Are the Panthers preparing to land Deshaun Watson?

A series of cap-related moves and social media drama point to a possible trade for the Texans’ star quarterback

The Panthers have been named as a potential landing spot for disgruntled Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, a move that would require a blockbuster trade from new Carolina GM Scott Fitterer. (Michael Wyke / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers haven’t done much in the first month of their offseason, but as the old saying goes, a watched pot never boils.

While the NFL world has been looking elsewhere, things seem to have been simmering in Charlotte, and — based on the first few bubbles to pop — the Panthers could explode into full boil very soon.

The team made three moves last week that, on paper, seem relatively minor, but they could be foreshadowing a much bigger one to come.

The Panthers released longtime defensive tackle Kawann Short, defensive end Stephen Weatherly, who was brought in as a veteran free agent last offseason, and punter Michael Palardy.

Short has been a Panther since 2013, but the moves didn’t have quite the same impact as last winter’s purge of the team’s core veterans. Short played in just five games over the last two seasons as he battled a variety of injuries.

Weatherly played in just nine games last year and didn’t register a sack. Palardy joined the Panthers in mid-2016 and missed all of last season with a torn ACL.

The trio could end up having a much bigger impact on this season’s Panthers due to their absence than any of them would have provided on the field in 2021. Combined, they will save the team somewhere between $25 and $28 million on this year’s salary cap. The team also restructured center Matt Paradis’ contract, moving about $5 million of 2021 salary into future years for cap purposes.

All told, the team is estimated to be about $40 million under the cap, according to most outlets. That gives new Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer plenty of room to make a big move.

What might that move be? The next clue to that mystery comes from social media.

Shortly after the pink slips were given to the injured Panthers, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater unfollowed the team on Instagram, a strong signal that his tenure in Carolina may be coming to an end after one season. Coach Matt Rhule had already expressed his displeasure with Bridgewater, refusing to commit to him as next season’s starter and saying he “has to have a tremendous offseason” to keep his job.

Based on Bridgewater’s unfollow, Rhule has considered the quarterback’s offseason to be somewhat less than tremendous.

All of which leads to the blockbuster that may be on slow boil: unhappy Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The three-time Pro Bowler and 2020 NFL passing yardage leader has made no secret of his displeasure in Houston, requesting a trade from the team. The Texans have said multiple times that they’re not shopping their star quarterback, but that hasn’t stopped teams from trying to bowl them over with an offer.

There’s no question Watson would be an upgrade for the Panthers. In his three full years in the NFL, he’s passed for an average of 4,280 yards a season, which is nearly 500 yards a year more than the 11 men who have thrown passes for the Panthers over that time. Watson has also thrown 85 touchdowns in the past three seasons, 24 more than Panthers quarterbacks.

There are plenty of teams that need quarterbacks, though. How realistic are the Panthers’ chances of landing Watson?

Watson has a clause in his contract that allows him to veto potential trades. According to reports, the Panthers are one of three teams, along with the Dolphins and Jets, that he’s greenlighted as a trade destination.

NBC’s Peter King has the Panthers on top of the list of potential landing spots for Watson.

“I’d be surprised if the Panthers hadn’t made an offer by now, quite frankly,” King said in a recent column. “This is a fit in many ways. Very aggressive new owner (David Tepper), who would move mountains for a franchise QB. It’s not in the AFC, meaning Houston wouldn’t have to see Watson in the playoffs till the Super Bowl. Because the Panthers are not flush with draft capital, I think they’d have to include a quarterback with some value and at least two very good veteran players.”

That raises the next issue — what would Watson cost the team in a trade?

Any deal with Houston would undoubtedly include the Panthers’ first-round pick, which is No. 8 overall. Bridgewater fits King’s description of “a quarterback with some value.” As for the other two “very good veteran players,” one of them could be All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, who has been rumored to be included in any Panthers-Texans swap. Linebacker Shaq Thompson, one of the few remaining ties to the 2015 Super Bowl team, has also unfollowed Carolina on Instagram, which could mean that his name is being floated as well.

Of course, the deal is far from a sure thing. Houston may keep its word about not dealing Watson, or another team — Denver is listed as the favorite according to betting sites — may top the Panthers’ offer.

Clearly, though, the Panthers’ offseason stew is heating up fast, and the time to lift the pot lid and take a look is rapidly approaching.