Deshaun Watson is a dream, Justin Fields is possible for Falcons

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields looks on from the bench in the third quarter against Northwestern on Oct. 18, 2019, in Evanston.
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields looks on from the bench in the third quarter against Northwestern on Oct. 18, 2019, in Evanston.

Credit: Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune

Credit: Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune

Deshaun Watson, a superb NFL quarterback and pride of Gainesville High, reportedly wants out of Houston. Justin Fields, the Ohio State star from Kennesaw, is one of the top QB prospects in the NFL draft. Both players are mobile quarterbacks suited for the modern game.

Matt Ryan is the best player in Falcons franchise history, but he’s a throwback QB, not the future. Ryan, 35, is in the twilight of his career. The Falcons have a new coach and front office after three consecutive losing seasons.

These circumstances have inspired Falcons supporters to dream about the possibility of Watson or Fields returning home to play. Trade Ryan for Watson or draft Fields with the No. 4 overall pick. Build around them and win big.

The Falcons may get their chance to draft Fields. General manager Terry Fontenot would be under tremendous external pressure to pick Fields if he’s available. More on that later. First, please forgive me for throwing water on the idea of the Falcons trading for Watson.

It’s going to take a historic trade package to acquire Watson. He’s 25 years old and no worse than the fifth-best player at the most important position. At least half the league’s teams are seeking a new QB. Some of them, such as the Dolphins and Jets, can offer a young QB in addition to picks. The Falcons can’t do that.

And that’s not even the main reason why one shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about how the Falcons can get Watson. They can’t make the trade anytime soon without devastating their salary cap. The reason: “dead money,” or salary-cap space dedicated to a player no longer on the roster.

If the Falcons were to trade Ryan before June 1, they’d take a $44.4 million dead-money hit. That figure is way too much even if the cap were increasing. It’s especially prohibitive with the cap expected to decrease because of lower revenues during the pandemic season.

If Ryan were to be traded after June 1, the dead-money hit for the Falcons would be $17.9 million in both 2021 and 2022 and $8.6 million in 2022. That’s more feasible than taking the $44.4 million hit all at once. It also means the cap pain lasts longer.

Let’s say the Falcons are willing to take the dead-money hit, and the Texans for some reason are willing to wait until after June 1 to trade their disgruntled quarterback. Would Watson, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, want to join a team with a tight cap even if it’s in his home state? The Falcons also would have to part with draft picks to make the trade, further limiting their team-building options.

With Watson, the Falcons would have a better quarterback on a thin roster. If the Falcons want to move on from Ryan, it’s more feasible to do so after next season and draft his successor with the fourth pick. There’s a realistic scenario in which Fields will be available.

The expert consensus seems to be that the top player in the draft is Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The QBs behind him, in some order, are Ohio State’s Fields, BYU’s Zach Wilson, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and Alabama’s Mac Jones.

The Jaguars will take Lawrence at No. 1. If the Jets don’t acquire Watson, they may stick with fourth-year QB Sam Darnold. The Dolphins probably won’t select a QB at No. 3 if they still have Tua Tagovailoa, the No. 5 pick in the last draft. It’s plausible that either the Jets and Dolphins won’t draft a QB or trade their pick, in which case Fields could still be on the board when the Falcons get their turn.

Fontenot, like every NFL GM, said he believes in drafting the best player available regardless of team needs. If Fields is on the board and Fontenot believes he’s the guy, then great. If Fields is there and Fontenot decides he’s not the guy then, whew boy, he’d better be right.

There’s obvious appeal to Fields or another top prospect as Falcons QB-in-waiting. He could be eased into the NFL instead of taking his lumps on a talent-deficient team. It’s hard to look at history and make a definitive statement about whether that’s the right way to break in a QB. There are too many variables to consider with each situation.

There also isn’t much data because it’s rare that a QB selected near the top of the draft isn’t immediately the starter. Finances play a big part in that.

What’s made drafted players especially valuable since 2011 is that their salaries are limited by the collective bargaining agreement. The No. 4 pick this year will get a four-year guaranteed contract for about $33 million, well below what he could get on the open market. The sooner a drafted QB can become a good NFL starter, the longer the team can employ him on a bargain deal.

Fewer games played also means the drafted QB’s team will have less information to go on when it’s time to decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option after Year 3. Every game that a team leaves a top QB prospect on the bench is a missed chance for development and to get maximum value from the rookie contract. Market pressures are layered on top of fan expectations that the young QB get on the field soon.

Quarterback Jordan Love didn’t play a snap for the Packers in 2020 after they selected him with the No. 26 pick in the draft. That’s probably easier for the Packers to accept when they are paying him $12.3 million for four years. It also means they don’t yet know his true ability to eventually replace Aaron Rodgers.

Three legendary NFL quarterbacks began their careers on the bench: Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Two recent draftees, Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, had to wait their turns. But Tagovailoa is the only one of those players to be drafted near the top half of the draft. Rodgers was picked near the bottom of the first round, Brees and Hurts went in the second round and Brady famously lasted until the sixth.

Tagovailoa had hip surgery in December 2019. He was healthy to begin this season but didn’t play until Week 6. Tagovailoa’s rough rookie season included getting pulled twice from games for ineffectiveness, but he had only 290 pass attempts over 10 games. The Dolphins likely will keep building with Tagovailoa if they can’t include him as part of a trade for Watson.

Watson isn’t a realistic option for the Falcons. They committed to Ryan long-term by extending his contract in 2018 and restructuring last year to clear cap space. Ryan had a good finish to 2020, and chances are he’ll begin his 14th Falcons season as the starter. It’s realistic to believe Fields will be their No. 2 quarterback.

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