Sources: Deshaun Watson trade market expanding rapidly since ‘game-changer’ legal ruling, here are the most aggressive suitors for franchise quarterback

Trade talk surrounding Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson have been heating up. Which teams are currently in the mix?

HOUSTON — A suddenly robust trade market for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson expanded exponentially Friday afternoon when a grand jury declined to indict the three-time Pro Bowl passer on any criminal charges.

Deshaun Watson trade market expanding since legal ruling

Watson, 26, had been accused of 10 criminal complaints for sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with the allegations made by massage therapists. The Georgia native is still facing 22 civil lawsuits with the same allegations and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against potential self-incrimination during a deposition Friday morning.

Unlike the Miami Dolphins, whose owner, Stephen Ross, insisted on Watson settle the lawsuits as a condition of a scuttled trade deadline near-deal that unraveled when only 18 of 22 plaintiffs would agree to settle, the other NFL teams were primarily concerned solely with potential criminal charges, according to sources. Now, Watson will not face any prosecution on any of the charges, according to Johna Stallings of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

That legal clarity sets a fast pathway for Watson, who has a pivotal no-trade clause in his $156 million contract, meaning he can veto or approve any prospective trade partner to move on his career in another NFL city with. In return, the Texans will gain the necessary draft capital and players to accelerate their rebuilding efforts.

“A total game-changer,” a source said. “It’s a victory for Deshaun. It’s a win for the Texans, and it’s a win for the NFL teams that want him. This is huge. There are a ton of teams interested.”

Teams showing interest in acquiring Watson

The list of teams that have made recent inquiries about Watson include the Carolina Panthers, Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New Orleans Saints, according to league sources.

Here are more details around the NFL teams that have displayed interest in trading for the former first-round draft pick from Clemson, and which have been the most aggressive in their pursuit of Watson with no deal imminent or developing at this time, per sources:

The Panthers, Seahawks, Browns and Saints have done a lot of work on Watson and have displayed the most interest in the NFL passing yardage leader from two years ago, according to sources.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers are in desperate need of a quarterback upgrade. Owner David Tepper has done significant work and is preparing to make competitive trade offers in exchange for Watson, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.

The Panthers have been enamored of Watson for over a year. Tepper even hired an investigator to come to Houston to do a thorough look into his legal issues, per sources.

Other than the Eagles, whose general manager, Howie Roseman, contacted Watson’s attorney Rusty Hardin last year and sent an investigator to Houston before moving on from the situation when it became known that Watson wasn’t inclined to waive his no-trade clause for the NFC East franchise, no NFL teams has conducted as much due diligence as the Panthers.

The Panthers want to move on from Sam Darnold and Watson would represent a major upgrade. When the Panthers fired general manager Marty Hurney, Tepper discussed the significance of having an elite quarterback.

“That’s the most important position on the field,” Tepper said during a press conference. “Unless you have that guy that for sure gets you to playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that because that’s the only thing that matters is Super Bowls.”

The cost of trading for Watson has been three first-round draft picks, more draft capital, and a player. The Panthers have the sixth overall pick, and the Texans own the third overall selection.

The Panthers, sources say, wouldn’t be willing to trade Brian Burns or Jeremy Chinn. But other players that could be involved in a potential Watson deal are running back Christian McCaffrey, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, and wide receiver DJ Moore.

The Panthers’ quarterbacks coach, Sean Ryan, was Watson’s quarterbacks coach with the Texans during his first few seasons in the NFL. They got along well and have had a good relationship.

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns have been aggressive about Watson and are “incredibly interested” and have emerged as a wild-card entry in pursuing the Georgia native. The Browns are among up to 10 teams that have been actively monitoring the situation.

The Browns have Baker Mayfield installed as their starting QB, but Watson is obviously better.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, contrary to reports, are not and have not been involved in the Watson sweepstakes, according to a source.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seattle Seahawks, having traded franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos, are also interested in Watson and potential trade scenarios to fill the huge void they just created under center.

The Seahawks have a lot of draft capital, including the Broncos’ original ninth overall pick, two second-rounders, and players that could be included in a prospective trade, including wide receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.

The Seahawks have plenty of salary cap space to absorb Watson’s $35 million guaranteed salary for 2022 after trading Wilson and cutting linebacker Bobby Wagner: a surplus of $49.22 million, per NFL Players Association records.

New Orleans Saints

The New Orleans Saints, with quarterback Jameis Winston rehabilitating from a torn ACL and a pending unrestricted free agent, are also interested in Watson, according to league sources. The Saints would have some serious salary cap maneuvering to perform to add Watson.

The Saints are working on their salary cap issues, including restructuring cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s deal Saturday. The Saints have reached out to the Texans, according to sources.

Minnesota Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have expressed interest in Watson despite the presence of quarterback Kirk Cousins, according to sources. Cousins, who has the largest salary cap figure in the NFL, is potentially available via a trade for the right price.

The Vikings appear to be an attractive potential destination for Watson given the presence of wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and running back Dalvin Cook.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The retirement of Tom Brady, arguably the best QB in NFL history, created a huge hole at quarterback. The Buccaneers have expressed interest in Watson, according to sources, but do have salary cap issues.

They have one of the strongest rosters of any team interested in Watson, and a major desire for him is to win a Super Bowl.

Which teams are out of the Watson sweepstakes?

There has been much chatter about teams who were once interested in Watson but have moved on because of other trades or reasons. Here is the list of teams that appear to be out of the Watson sweepstake, including the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers, who were interested over the past year before moving on, per sources.

Washington Commanders

The Washington Commanders, once interested in Watson, have moved on and agreed to trade for quarterback Carson Wentz from the Indianapolis Colts.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos had an interest in Watson for over a year, per sources. Yet, they hesitated to pursue him given the potential reputation fallout with the accusations he’s facing and the team being for sale. They pivoted to Wilson when it became clear that Aaron Rodgers would remain with the Green Bay Packers.

Miami Dolphins

Watson was nearly traded at the NFL deadline last season to the Miami Dolphins. But the deal was scuttled because Dolphins owner Stephen Ross insisted that the quarterback settle his lawsuits.

Watson was only able to reach preliminary agreements to settle with 18 of the 22 plaintiffs, per league sources not authorized to speak publicly. Dolphins general manager Chris Grier made it abundantly clear that he won’t be revisiting trade discussions, saying, “The door is shut on Deshaun.”

New York Giants

The New York Giants aren’t interested, per owner John Mara. He cited a tight salary cap situation and Watson’s unresolved legal situation.

Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman previously conducted significant due diligence on Watson before last season.

The Eagles even sent an investigator to Houston to look into the legal situation and contacted Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, per sources. However, Watson has never been inclined to waive his no-trade clause for the Eagles. Moreover, Philadelphia has publicly committed to Jalen Hurts as their quarterback.

What does Lovie Smith think?

Meanwhile, coach Lovie Smith and the Texans have learned to have patience Smith said at the NFL Scouting Combine that he remained hopeful of closure. That time is approaching.

“I have no idea,” Smith said. “And the good part about it is time kind of takes care of everything. I just know Deshaun is an excellent football player. Excellent football players need to be playing somewhere in the NFL. Hopefully, that will happen, and if it’s not with us, it’s somewhere else. And I’m sure as I see in this situation, both of us eventually are going to benefit from the situation, and I just can’t wait for that to speed up a little bit.

“How important is that? I’m agreeing with what you said. Yes, we would like a prompt resolution to it, but I’m also a patient man, too, and time normally takes care of everything. We understand this is Year 2, and I know Deshaun wants to play, and it will come to a head. I have faith in that. We just have to give it a little time, and hopefully, everybody will be happy with it. I’m sure that will be the case.”

Watson’s time with the Texans during the 2021 season

Watson only practiced during a portion of training camp before he and Caserio reached an agreement that he would report to the Texans’ training facility for individual workouts with the strength and conditioning staff but not participate in practices and meetings.

Although Watson had a strained relationship with the team, that didn’t negatively impact his relationships with teammates, coaches, and other staff members. Watson offered advice to third-round rookie quarterback Davis Mills, who displayed a lot of potential and outplayed first-round signal-callers.

“He’s helped out a lot,” Mills said last season. “What he’s done with me, any questions I have, like the other guys, too, he’s an open book, and he’s taught me a lot.”

Watson remained on the Texans’ roster last season and was paid his $10.54 million salary. He was not placed on the commissioner’s exempt list but played in no games.

He has a $35 million fully guaranteed base salary for skill, injury, and salary cap, and currently has a $40 million salary cap figure on the Texans’ books. Any team that acquires him takes on the $35 million for this season and four remaining years on his contract.

NFL and Watson react to legal proceedings and ruling

The NFL is still monitoring the Watson case, and there remains some possibility he could face punishment at some point. There is some precedent for the NFL punishing players even if they’re not charged or convicted of a crime.

“We have been closely monitoring all developments in the matter which remains under review of the personal conduct policy,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email.

Meanwhile, an emotional Watson, 26, reflected on the legal situation and expressed hope of relaunching his career and rebuilding his standing in the community. Watson hasn’t played football in a year, and he’s been under intense scrutiny during that time.

“Definitely a very emotional moment for me,” Watson said. “I know we’re far from being done handling what we need to handle on the legal side, but today is definitely a big day. I thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ for letting the truth be heard. I thank everyone that was a part of this, of seeing and hearing both sides. That’s what my team wanted was to have a fair slate of us telling our side of the story and letting the conclusion come down to what happened today and that’s what the grand jury decided.

“I’m going to keep fighting to rebuild my name and rebuild my appearance in the community. We’re going to continue on the legal side to handle what we need to handle, but also ready to get back on the field, been prepping for that and ready to go for that. I thank my family, all my close supporters that’s been behind me this past year, I thank my team for keeping me up this past year. I’m going to continue to keep pushing forward to build my name to where it was, if not better.”

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