Falcons’ interest in Deshaun Watson shows they’re looking beyond Matt Ryan

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Houston's Deshaun Watson meet after the game Oct. 6, 2019, at NRG Stadium in Houston. The Falcons reportedly have shown some interest in Watson.

Credit: Mark Brown

Credit: Mark Brown

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Houston's Deshaun Watson meet after the game Oct. 6, 2019, at NRG Stadium in Houston. The Falcons reportedly have shown some interest in Watson.

We mentioned Deshaun Watson just the other day. That same day, a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, declined to indict him after an investigation into 23 lawsuits filed against him by women claiming sexual assault and harassment. Though 22 of those lawsuits remain active, the disinclination of Houston authorities to prosecute Watson have made him a source of interest to those franchises in need of a quarterback.

The Browns – who drafted Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall in 2018 – met with Watson on Tuesday. According to ESPN, he’d already met with the Saints and Panthers.

On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen, citing league sources, identified the Falcons as “a sleeper team” in the chase to land Watson. This was significant. In 13 months under the management of Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith, the Falcons have expressed no desire to move beyond Matt Ryan, their quarterback since 2008.

Ryan will turn 37 in May. Watson is 26. He led the Texans to the playoffs in 2018 and 2019. He led Clemson to consecutive College Football Playoff title games against Alabama. The Tigers almost won the first. They did win the second. Watson is a big-time quarterback. Big-time quarterbacks aren’t often available in trade.

Watson didn’t play last season. Having fallen out with Houston management, those lawsuits served as a deterrent to any team that might have interest. The NFL hasn’t yet spoken on those allegations of sexual abuse. At some point, it has to say something. It might suspend him. It might not. The league has a checkered history of dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and not just involving players. Owners, too.

A team interested in trading for Watson is taking a risk. The market for his services was all but closed while the grand jury was meeting. Its decision not to prosecute means he won’t go to jail. It won’t make the civil suits go away. In 2010, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Ben Roethlisberger for six games – later reduced to four – although his case for sexual assault in a Milledgeville nightclub was dismissed.

It’s clear NFL teams view Watson in a different light than they did a week ago. He’s a real possibility for clubs in need of a quarterback. The Falcons were described by a Schefter/Mortensen source as a “long shot,” but the team knows Watson well. He served as a Falcons ball boy. He grew up in Gainesville, in a Habitat for Humanity house that former Falcons running back Warrick Dunn helped furnish.

More than 20 women claim the adult Watson harmed them. We can’t unsee that image. But Michael Vick played quarterback in the NFL, albeit not for the Falcons, after he’d gone to federal prison for dogfighting. Roethlisberger played 12 more seasons after being docked those four games. Until the grand jury declined to prosecute, we weren’t sure Watson would play another NFL game. We’re pretty sure he will now.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say the Falcons become more than a long shot. Let’s say they move to trade for Watson. That would mean they’d have to dump Ryan, not necessarily to the Texans but to somewhere. After restructuring Ryan’s contract, his cap hit for 2022 is $36.6 million. Watson’s is $40.4M. These two salaries cannot exist on one roster.

Watson is under contract through 2025, when he’ll be 30. Ryan’s contract lapses after the 2023 season, though the latest restructuring added voidable years from 2024 through 2026. At the end of the 2023 season, Ryan will be 38.

For Braves fans wondering how the club could agree to pay the just-acquired Matt Olson $168 million over eight seasons after balking at a sixth season for Freddie Freeman, the same principle applies. Olson will be 35 in October 2029. Freeman will be 40. We say again: In big-time sports, age matters more than dollars.

Back to football: Watson’s skill set differs from Ryan’s. Watson has rushed for 1,677 yards in four NFL seasons; Ryan has rushed for 1,469 yards in his 14-year pro career. The Falcons with Watson would look much different from the Falcons with Ryan. Maybe that wouldn’t be a good thing – or maybe it would.

If nothing more comes of a Falcons’ audience with Watson beyond pleasant conversation, such a meeting still would mark a line of demarcation. Not since drafting Ryan have the Falcons hinted at any interest in another quarterback. This would be more than a hint. This would be an admission.

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