HOUSTON — Nick Caserio and the entire Texans organization gained much more than emotional closure by trading Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns, ending an extremely awkward year between the franchise and its former star quarterback with an official goodbye and a prime opportunity to accelerate their rebuilding efforts.
The Deshaun Watson trade and its evolution
Watson pivoted to the Browns over competing overtures from the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and Carolina Panthers for a fresh start and a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract with the largest guarantees in NFL history.
And the Texans gained valuable draft capital — three first-round draft picks, a 2023 third-round selection, and a 2024 fourth-round pick — major resources for them to build their roster.
The Texans also obtained certainty after the Watson situation had been unresolved for 15 months. Watson initially requested a trade after becoming disenchanted with the AFC South franchise over not having the input and communication he thought he had been assured of during the hiring process of Caserio and former coach David Culley. Further complicating matters were the three-time Pro Bowl selection’s legal issues that are still not entirely behind him.
Watson was on the Texans’ roster for the entire 2021 season and was paid a $10.54 million base salary. However, he didn’t play in any games and was nearly traded to the Miami Dolphins before the deal unraveled at the league deadline over Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ insistence that Watson settle all litigation against him.
One week after a Harris County grand jury declined to charge him for alleged sexual misconduct on nine criminal complaints presented, Watson was traded. He still faces 22 civil lawsuits alleging inappropriate behavior, but Watson maintains his innocence and has his third deposition scheduled for Tuesday.
‘Clarity’ gained for Watson, Texans
During a Saturday press conference at NRG Stadium, a relaxed Caserio struck an upbeat tone as he looked forward to the future.
“Deshaun has clarity on his end, relative to what his future holds from a football standpoint,” Caserio said. “I think there are some things still on a legal front that probably have to take place, but just clarity for him individually, I think clarity for our organization in terms of what the expectation is moving forward. Felt like that opportunity, and we felt it was the right time, so that’s why we went ahead and made a decision that we did. I think we’re excited about moving forward.
“Again, the most important thing is clarity. Everybody has clarity, everybody just has an understanding of where we stand. That’s the most important thing for all of us to understand and recognize. We managed the situation probably as best as we could, and I tried to probably take the burden and responsibility onto my shoulders because, ultimately, it was going to be something that I was going to have to deal with and handle. Try to take it off the players, try to take it off the coaches, and let them focus on the things that they do well, which is playing and coaching football.”
No-trade clause loomed large
The presence of Watson’s no-trade clause was a key factor in this high-stakes deal. His agent, David Mulugheta, was able to use the leverage and land a contract that includes a $45 million signing bonus and a $1 million base salary, which reduces Watson’s financial exposure if he’s suspended by the NFL under its personal conduct policy. The NFL hasn’t concluded its investigation and will need to interview Watson before investigator Lisa Friel presents her findings and recommendation to Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The no-trade clause in Watson’s $156 million original contract extension was pivotal as it created something of a free agency situation. The Texans only allowed teams making a legitimate offer of at least three first-round draft picks to meet with Watson. It was a collaborative process. Beyond the Browns, Saints, Panthers, and Falcons, the Philadelphia Eagles continued to monitor throughout the process and were one of the more aggressive potential suitors last offseason with general manager Howie Roseman even sending an investigator to Houston, according to league sources.
Yet, Watson wasn’t inclined to waive his no-trade clause for the Eagles and nothing ever developed. One league source noted that Watson is friends with Hurts and wouldn’t have wanted to take away his starting job by supplanting him. The San Francisco 49ers called about Watson last year and had interest, per sources. However, they decided to move forward with Trey Lance as they’ll eventually trade veteran Jimmy Garoppolo.
“I would say there was a fair amount of teams, but what we tried to do was bring the teams that had a legitimate interest, and that was based off the compensation that was presented,” Caserio said. “Going back to the earlier questions, I think there was a certain threshold that I had established in order to make it a legitimate discussion, and if we got to that point then we could engage further. I don’t want to get into the exact number, but there was a few more, however many teams than what everybody was reporting towards the end.”
Outside of Watson, no other players were included in the trade
Caserio downplayed reports of players on other teams being involved in potential trade scenarios. The Browns didn’t send the Texans any players in the trade. The Texans did have interest in Saints offensive linemen Erik McCoy and Cesar Ruiz and Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell, according to league sources.
“I would say other than three first-round picks, I would say probably the rest of it was a little bit of speculation,” Caserio said. “You just try to look at what makes the most sense. Not to go stock market here, but the market is the market. So, whatever the market says, you can’t create the market. The market is whatever the market is.”
Caserio has been in touch with Watson since the trade was finalized. The Texans have moved on, and so has Watson, one of the most dynamic players in the NFL and the league’s passing yardage leader two seasons ago.
“We’ve had some communication. I shot him a text, just wish him well,” Caserio said. “He’ll probably do good things for the city of Cleveland. It’s kind of ironic he’s going to the place where I grew up, but he’s a great player. He’ll do a lot of great things for the city. I certainly wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Caserio inherited tough Watson situation
Caserio inherited an extremely difficult situation when he arrived in Houston after earning six Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots as the primary lieutenant to Bill Belichick. Watson had already demanded a trade and reiterated he was “intentional” in his desire to never play for the Texans again, according to sources. He communicated that he didn’t want to play for the Texans during a Zoom video with Culley.
Caserio navigated an unprecedented situation as well as he possibly could, maintaining his patience and resolve to get fair value for the three-time Pro Bowl passer.
“It’s all about finding solutions,” Caserio said. “You take the information, and you can’t change what happened. So, here’s the information, here’s the situation, and nobody’s going to make excuses. Nobody is going to b—- and moan about your situation and the circumstances.
“Let’s deal with it now. Let’s identify the problems. Let’s provide solutions and understand that we are going to have to find ways to fix it and make it work and if that doesn’t work, then turn the page. I think you have to be very flexible. You’ve got to be able to pivot to something different.”
Can’t control the past
The Texans had no first-round or second-round picks in the draft last year due to the trade with the Dolphins for Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil. They wound up selecting quarterback Davis Mills in the third round as part of a small but successful five-player draft class. There was also a one-sided trade of All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson. A move prompted primarily by former coach and general manager Bill O’Brien and Hopkins having a fractured relationship.
“Maybe the way you thought it was originally going to go, it doesn’t go that way, then you have to be able to adjust and adapt,” Caserio said. “I think that’s the beauty of the challenge, and I think every team deals with that. Every circumstance is different. You obviously have an idea in your mind of how you want that to look, and it might take a little bit longer than you thought, but you can’t erase or fix what has happened in the past.
“It’s out of my hands, it’s out of my control. We’re not going to make excuses on what happened. There is a lot of good things that I would say have taken place in this organization, and everyone is focusing on the things that have happened.”
Could teams start to avoid the no-trade clause?
The Texans, and other NFL teams, may be wary of inserting a no-trade clause in future contracts. Of course, having a player of Watson’s caliber become disgruntled is a rare occurrence.
“I would say whatever took place prior to my arrival, I certainly can’t control,” Caserio said. “What I’m going to try to do is do what I feel is best for our organization and whatever that entails, whether that’s contract from a contract structure. A lot of that, too, comes down to negotiation with the other side. There’s always going to be, even during free agency if you want to look at it in real time, there’s going to be a little bit of a give and take.”