As Deshaun Watson sits in legal limbo, a pair of draft trades just shook up his future

If Deshaun Watson ever had a chance to land with the Miami Dolphins, that outlook got a little more bleak Friday. And this time it was a football development, not another onslaught of civil lawsuits.

Watson’s preferred NFL team in a trade scenario — the Dolphins — made a pair of dramatic trades Friday, flipping first-round draft picks in separate deals with the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles. The ultimate result is the Dolphins no longer own the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Now Miami is sitting at No. 6 overall by virtue of two moves: First trading the third pick to the 49ers for a package of draft choices that included the 12th overall slot; then trading that 12th overall pick in a package of choices to the Eagles, moving Miami up to Philadelphia’s No. 6 pick.

The basics: The Dolphins took the No. 3 overall pick and slid back to No. 6. And in the process of shuffling those and other choices, Miami now has five first-round selections in the next three drafts. The Dolphins look like this:

In 2021, Miami has the Nos. 6 and 18 picks.

In 2022, Miami owns San Francisco’s first-round pick.

In 2023, Miami has its first-round pick and San Francisco’s.

Miami just dealt its most valuable draft asset — the No. 3 overall pick — that could have been used for Watson. The flurry of moves indicates the Dolphins are betting on another year of development from Tua Tagovailoa and accruing picks that can be used to strengthen the roster around him (or traded for other assets down the line).

FILE - In this Dec. 27, 2020, file photo, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson throws a pass during an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Houston. A 14th woman has filed a lawsuit accusing Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual assault and harassment. The claims in the latest suit, which was filed late Monday, March 22, 2021, in a Harris County state district court, are similar to those in the earlier cases. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson, File)
Deshaun Watson's 2021 NFL season remains unclear after his trade demands were followed by an avalanche of civil lawsuits against him. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson, File)

How Dolphins' Stephen Ross factors in Tua vs. Watson

All of this makes some level of sense, given what sources have indicated behind the scenes about Miami’s interest in Watson. His legal issues opened up a litany of questions that complicate Miami’s pursuit as it weighs the quarterback’s innocence in the face of sexual assault allegations, as well as the potential fallout from the NFL’s investigation into the pending litigation.

There is also the reality that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross played a role in the Tagovailoa pick in 2020. He believed in the quarterback’s ability to lead the franchise for the next decade and beyond. And a Watson acquisition now — while civil litigation is still pending — is essentially a 100 percent ownership decision, regardless of how strongly it might be supported by a front office or coaching staff. The ultimate responsibility for the risk of onboarding Watson in the middle of legal trouble would be on Ross' shoulders. The same Ross who leaned into Tagovailoa.

Given where Ross stands in the middle of it all, the complication for Miami is clear. Factor that into moving out of the team’s best trade asset and it appears to speak loudly about Miami moving in another direction.

The key word here is appears. Because there are two ways to look at what the Dolphins did.

Dolphins' stockpile of picks keeps Watson in play

In truth, Miami didn’t entirely take itself off the table for Watson, should a trade present itself. If anything, the only team that clearly removed itself from a Watson pursuit was the 49ers, who managed to acquire the No. 3 pick while stripping themselves of first-round selections in 2022 and 2023. That’s an asset purge that takes Watson out of the running unless the 49ers were going to do the unthinkable and carve some All-Pro talent off the roster to get a deal done. And that isn’t happening.

No, the 49ers used three first-round picks to get to No. 3 overall for a reason: To take a quarterback whose preferred style and skills fit Kyle Shanahan and his system like a glove (see: Alabama’s Mac Jones). But the Dolphins? Well, they stacked a lot of picks that could still be used in a Watson trade. Five first-round picks in the next three years is a lot of currency. And the No. 6 overall pick in the 2021 draft could still easily yield a quarterback, especially if the 49ers are enamored with Jones.

If the top three picks end up being Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones, that means Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance would remain on the board, with two teams at the fourth and fifth overall picks that likely won’t be taking quarterbacks — the Atlanta Falcons, who remain committed to Matt Ryan, sitting at No. 4; and the Cincinnati Bengals, who have Joe Burrow.

That means that if Miami wanted Watson despite the legal issues, it could still offer as many as five first-round picks over the next three years for him, then offload Tagovailoa to another team for whatever it could get. Sure, the No. 3 overall pick isn’t there, but Texans general manager Nick Caserio just came from an organization that was nothing but consistent when it came to trading back and turning one pick into two or three. It’s well within the realm of possibility that Dolphins head coach Brian Flores — who knows Caserio from their time working together inside the New England Patriots' personnel department — has a grasp on Caserio’s mindset. If Caserio sees five first-round picks, he might equate that to something he could trade back and turn into 20 selections over a multiyear span. As difficult as it is to lose Watson, ultimately turning him into 20 picks would at least be an attempt to make the best of a bad situation.

Teams that appear out for Watson: 49ers, Bears, Jets, Broncos

Of course, it remains to be seen if the Texans can even trade Watson at this point. It could be impossible given the civil suits weighing on his career, particularly with the league office investigating him and a possibility that he’s either placed on the commissioner’s exempt list or suspended. Regardless of how many teams remain interested, there is no easy way to glide through the cloud around the Texans quarterback.

But what we can do is start to see how the teams pursuing him act. The 49ers? It’s clear that they’re out.

The New York Jets? They are telegraphing strongly that BYU’s Zach Wilson is likely their preference at No. 2. And Wilson’s pro day performance certainly didn’t throw any cold water on that.

The Chicago Bears? They announced Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback and seem to be distancing themselves from a Watson pursuit.

The Denver Broncos? They may not have the draft picks and players necessary to make a trade happen.

The Carolina Panthers? They seem to be sticking in the mix, for now.

When you press all of that against what Miami is bringing to the table, the Dolphins still seem like a possible destination. Less likely, from a logical approach, but still possible. That description sounds murky, but what isn’t about Deshaun Watson’s future?

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