Deshaun Watson: Where things stand one month out from free agency

With 2022 NFL free agency on the horizon, where do things currently stand with Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson?

The trade market for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is in a “holding pattern” as NFL teams understand that the three-time Pro Bowl selection’s singular focus has to be on addressing his unresolved legal issues and remaining ready to resume his career at some point in the future with multiple teams closely monitoring the situation, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.

The Texans want to trade Deshaun Watson

The Texans want to trade Watson, who has communicated, according to sources, that he is “intentional” in his desire to never play for them again due to communication issues that developed between him and chairman and chief operating officer Cal McNair. Watson believed, based on prior conversations and meetings with McNair, that he would have input into the search process that led to the team hiring general manager Nick Caserio and since-fired head coach David Culley, who was replaced by Lovie Smith.

Watson has never commented publicly on his stance regarding the trade request.

The Texans will attempt to trade Watson prior to the NFL draft and would prefer to have closure on this issue before the start of free agency on March 16 because his $35 million salary remains on their books for 2022. That salary is fully guaranteed for skill, injury, and salary cap.

Ongoing legal issues complicate matters

However, Watson is facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct and/or sexual assault. There are 10 active criminal complaints involving him and his alleged interactions involving massage therapists that have been investigated by the Harris County Police Department.

No charges have been filed, and there is no specific timetable on when or if there will be a decision reached on Watson’s status. Law enforcement sources said there hasn’t been any DNA, audio, or video evidence submitted or discovered by Houston Police detectives. Watson has denied wrongdoing previously on social media, and his attorney, Rusty Hardin, has stated in a press conference that the NFL player had consensual sex with masseuses.

Watson is currently scheduled to begin his deposition this week, but a clerk for the 113th Harris County District Court said that there will be a hearing presided over by Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier prior to the deposition to determine whether the NFL player’s deposition will be pushed back to a later date due to the fact that not all 22 of the complainants have been deposed. That was the originally scheduled plan for the case. Court records show that the hearing, initiated by Hardin, is set for Monday afternoon.

Are NFL teams still interested in trading for Watson?

What isn’t unclear, though, is the intense interest from NFL teams in the former Clemson star should he ultimately resolve his lawsuits and not be charged with a crime. Watson nearly resolved the lawsuits, at the request of Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross leading up to the NFL trade deadline last season when a trade was nearly struck only to unravel due to only 18 of the 22 complainants being willing to reach settlements at that time with four litigants adamant in declining to settle.

“It’s about the legal stuff with Watson right now, and nothing but that, of course,” an NFL executive said. “How many teams would be interested if he didn’t have the lawsuits and the possible charges? I would say at least six to 10 teams would step up. It’s a thorny issue because there’s going to be some fallout as far as public relations and the community. If you’re going to trade for him, you have to have your owner fully onboard. Otherwise, it’s a non-starter.”

Not the right fit for the New York Giants

However, at least two teams have made it clear that they won’t be involved in the trade market for Watson at this time.

New York Giants owner John Mara made it abundantly clear during a recent press conference that the NFC East franchise has no plans to trade for Watson and is committed to quarterback Daniel Jones.

“We’re not trading for Deshaun Watson,” Mara said.

The Giants had been rumored for months as a potential landing spot for Watson, but Mara said that Watson is “not the right fit” due to the legal issues as well as the Giants’ crowded salary cap.

Miami Dolphins seem to have moved on from Watson

The Dolphins, which were Watson’s preferred destination since he requested a trade from the Texans a year ago, have made a similar public commitment to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Watson has a no-trade clause in his $156 million contract.

Dolphins general manager Chris Grier reflected on the Watson talks during a press conference immediately after the NFL trade deadline.

“It’s my job as GM to investigate every avenue,” Grier said. “At the end of the day, no trade was made. As an organization, we decided not to make a deal. You go through these processes, you talk about these things.”

Grier sounded angry while denying reports that the Dolphins asked for nondisclosure agreements to be a part of Watson’s proposed settlements with his accusers.

“Absolutely ridiculous and categorically false,” Grier said. “It’s flat wrong and it pisses me off. A lot of the stories that came out about how all this stuff has gone on has been false, I’d say 90% of the stuff. A lot of the stories that came out about it are false. I can’t come out here every week and say things are false, false, false. I can’t come out here every week and keep denoting and denying. People won’t believe you anyway.”.

Teams who might be interested in trading for Watson

The Carolina Panthers are a logical potential suitor for Watson, who played college football nearby at Clemson.

The Philadelphia Eagles did significant due diligence on Watson and his legal situation last year with general manager Howie Roseman intensely researching the matter and even sending an investigator to Houston, according to league sources. However, per sources, Watson made it clear he would not waive his no-trade clause for the Eagles, who have moved on and are committed to quarterback Jalen Hurts. Ideally, this situation could be revisited due to the Eagles’ draft capital and, what if, Hurts could be included in a potential swap.

The Denver Broncos, although interested in trying to acquire Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, have never engaged in trade discussions for Watson. The Packers are attempting to hold onto Rodgers and even hired veteran quarterbacks coach and former Green Bay assistant Tom Clements out of retirement to try to keep the star passer in the fold.

The Minnesota Vikings, a subject of recent speculation about Watson, are expected to go forward with veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins with new coach Kevin O’Connell expressing confidence in the veteran passer at his introductory press conference.

The relationship between Watson and the Texans is beyond repair

Although the list of potential NFL suitors for Watson is expected to widen eventually, nothing has changed in the relationship between him and the Texans. No reconciliation is expected, at any point, regardless of what happens legally.

“I think there is going to be a number of things that we talk about during the offseason,” Caserio said during a press conference at NRG Stadium to close the season. “That particular situation, I don’t think there’s any more clarity today than there was here previously, but we’re going to work through it. Ultimately, we’re going to do what we feel is best for the organization.”

Watson’s time with the Texans during the 2021 season

Watson remained on Houston’s roster all season and was inactive for every game. Yet, the Texans paid his full $10.54 million base salary and he was never placed on the commissioner-exempt list because he has not been charged with a crime, which would impact his status under the NFL personal conduct policy. The NFL is investigating the case under that policy, but has not taken any disciplinary action because it is a pending legal matter.

“As it pertains to Deshaun, going back to training camp, we said we’re going to take it one day at a time and be respectful of all of the parties involved,” Caserio said during the season. “In the end, no trade came to fruition. I don’t really have any comment on some of the mechanics and the logistics of what happened, what hasn’t happened, what didn’t happen. I actually talked to Deshaun this morning. He and I had a conversation. We’re moving forward. We’ll evaluate that situation as we move along here.”

During the season, Caserio declined to discuss Watson’s legal situation.

“I don’t really want to comment on something that’s out of my control,” Caserio said. “We just take it one step at a time and take the information as it comes and try to make good decisions as best we can.”

Why Watson wants out of Houston

Before signing his blockbuster contract in 2020, Watson was also upset with the Texans trading All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals.

“I don’t want to speak for somebody,” Caserio said. “I’m never going to interpret someone’s beliefs, what their wishes are. That’s not my responsibility. My responsibility is to the people in our building.”

Caserio emphasized that Watson hasn’t taken attention away from the task at hand: trying to win football games. The quarterback reported to training camp to avoid accruing $50,000 daily fines, didn’t practice or attend meetings during the season, and reported to NRG Stadium every day to maintain his conditioning

“Honestly, it really hasn’t been a distraction,” Caserio said.

How Watson’s legal situation has played out over the past several months

In an August news conference, Hardin spoke about the FBI’s brief involvement in the case, which originated with plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee:

“In April, the FBI came to us and told us they were investigating a matter as to whether one of Mr. Buzbee’s clients had committed extortion in the way they were demanding money from Deshaun or what they would do if they didn’t pay it,” Hardin said.

One potentially bad scenario for Watson and any team that trades for him to consider: Watson possibly being charged with a crime and then being placed on the commissioner-exempt list and not going to trial until late next year and then being unavailable in 2022, and depending on how a possible case is adjudicated, potentially being punished for an undetermined portion of the 2023 season.

Caserio and Culley inherited the Watson issue.

“I think they’ve been put in a very tough spot, a spot that is not of their choosing, and they’ve made the very best of it and sort of worked through it day to day,” McNair said during the season at a charity event. “So, we’ll see where it goes.”

The NFL’s involvement with the ongoing investigation

The NFL issued a statement prior to training camp on Watson’s status, and nothing has changed.

“The NFL’s review of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson remains ongoing and active,” the league said in an email. “We are working cooperatively with the Houston Police Department and ensuring that the NFL’s inquiry does not interfere with their investigation.

“As we continue to gather additional information and monitor law enforcement developments, we will make appropriate decisions consistent with the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Personal Conduct Policy. At this time, there are no restrictions on Watson’s participation in club activities.”

A source said that the NFL hasn’t been given access to speak to many of the plaintiffs in the civil cases or third parties who may have relevant information. And the league hasn’t been given access to evidence the police have gathered in their investigation.

During an August press conference, Hardin said that Watson has yet to speak to NFL investigators.

“The answer is no,” Hardin said. “Here’s the reason: The NFL regularly tries to not reach out to the defendant and his lawyers until the criminal investigation is over. They want to make sure they don’t interfere with the criminal investigation. Whenever the time is appropriate, we will fully cooperate.”

Veteran sports attorney Daniel Moskowitz has represented several NFL players in personal conduct policy matters and other league investigations.

Moskowitz emphasized during a telephone interview Friday morning that Lisa Friel, the lead investigator and her team that are handling the Watson investigation, “are on their own timeline, so therefore it adds great uncertainty for Deshaun as far as when he’ll have total resolution in regards to his standing with the NFL and also for NFL teams seeking information and clarity on the situation.”

Aaron Wilson is the NFL Insider for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL.