have done over the last year-and-a-half."
The general manager noted that Caserio can publicly say he isn't interested, but everyone has a price.
League sources agreed that any deal for Watson would start at three first-round picks and would have to include a young quarterback, preferably one on a rookie deal who can give Houston an answer at quarterback.
If the Texans can't replace Watson in the deal, then what will they do under center? They're more than $16 million over the cap, according to Spotrac, so it'll be difficult for them to afford a Watson replacement.
That stipulation narrows down the options significantly. The New York Jets have Sam Darnold, who will be entering the fourth year of his rookie deal (with a fifth-year option), and the No. 2 overall pick. The Jacksonville Jaguars own the first overall pick along with another first-rounder (No. 25) and two second-round picks. The Miami Dolphins drafted Tua Tagovailoa fifth overall last year and have the No. 3 overall pick this year.
The Los Angeles Rams' trade with the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford came together quickly because both Stafford and the Lions were on the same page. If something were to develop with Watson, it's going to be on a much slower timeline.
If Jacksonville is interested, that could end up being a day-before-the-draft type of deal. That, or something involving any other high pick, would depend on how Houston feels about this year's quarterback class, an evaluation process that has been limited because of COVID-19 protocol.
The first executive thinks of Watson's situation like Carson Palmer's trade request in Cincinnati.
In 2011, after a 4-12 season, Palmer requested a trade. He threatened to retire if that demand was not met. He has since explained that he wanted out because he felt the organization wasn't 100 percent committed to winning. (This sentiment feels similar to Watson's end-of-season message that the Texans have "no real foundation in view.")
Bengals owner and president Mike Brown said he would not trade Palmer, and the Bengals selected quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 draft. Palmer did not report for camp that year, and the Bengals placed him on the reserve/did not report list. The Bengals played Dalton as a rookie and Palmer never officially retired, but he never showed up in Cincinnati.
In October, the Raiders were desperate for a QB and offered a first- and second-round pick for Palmer. The Bengals finally agreed to trade him.
"I look at it as a similar, if you want to call it, staring contest," the executive said.
Like Palmer, Watson doesn't have all that much leverage to force a trade on a faster timeline. Watson is in a talent sphere well above what Palmer was, and he would bring a ransom of picks in return. But if the team leaders are dead set against trading him, that is their right.
He hasn't threatened to retire yet, but he has scrubbed his social media accounts of all Texans affiliation. Unlike the Bengals, the Texans don't have a first- or second-round pick this year to use on a quarterback for security in case Watson holds out. Houston's first pick in the 2021 draft isn't until the third round.
If Watson decides to hold out, it will end up costing him a significant sum of money. Per the 2020 CBA, fines cannot be forgiven, and Watson can be fined for every practice and preseason game he misses.
If he sits out the entire offseason and preseason, he'd be fined an estimated $2.4 million, per NBC Sports' Peter King. Watson would also owe the Texans a portion of his signing bonus if he refuses to practice or play, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk.
"He has $21.6 million in unearned bonus money, which applies to each of the next four years at $5.4 million per year," Florio added. "Also, his future guarantees could be voided, if he refuses to show up for camp."
Watson won't allow finances to impact his decision, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. So if the Texans don't budge, would he miss a full season rather than play for them? He may have to sit out the entire season to get what he wants.
"I don't know what Watson's leverage is," the first executive said. "Yeah, he can choose who they can't trade him to, but what is he going to do if they don't trade him? Sit out?"
Only three players since the current salary-cap era began in 1994 have sat out for a full season in the middle of their careers because of a contract dispute or unfulfilled trade request: Le'Veon Bell (2018), Dan Williams (1998), Sean Gilbert (1997).
"I've seen several contracts through the years with a no-trade clause," said one veteran agent with experience representing starting quarterbacks. "I've yet to see a must-trade clause in one."
The general manager said now that the Texans have hired a new head coach and general manager, they're at the beginning of a long process of figuring out their vision and identity. It's too early to say Watson won't decide to at least hear out the new plan.
Right now, the answer coming out of Houston is a "no" to trading Watson, and the first executive doesn't expect that to change. Caserio and head coach David Culley will do their best to try to make peace with Watson.
The tension between Watson and chairman Cal McNair and executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby is a problem that Caserio and Culley inherited, but whether or not they can keep this quarterback will make or break their careers. There's no comparable trade value for a player like Watson, and almost any trade proposal would feel like a loss. They aren't going to let him go that easily.
"If you are the new GM or head coach, you are going to do everything you can to change it, to smooth things over," the executive said.
Only Watson knows what lengths he will go to get out of Houston. It's only February, and with reports that he hasn't been taking calls from McNair (most recently from Albert Breer of SI.com), this has all of the signs of becoming a months-long, drawn-out drama.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.