Deshaun Watson looks like the league’s next superstar quarterback, and more than a few teams should have regret.
It’s worth noting that just because Watson has been great seven games into the Houston Texans’ season doesn’t mean he’ll be great for 10 more years. But nothing about this feels fluky. It’s not a gimmick offense or a run of bad defenses he’s facing. Whether you employ the eye test, film study, parsing his statistics, everything looks good.
On Thursday Watson was named AFC offensive player of the month, becoming the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win a player of the month award. Barry Sanders (1989), Edgerrin James (1999), Mike Anderson (2000) and Kareem Hunt (2017) are the only other rookies to win offensive player of the month. Watson was the only quarterback in the NFL who posted a passer rating better than 100 in each of his games in October, the Texans said. He has 18 passing touchdowns over Houston’s last five games, the most by a rookie over any five-game span in NFL history.
There were reasons Watson wasn’t the first pick of the draft. Probably the most notable one was his arm strength, which registered far lower than what is considered the minimum requirement for an NFL starter. It hasn’t been a problem so far, and it seems we’ll look back in a few years and wonder how he went with the 12th pick.
Let’s rank the 12 teams that passed on Watson (with one bonus team added), from the one that regrets it least to the team that screwed it up the most:
12. Carolina Panthers
Pick No. 8
They took: RB Christian McCaffrey
What, the Panthers were going to have Watson sit behind 28-year-old Cam Newton?
11. Tennessee Titans
Pick No. 5
They took: WR Corey Davis
Davis has been hurt, but they also have a young quarterback in Marcus Mariota who has had his own flashes of excellence. Mariota does need to stay healthy though. But the Titans weren’t picking Watson.
10. Cleveland Browns (the first time)
Pick No. 1
They took: DE Myles Garrett
I was always fine with this. Yes, you pick the franchise quarterback over any other player, if you know the quarterback is a sure thing. But Garrett was a can’t-miss prospect at a prime position and he has looked very good when he has been healthy. And the Browns had ammunition to get Watson later. More on that in a moment.
9. Kansas City Chiefs
Pick No. 10
They took: QB Patrick Mahomes
We could look back on the Chiefs as the team that screwed this up the most, because like the Texans they also made a huge move up to take a quarterback. But they passed on Watson for Mahomes. The reason I don’t put the Chiefs higher is because I think Mahomes is going to be a really good player too, and Kansas City is obviously doing fine this season with Alex Smith.
8. New Orleans Saints
Pick No. 11
They took: CB Marshon Lattimore
The Saints are a curious case for this list. They wanted Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes. When the Chiefs moved ahead of New Orleans to get Mahomes at No. 10, the Saints didn’t take Watson. Based on that, they thought Mahomes was much better than Watson (and to be fair, Mahomes isn’t playing and we don’t know yet if they’re wrong). The Saints aren’t higher on the list because Lattimore has been a stud No. 1 cornerback who has transformed their defense, even though they need to figure out a Drew Brees replacement plan at some point soon.
7. San Francisco 49ers
Pick No. 3
They took: DL Solomon Thomas
The 49ers would have been much higher on the list had they not traded a 2018 second-round pick for Jimmy Garoppolo this week. If not for that, the 49ers would still have no answer at quarterback. Everyone has spent so much time congratulating GM John Lynch for moving down one spot to take Thomas, nobody has asked the question: Why didn’t the 49ers take Watson? He seems like a wonderful fit for the Kyle Shanahan offense. I’d rather have Watson than Garoppolo (Garoppolo has 94 career passes, Watson already has 204), but I’ll give San Francisco a pass for now because of the Garoppolo move. Even though they’re going to be handing out a massive contract for Garoppolo soon and nobody knows yet if his limited success is a product of being on a great Patriots team.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
Pick No. 7
They took: WR Mike Williams
Rivers will be 36 this season, and he should still have a few good years left. I understand the idea of getting help for Rivers and trying to get him to a Super Bowl before he’s done. However, just imagine what a talent like Watson could have done for the Chargers as a franchise. They have absolutely no buzz in Los Angeles, but L.A. loves its stars and Watson could have been a big one there. Watson seems like the type of talent and magnetic personality that could have actually made the Chargers a thing in Los Angeles. But still, assuming Rivers doesn’t fall off a cliff soon, I can’t rip them too much for passing Watson. Though, this is another team that better figure out a succession plan at quarterback before it’s too late.
5. Cincinnati Bengals
Pick No. 9
They took: WR John Ross
The worst place to be in the NFL is stuck in the middle at quarterback. Andy Dalton is too good to simply discard and probably not good enough to take the Bengals where they want to go. The Bengals were realistically never going to dump Dalton for Watson. Still, passing Watson would look better if Ross could stay the least bit healthy. And the Bengals would be better off with Watson than Dalton.
4. Chicago Bears
Pick No. 2
They took: QB Mitch Trubisky
A lot of people are already complaining about the Bears taking Trubisky over Watson, but it’s way too early for that. Chicago stuck Trubisky with one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL, with a coaching staff that really shouldn’t be in charge of developing a good young quarterback. Watson wouldn’t be putting up great numbers in this situation either. I like what I’ve seen from Trubisky when he’s allowed to throw the ball, keeping in mind that he’s held back severely by the talent around him. I have no problem with the Bears trading up from No. 3 to No. 2 to get him, then or now. Maybe in five years, we’ll see that Trubisky hasn’t developed and we move the Bears up to first on this list, but not now. If you believe already the Bears made a grave mistake passing Watson for Trubisky, you have to take a breath and realize you shouldn’t be returning a verdict on a quarterback eight games into his rookie season. Ask Jared Goff about that.
3. Cleveland Browns (the second time)
Pick No. 12, which they traded to the Texans
Surprised they’re not No. 1? It’s easy to make Browns jokes because they traded the pick that became Watson, and because they’re the Browns. But other teams screwed up even worse. At least when the Browns passed on taking Watson, they traded for the No. 25 pick (safety Jabrill Peppers) and Houston’s 2018 first-round pick, which would be in the top half of the draft if the season ended today. If we’re going by any trade value chart, the Browns did the right thing. Perhaps trade charts should have exceptions for top quarterbacks, but at least the Browns had justification to trade the pick. Yes, Cleveland desperately needs a quarterback and it’s fun to laugh at the Browns because that franchise could screw up a cup of coffee, but other teams got it worse.
BONUS: Arizona Cardinals
Pick No. 13
Why don’t we mention the Cardinals when we talk about Watson? If the Chiefs could move up from No. 27 to No. 10 to take a quarterback and the Texans could move up from No. 25 to No. 12, the Cardinals could have moved up from No. 13 and taken Watson in the top 12. The Cardinals did absolutely nothing to prepare for Carson Palmer’s retirement. Now, Palmer’s got a broken arm and we don’t know whether he’ll play again, and the other two quarterbacks on the roster are Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert. Instead of moving up, the Cardinals stayed put and took linebacker Haason Reddick, who has made no immediate impact. They shouldn’t be let off the hook just because they didn’t have a top-12 pick. Given the scary path at quarterback ahead, you could make an argument they should be first on this list (and yes, they screwed it up worse than the Browns).
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Pick No. 4
They took: RB Leonard Fournette
The Jaguars’ hesitancy cost them a shot to fix their quarterback situation, and perhaps to be a really good team this season too. By wanting to give Blake Bortles one more shot, the Jaguars passed on taking Watson. Fournette is a fine player, but let’s be clear on two things: Taking any running back in the top five is going to have a limited payoff, and nothing is more valuable than a franchise quarterback. The Jaguars have perhaps the league’s best defense this season, and just imagine how good they’d be with Watson at quarterback instead of having to hide Bortles. As good as Fournette is, there are many low-cost options available at running back (in an ideal situation, the Jaguars could have taken Watson fourth overall, then Kareem Hunt instead of defensive end Dawuane Smoot in the third round). The Jaguars are still in trouble long-term because it’s going to be tough to find a great quarterback. They could have fixed that problem with one pick, but didn’t because they couldn’t bring themselves to admit back in April that Bortles wasn’t the answer.
1. New York Jets
Pick No. 6
They took: S Jamal Adams
Why don’t we give the Jets a harder time for passing on Watson? They have no long-term hope at quarterback, and they won’t pick high enough next year to get a great quarterback prospect. They didn’t make some draft-day trade that, by the numbers, brought back great value like the Browns did. They just stood pat at No. 6 and took a safety. Safeties are almost never taken that high; there have been only five safeties taken in the top five since 1980. Adams might be a great player, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll have a bigger impact than Watson. The Jets have been a pleasant surprise this season, but they’re not going to the playoffs and it’s not like they’ve significantly altered their long-term outlook. They’ll go into next offseason with a talent-deficient roster, no quarterback of the future and no easy way to get one.
– – – – – – –