NFL insider notes: All eyes on Houston, lack of diversity troubling, plus NFC, AFC championship picks and more

Cal McNair holds the future landscape of the NFL quarterback situation in his hands.

That’s not hyperbole, though the league should hope it is. The Houston Texans owner has tripped his way through his first two years of ownership, and the last five months have been a mess beyond what that young franchise has ever seen.

If Deshaun Watson truly wants out, he can wiggle out of Houston. After his career year, his contract is hardly an albatross to any interested team. And he wouldn’t go just anywhere; he’d have to waive his no-trade clause so he can dictate where he lands.

The clubs being most discussed right now as landing spots for Watson are the Jets, Dolphins and Panthers. That means the fates of Tua Tagovailoa, Sam Darnold, Teddy Bridgewater, their respective head coaches and general managers — plus the rookie QBs those teams would otherwise target — all rest with whether McNair can smooth relations between the team and Watson.

Sources differ on how imminent a Watson escape from Houston really is. Some believe cooler heads will ultimately prevail. Others tell me McNair can keep Watson there if he hires Eric Bieniemy as the head coach. If that’s the case, and Houston goes in a different direction at head coach, Watson may truly have played his final snap with the Texans.

So after talking with sources around the league this week, I believe it would take compensation equaling at least three first-round picks and likely a second- and/or third-round pick for Houston to rightfully press the button on the trade.

“They’ll likely ask for at least three first-round picks, a second, a third and a later round pick,” one personnel executive told me. “Ultimately I think it depends on whether the team has a viable QB that’s available to trade in return.”

“They have to leave with at least a player and two firsts and some throw-in picks,” another personnel man said. “Preferably a top 10 this year, preferably with a good QB included in the deal.”

Said one agent: “Four picks, including three 1s, sounds about right. But since the Texans don’t have a ton of leverage after alienating and pissing off a guy who should be the face of their franchise for the next decade, maybe two 1s and a combination of picks and/or swapped choices could be the way.”

There’s little historical precedent to go off of, and comparing any Watson deal to Jay Cutler’s from 2009 wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Back then, the Broncos sent Chicago Cutler and a fifth-round pick in exchange for Kyle Orton, two firsts and a third. That was before the 2011 CBA that slotted rookie deals, so comparing a first-round pick in 2009 to a first-round pick in 2022 isn’t exactly one:one.

And the math here isn’t simply “three firsts.” Yes, Jamal Adams and Jalen Ramsey were both dealt for two firsts, but both the Seahawks and Rams sent what they anticipated would be picks in the 20s — if not 30s — for those players. Most personnel folks will tell you today that a player in the 20s isn’t that much different from the guy you’d take at, say, 35.

But a top-three pick? That’s a gold bar. Even the Panthers, picking at No. 8, would offer the chance for Houston to pick a potential gold jacket player.

The Jets could deal Darnold, who equates to a third-round pick. The Dolphins could send Tagovailoa to Houston less than one year after taking him fifth overall. The Panthers would have to unload Teddy Bridgewater and his contract if they wanted Watson, though it seems unlikely the Texans would want to take that on considering the way he played in 2020.

That’d mean the Panthers would have to trade something of substantial value with a quarterback to give and with the least desirable first-round spot among the group. Panthers owner David Tepper would have to part with Christian McCaffrey, the face of the franchise, and likely more. Defensive end Brian Burns, entering his third season in the league, would also likely be requested in order to get such a deal done.

What the Texans do at head coach will either quiet or ramp up speculation on Watson’s future. If Houston has to ship Watson off, it’d make most sense to do so before the start of free agency in mid-March, where competition for his services (read: the trade prices) will be highest.

Offseason changes afoot?

With the on-field success of the 2020 NFL season sans a proper and traditional offseason program, the NFLPA will be pushing the league to adjust what’s required of players in the 2021 offseason.

What exactly that will look like is TBD. Executive director DeMaurice Smith said on a conference call with reporters this week that they’ve adjusted the CBA year-to-year plenty of times in the past, so this would be nothing new for the union.

“Working in COVID has demonstrated that we can work smarter and better and more efficiently,” Smith said. “And a lot of those things I think are things that we’re going to see, hope to make sure that they stay.”

I asked NFLPA president and Browns center JC Tretter what he’d say to coaches who will certainly push back on the prospect of having less time with their players.

“Asking coaches whether you should take away practice is like asking the Cookie Monster if there should be less cookies. The answer is always going to be no, they want more,” Tretter said. “That is just kind of how it is, so that’s not surprising.

“In the end, it’s about building a better program. Building one that works for everybody involved and makes this game safer and our players healthier. Again, we need to talk to the NFL about it and work through our experts, I think, is the most important. They should have a large voice in how this is built out. But in the end, it’s about making the best program for older guys, younger guys, wherever you stand in this league, making the safest program.”

Lack of diversity troubling

Since the end of the 2018 NFL season, there have been 19 head coach hires. Just one of those jobs has gone to a Black man.

After the Eagles landed on Nick Sirianni, it’s down to just the Texans. Houston has yet to make its selection, but it’s possible that Black men are shut out of the head coach hiring cycle this year. After everything that happened in 2020 in this country. As the NFL player pool is 69% Black. As the Black coach pipeline has never been better. As the league has even incentivized teams to hire and promote minorities.

It’s a terrible look, and the league office knows it. Of course, this isn’t an issue the folks at 345 Park Avenue can really do much about. It has always been up to team owners to value diversity, and no one with the shield on their chest can make these horses drink the water.

Back in December when the league told teams they couldn’t conduct in-person interviews with head coaching candidates until their team’s season was complete, I wrote about the unintended consequences of that. The league was optimistic it would offer Black and other minority candidates even better opportunities to get hired. We are seeing now that was not the case.

From Dec. 11: White NFL team owners have shown a historical reluctance to hire people outside their ethnicity (and circle of people) for top positions. They do and have done what is familiar to them.

Creating a structure that removes the ability to become more familiar with a candidate would, in my mind, ultimately hurt minority candidates. An even more pessimistic view would be that it’d allow team owners the ability to check the Rooney Rule box with greater ease. 

Of course, these protocols were put in place to protect people’s health and safety and to ensure the playoffs wouldn’t be thrown off. But I’m readying for the unintended consequences of this move.

I’m sad to see that’s apparently come true.

Picks

Buccaneers at Packers

Latest Odds:

Green Bay Packers
-3.5

Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET, Fox

I’ve been talking about Green Bay’s natural home-field advantage for a few weeks now. If the forecast holds and we get snow at Lambeau, I don’t know how the Packers lose. Aaron Rodgers and this offense are built for the elements. It’s not about just being cold, but the snow changes the footing and the Packers are the team with the experience there.

The pick: Packers

Bills at Chiefs

Latest Odds:

Kansas City Chiefs
-3

Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET, CBS

This one is all about Patrick Mahomes. By the time this story publishes we still won’t know who is starting at QB for Kansas City, but I have a good feeling it’ll be Mahomes. If so, there’s no way any team is stopping the Chiefs. I wrote that several weeks ago and I mean it. I appreciate what Sean McDermott did in their Week 6 match, and it almost worked! But KC is too powerful, especially if Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Sammy Watkins are playing. (Of course, if Chad Henne is the starter or has to play substantial time in this one, give me the Bills.)

The pick: Chiefs