On Thursday, Deshaun Watson confirmed the rumors that he has asked the Houston Texans for a trade. As a superstar quarterback who will turn 26 next September, his presence on the trade market is a rarity in the National Football League. With no injury or known baggage to speak of, acquiring Watson will be a game-changer for the franchise that lands him.
Going after Watson makes sense for the Vikings. The franchise has had trouble finding a cornerstone at quarterback since Fran Tarkenton was hitting Ahmad Rashad in the 70s. Even with Kirk Cousins providing stability at the position, landing Watson would be an upgrade and put them toward the top of the list of contenders in the NFC.
A proposed trade by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell suggests that the Vikings would have to give up Cousins, three-first round picks, and a third-rounder in a three-team deal with the New England Patriots to acquire Watson. We know Watson is an upgrade over Cousins, and that general manager Rick Spielman would likely trade out of the 90th overall pick in this year’s draft anyway. A better question to ask is what would be the true cost of the Vikings getting rid of three first-round picks?
At first glance, the cost of those picks looks intimidating. A big reason for this is the 2012 trade that involved the Washington Football Team coughing up three-first rounders (and more late-round picks) to trade up for Robert Griffin III. While Washington believed they were getting a franchise savior, Griffin lasted just three years in D.C. before being released following the 2014 season.
While it didn’t work out for Washington, the then-St. Louis Rams tried to build the foundation of their team around Sam Bradford by selecting Michael Brockers (2012, 14th overall), Alec Ogletree (2013, 30th overall), and Greg Robinson (2014, 2nd overall) with those selections. In this case, Washington hit rock bottom when they couldn’t acquire players to build around their franchise quarterback.
This is a big reason why Sonny Weaver Jr. was made to look like a fool after trading three first-rounders to acquire Bo Callahan in Draft Day. But it’s easier to say the Vikings are in a completely different situation than Washington was in 2012.
When Washington made the trade, they were coming off a 5-11 season in 2011. Their leading rusher was Roy Helu, who put up 640 yards and two touchdowns. Their top receivers were 31-year-old Jabar Gaffney (947 yards, 5 TD) and 32-year-old Santana Moss (584 yards, 3 TD). Their offensive line didn’t have much outside of Trent Williams, and their defense ranked 12th in points allowed and 13th in yards allowed.
Even with the additions of Alfred Morris (1,613 yards rushing, 13 TD) and Pierre Garcon (633 yards, 4 TD), Washington didn’t have the nucleus to provide long-term success. Mix in the volatility of a young quarterback, and this trade always had risk written all over it.
The difference with the Vikings situation is that Watson would be coming into an offense that is currently the team’s strength. With Dalvin Cook in the backfield, Watson would also enjoy the benefit of throwing to Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, and Irv Smith Jr. as his top targets bringing the makings of a truly explosive offense.
It would be easy to note that Cousins did just fine under these circumstances and ranked 10th in Pro Football Focus’ quarterback grades. However, Watson ranked third and did so, throwing most of his targets to Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and Jordan Akins. Watson’s top target, Will Fuller V, was only available for half a season, and Watson still threw for 4,823 yards, 33 touchdowns, and seven interceptions.
While Watson would be scary good in the Vikings’ offense, the real issue is that Minnesota was a flawed team last season. Their defense ranked 27th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed, and the offensive line continues to be a disaster. But are these issues that require premium picks to be solved?
This starts with the ability to find a pass rush, which accounted for just 23 sacks last season, which was 28th in the NFL. While several mock drafts have the Vikings taking Michigan’s Kwity Paye or Miami’s Gregory Rousseau to address the issue, Minnesota has thrived over the past couple of years by taking players later in the draft and handing them to co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson to coach them up.
2020 stretched the limitations of the Vikings’ defensive depth, but they typically don’t invest high picks into the defensive line and still find impact players. If the Vikings’ front office can find more “pet cats” for Patterson to develop, the unit could rebound quickly, especially with Michael Pierce and Danielle Hunter returning in 2021.
The Vikings’ other pressing issue is at guard, but most teams don’t draft guards in the upper rounds anyway. When the Vikings did draft an interior lineman high, they reached for Garrett Bradbury when suitable options Erik McCoy and Elgton Jenkins went later in the draft.
If you factor in the roughly $16 million in salary-cap space that would be gained by swapping Cousins for Watson, the Vikings could also be players in free agency. This would allow them to make a run at Joe Thuney and Brandon Scherff to provide a suitable solution for the three years they were without their top pick.
That money can also be used on other things such as a third wide receiver, a safety to play next to Harrison Smith, and overall depth.
There’s a chance this might not be convincing enough, but it may be as simple as taking a look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 2019, Jameis Winston threw for 5,109 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 30 interceptions — he was flawed but good enough to get the Bucs to 7-9. By adding an elite quarterback in Tom Brady to a good situation, their play went up, and they found themselves in the Super Bowl.
With Watson, the Vikings would be getting an elite quarterback in the prime of his career. Instead of a Brett Favre-in-2009 type of year, Minnesota would have several to take a shot at a Super Bowl and have the key piece of the puzzle they’ve been missing since Bud Grant was on the sideline.
There is a chance that the Vikings would miss adding the next player that could make the same impact that Justin Jefferson did this past season by trading their first-round picks. But it’s unlikely that the Vikings would find a franchise-level quarterback when teams have become more aggressive to acquire them. For a team in Minnesota’s situation, it is probably worth the admission price to acquire someone who’s already done it.