Deshaun Watson

How 49ers drafting Deshaun Watson in 2017 could've changed NFL history

How 49ers drafting Deshaun Watson in 2017 could've changed NFL history

Editor's note: This story originally was published on March 26.

The No. 2 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft will go down as one of the biggest "what if?" moments for this era of football.

Chicago Bears fans no doubt are tired of hearing about how they swapped picks with the 49ers in order to draft quarterback Mitchell Trubisky instead of Deshaun Watson or 2018 MVP and Super Bowl LIV MVP Patrick Mahomes. The Bears deserve every jab and joke they receive from here until the end of time.

But ... what about the 49ers? Had they not swapped picks with the Bears -- and picked up three other picks in the process -- they could have selected their next franchise quarterback and the sliding-door effect would ripple throughout the NFL.

In NBC Sports Chicago's re-draft of the 2017 NFL Draft, they have the 49ers sticking at No. 2 and selecting Watson after Mahomes, obviously, was taken first overall by the Cleveland Browns. With sports paused and the only thing to keep us busy being podcasts, classic games and household chores, let us dive into this alternate reality where the 49ers draft Watson and see how the NFL world has changed.

With Watson at the helm in Kyle Shanahan's first year as head coach, the 49ers don't lose their first nine games. Watson's magic manifests itself early and he leads the 49ers to a 3-6 record through nine games. Facing an upward trajectory with a young stud quarterback, the 49ers don't receive a trade deadline call from Bill Belichick offering Jimmy Garoppolo or Tom Brady, rumors depending.

Instead, Belichick calls his old friend Bill O'Brien, who still needs a quarterback in Houston, and sends him Garoppolo for a first-round pick in 2018 (O'Brien still doesn't know how trades work in this universe). The Patriots then package the No. 4 overall pick and their own first-round pick to move up to No. 1 and select Baker Mayfield -- who Belichick reportedly loved -- to be the Pats' quarterback of the future.

Back in the Bay, the 49ers, led by Watson and Shanahan's genius, finish the season 5-2, including a win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10. They head into the offseason with a lot of hope for what could be a special 2018 season.

Still owning their second-round pick which never was traded for Garoppolo, the 49ers draft Dallas Goedert in the second round (since George Kittle was selected No. 4 overall in this alternate 2017 re-draft universe).

Watson opens the 2018 season on a tear, reeling off six straight wins to open the season, and doesn't suffer the same fate as Jimmy Garoppolo did in Week 3 against the Kansas City Chiefs. They enter Week 7 against the undefeated rival Los Angeles Rams looking to make a statement, but their defense can't slow down a healthy Todd Gurley in a 31-17 loss.

They finish the season 10-6, good enough for the second wild-card spot. With the Bears not having the 2018 Trubisky magic dust sprinkled on them, Kirk Cousins -- the 49ers QB who never was -- leads the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC North title. The 49ers' playoff run is short-lived as the Vikings bounce them out with a 28-13 win.

The 10-6 record no longer has the 49ers draft No. 2 overall in 2019, but Nick Bosa still packs his bags for the Bay, as the Raiders move up one spot from now-No. 3 to No. 2 to take the generational pass-rusher they sorely needed.

The 49ers, needing wide receiver help badly, draft Ole Miss's A.J. Brown with the No. 22 overall pick, believing their scouts have a better beat on the Ole Miss prospect than others. They still draft Deebo Samuel in the second round, and now Shanahan has all the toys he could want in Brown, Samuel, Goedert, Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Kendrick Bourne.

Buoyed by the MVP-caliber play of Watson and a Pro Bowl season from Goedert, the 49ers' offense rips through almost every team in its path en route to a 14-2 season and an NFC West title. They still make the trade for Emmanuel Sanders, seeing an opportunity to create the most explosive passing attack in the NFL by adding the veteran receiver.

While the defense isn't as dominant without Bosa, the combination of DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford still do a ton of damage. The 49ers exact revenge on Cousins and the Vikings in the NFC Divisional Round and curb stomp Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.

With Mahomes in Cleveland and not Kansas City, the Chiefs aren't what's awaiting the 49ers in Miami. Instead, it's Tom Brady and the Patriots, looking for Super Bowl No. 7 after dispatching Garoppolo and the Texans in the AFC Championship Game.

Watson and Brady duel deep into the night in South Florida, but the 42-year-old hits Julian Edelman for a 19-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left, giving the Patriots a 34-31 win.

[RELATED: Brady, like idol Montana, chooses to finish career on his terms]

After the game, Brady is mum on his future but knows Mayfield is waiting in the wings.

A free agent, Brady reaches out to his hometown 49ers but is quickly rebuffed after Watson finished second in MVP voting to Lamar Jackson.

With Chris Godwin no longer in Tampa due to the 2017 re-draft, Brady elects to be the poster child for the Las Vegas Raiders, who have an up-and-coming defense spearheaded by Bosa, Malik Hooker (2017 re-draft) and Trayvon Mullen. Jon Gruden promises to get Brady some weapons and promptly fleeces Bill O'Brien for DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, leaving Garoppolo to deal with O'Brien by himself.

Entering the 2020 season, it's expected to be another duel between Watson and Brady for the Lombardi Trophy.

Watson and Shanahan are the NFL's top QB-coach duo and are primed to be kings of the NFC for years to come. The Bears still don't have a quarterback.

We now return you to reality where Brady is a Buc, Bosa, Garoppolo and Shanahan are looking forward to a Super Bowl revenge tour in San Francisco, Watson is trying to get away from O'Brien, Gruden is rolling with Derek Carr again and the Bears ... still don't have a quarterback (sorry, Nick Foles).

It was a fun exercise, though.

How Patriots trading Jimmy Garoppolo earlier would've affected 49ers

watsonjimmygusatsi.jpg
USATSI

How Patriots trading Jimmy Garoppolo earlier would've affected 49ers

The New England Patriots' ideal Tom Brady successor is the franchise quarterback for Brady's childhood team.

The Patriots dealt Jimmy Garoppolo to the 49ers for a second-round draft pick in 2017, to coach Bill Belichick's reported chagrin. He envisioned Garoppolo leading the Patriots into another decade of dominance, but owner Robert Kraft ordered Belichick to trade Garoppolo and keep Brady, ESPN's Seth Wickersham reported in 2018.

Neither Brady nor Garoppolo will be in New England when the 2020 season starts, as the former signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (that's still weird to type and say out loud) as a free agent last month. The Patriots' QB depth chart currently consists of Jarrett Stidham and former 49er Brian Hoyer, which doesn't exactly inspire dynasty-building confidence.

That left NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry to wonder if the Patriots would've been better off trading Garoppolo sooner, when then-Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson stopped just shy of holding a neon sign over his head indicating he would trade the No. 12 pick before that year's draft for Garoppolo.

"On its face, making that move made sense for both sides," Perry wrote Friday. "The Browns were desperate for a competent quarterback. They were flush with picks. The Patriots, meanwhile, didn't have a first or a second-rounder that spring. For them, trading Garoppolo with a year left on his contract represented an opportunity to bolster their 2017 rookie haul with a top-15 talent."

The ripple effects, as Perry noted would've been far-reaching.

Jackson would've had his quarterback of the future, and thus the Browns might not have drafted Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall -- or even had the pick -- in 2018. The 49ers, who Kyle Shanahan admitted were focused enough on acquiring Kirk Cousins as a free agent in 2018 that they passed on Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft, then likely would've gone all-in on Cousins. The Patriots, then, could've drafted Deshaun Watson at No. 12 overall -- the same pick the Houston Texans used after acquiring it from the Browns -- as Brady's successor.

Thankfully for fans sick of New England winning titles, that didn't happen. It's also fair to wonder if any of the teams involved other than the Patriots actually were better off.

Acquiring Garoppolo could've saved Jackson's job in the short-term, but the Browns didn't become a team who failed to meet lofty expectations until after Jackson's firing. The 49ers, had they signed Cousins to the same contract he signed with the Vikings in 2018, would've had more flexibility in the first season but less in the second when compared to Garoppolo's extension. Neither Cousins nor Garoppolo is a clear upgrade over the other, and it's not like you can guarantee Cousins wouldn't have torn his ACL in 2018, either.

[RELATED: Kittle's 49ers rise didn't shock fellow Iowa star Hanks at all]

The Patriots can (and surely will) kick themselves all they want for not maximizing Garoppolo's trade return, but the Browns might not view a hypothetical Garoppolo deal with the same regret since that still would've meant not picking Watson.

The 49ers, assuming they still signed Cousins, surely would've been happy either way.

How 49ers, Colts' differing motivations led to DeForest Buckner trade

How 49ers, Colts' differing motivations led to DeForest Buckner trade

One week ago, the Indianapolis Colts didn't have a single quarterback on their roster signed beyond the upcoming 2020 season.

A week later, that remains the case.

You don't often see QB-needy teams that are scheduled to pick in the top half of the first round of the NFL draft -- like the Colts were -- trade that highly-valued asset for a non-quarterback veteran. Even less often do you see that still QB-needy team then sign that non-QB to a massive contract extension, thereby taking up a large chunk of the salary cap space that could otherwise have been used to address the most important position on the field.

But that's exactly what Indianapolis did in trading the No. 13 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft to the 49ers in exchange for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner last week. In completing the trade, the Colts signed Buckner to a four-year, $84 million extension.

The following day, Indianapolis signed veteran quarterback Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million contract in free agency. Between Rivers, 38, and holdovers Jacoby Brissett and Chad Kelly, the Colts are spending more on the quarterback position ($47.125 million) than any other team this coming season -- and still don't have a single QB signed beyond it.

So, what exactly was Indianapolis' logic? There is a combination of factors, but ultimately it boils down to: The Colts don't think they're that far off.

After being blindsided by Andrew Luck's retirement just prior to the start of last season, Indianapolis actually got off to a 5-2 start before stumbling down the stretch. The Colts ultimately finished 7-9 and fell short of the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. Two teams they beat -- the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans -- met in the AFC Championship Game, with the Chiefs going on to prevail over San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV.

The Colts are well aware that they'll be dealing with Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes for many, many years to come, and according to The Athletic's Zak Keefer, they view Buckner -- who had 1.5 sacks and three hits on Mahomes in the Super Bowl -- as a necessary counter weapon, due to his proficiency as an internal rusher.

"And don’t think for a second Mahomes and [Texans quarterback Deshaun] Watson didn’t factor into this trade," Keefer wrote. "[Colts general manager Chris] Ballard knows the QBs in the AFC his team will have to face in the coming years, how dangerous they are in and out of the pocket and the quickest way to corral them: with pressure straight up the middle. That’s precisely how Buckner got a solo sack on Mahomes in the Super Bowl. That’s why the Colts brought him to Indy."

[RELATED: Armstead didn't want to leave 49ers, discusses DeFo trade]

To acquire a player of Buckner's caliber on the open market, Indianapolis reportedly figured the 49ers would ask for first- and second-round draft picks in return. So, the cost of directly dealing with San Francisco seemed far more appealing. Yes, it was the No. 13 overall selection, but one could argue the 49ers value that pick more highly than the Colts do. With Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert -- the top three QB prospects -- all expected to get picked before the No. 13 overall selection, the chances were slim that Indianapolis was going to find its gunslinger of the future at that spot.

In acquiring Buckner and Rivers -- and the money spent to do so -- the Colts essentially are risking their long-term future for a chance at immediate contention. Ironically, one might characterize the 49ers' logic as the opposite.