HOUSTON — Deshaun Watson, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL, is in heavy demand as his trade market has skyrocketed since his legal victory Friday afternoon.
And the New Orleans Saints have emerged as an extremely serious contender for the Texans’ three-time Pro Bowl passer, having submitted contract proposals for Watson as they compete with the Carolina Panthers, another team that has made trade offers for him, the Seattle Seahawks, a team with intriguing draft capital and players after the Russell Wilson trade that hasn’t made a formal offer, and other NFL teams to try to land the NFL’s passing yardage leader from two seasons ago, according to multiple league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
The Saints are regarded as an attractive potential destination for Watson, per league sources. Multiple sources have characterized the Saints as an emerging leader for Watson. Others have described the Panthers as aggressive and motivated as humanly possible to try to give the Texans a huge haul of draft picks and players and will try hard to convince Watson, if given permission to speak with him, that he should waive his no-trade clause for them.
New Orleans Saints emerge as serious contenders for Deshaun Watson
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis is determined to land Watson and is prepared to make aggressive, roster-shaking moves to pull this off, according to league sources.
Loomis is expected to try to meet with Watson as soon as permission is granted to talk directly with teams in what could amount to something of an NFL-style recruiting process for the Georgia native and former blue-chip Clemson recruit, national champion, and first-round draft pick.
Watson has significant leverage, league sources emphasize, in where he ultimately goes because of the no-trade clause in his $156 million contract that allows him to approve or veto any potential trade. Watson is expected to prioritize teams that are best positioned to win a Super Bowl, share his vision for how to orchestrate an offense, and have talented personnel and culture fit, according to league sources.
Watson’s stellar chemistry and passing connection with All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins ended when Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals two seasons ago. That was one reason why he has a no-trade clause in his contract. With the presence of Saints star wide receiver Michael Thomas, sources predict that Watson would welcome teaming up with a big, physical wide receiver with the ability to make contested catches in a manner reminiscent of Hopkins’ style of play.
What would it cost the Saints in a potential deal?
The Texans still want a package of three first-round draft picks, other draft capital, and players in exchange for Watson. One player that sources predict would be part of a potential Saints trade is offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Offensive guard Cesar Ruiz is highly regarded in NFL circles for his toughness and blocking skills, per sources.
Defensive end Marcus Davenport, defensive tackle David Onyemata and center Erik McCoy are other logical players that bear watching in a potential trade, sources said.
Because the Saints’ first-round draft pick in 2022 is 18th overall, the Texans would want that selection along with 2023 and 2024 first-round picks in addition to second-round selections.
Although the Saints have salary cap issues, Loomis and vice president of football administration Khai Hartley have been diligently working to restructure contracts to get New Orleans under the NFL salary cap limit of $208.2 million. That includes reworking cornerback Marshon Lattimore’s deal. They are roughly $6.3 million over the cap currently but have always been good at managing the salary cap.
Seahawks could offer the most for Watson
The Seahawks, having traded franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos, are also highly interested in Watson and will explore 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.
Watson was teammates previously with Seahawks veteran offensive tackle Duane Brown, a former Texans Pro Bowl selection. The presence of a Super Bowl winning coach in Pete Carroll is another major plus.
Panthers are ‘all-in’
The Carolina Panthers remain firmly in the mix and have made aggressive trade offers, per sources.
The Panthers are in desperate need of a quarterback upgrade. Owner David Tepper has done significant work personally on this situation and is “all-in” on Watson, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
The Panthers have been enamored of Watson, who passed for a league-high 4,833 yards with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2020, 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 team 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, would be unlikely to trade Brian Burns or Jeremy Chinn, but other players that could be involved in a potential Watson deal are wide receiver D.J. Moore and running back Christian McCaffrey.
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.
Buccaneers off the list
Tom Brady, arguably the best quarterback in NFL history, has decided not to retire and announced his return on social media.
“These past two months I’ve realized my place is still on the field and not in the stands,” Brady said. “That time will come. But it’s not now. I love my teammates, and I love my supportive family. They make it all possible. I’m coming back for my 23rd season in Tampa. Unfinished business LFG.”
The Buccaneers had expressed interest in Watson, according to sources, but do have salary cap issues.
They had one of the strongest rosters of any team interested in Watson, and a major desire for him is to win a Super Bowl. There was believed to be mutual interest because of the Buccaneers’ ability to compete for a championship given the presence of so many good players and coach Bruce Arians’ proven track record along with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, according to sources. Now, Brady is back and another team is off the list.
Vikings, Browns, Saints actively monitoring Watson market
Meanwhile, sources said, the Cleveland Browns, and Philadelphia Eagles are all actively monitoring the Watson situation. Each of those teams has a starting quarterback under contract — Baker Mayfield (Browns), and Jalen Hurts (Eagles) — and are regarded as unlikely to fully commit to a Watson trade until they make a decision on whether they’re sticking with their current option under center.
The Vikings had interest in Watson, but ultimately decided to go forward with veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins as, sources said, they signed him to a one-year, $35 million extension, raising his compensation to $40 million for 2022 and added a no-trade clause.
Only civil litigation remaining for Watson, no criminal charges
Watson, 26, had been accused of 10 criminal complaints for sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with the allegations made by massage therapists. A grand jury voted to not charge him with any crimes and the legal matter is completely closed in Harris County, according to the district attorney’s office.
That legal clarity set a fast pathway for Watson 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.”
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. Watson will answer questions Tuesday from plaintiffs’ attorney Tony Buzbee at a scheduled deposition at attorney Rusty Hardin’s office. Hardin said in a telephone interview that Watson will now answer any questions asked and not invoke his Fifth Amendment rights.
“Deshaun will gladly answer any questions that are asked no matter how salacious the manner of questioning,” Hardin said. “Deshaun has always been prepared to answer. He was acting on my counsel. Now, he can freely answer any question with the potential criminal situation behind him.”
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.
No settlements are developing or expected at this time
“We are delighted that the grand jury has looked at the matter thoroughly and reached the same conclusion we did,” Hardin said. “Deshaun Watson did not commit any crimes and is not guilty of any offenses. Now that the criminal investigations have been completed, we are happy to move forward with the civil case depositions. We will vigorously defend those cases with every ounce we have.
“There were no crimes here but there is a plaintiffs’ attorney churning up negative press and churning up his clients hoping for a pay day. These cases have been the product of a lawyer maximizing his own personal publicity at the expense of others, including his own clients. It is time to let Deshaun move on.”
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.”