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HOUSTON — A day after the NFL trade deadline, with quarterback Deshaun Watson still on the Houston Texans roster, general manager Nick Caserio said the situation hasn’t been a distraction in the building.
But on Wednesday morning, much of Caserio’s 27-minute news conference was taken up by questions about Watson’s future with the franchise, trade discussions with the Miami Dolphins that fizzled out and the “serious” legal situation that Watson is in.
“I don’t really want to comment on something that is out of my control,” Caserio said when asked if he believed Watson’s legal situation made a trade more difficult to complete. “So, again, we just take it one step at a time and take the information as it comes and try to make good decisions the best we can. In the end, it wasn’t a trade that came to fruition.”
The Texans cannot trade Watson now until the start of the new league year on March 16, 2022, but there are several complicating factors that could prevent a trade from being completed.
On March 16, 2021, one day before the start of the 2021 NFL year, the first of 23 civil lawsuits was filed against Watson accusing him of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior during massage sessions. There are currently 22 active lawsuits as one was dropped after a judge ruled in April that plaintiffs needed to amend their petitions to disclose their names.
Two months before the first lawsuit was filed — and less than six months after Watson signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension that would keep him in Houston through the 2025 season — the quarterback asked for a trade. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Watson was unhappy his input wasn’t considered in the hiring of Caserio.
Caserio and coach David Culley insisted in their news conferences before the lawsuits against Watson were filed that the former first-round pick out of Clemson would not be traded. However, that discussion shifted after the allegations against Watson came to light.
Once Caserio began having conversations about the possibility of trading Watson, the general manager made it clear he would only move on from the quarterback for the right offer, sources told ESPN. Schefter reported in September that Caserio was looking for a package of six players and draft picks from teams interested in acquiring Watson.
There were a handful of teams interested in the weeks after Watson’s desire to be traded became public, including the Dolphins, Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Football Team, sources told ESPN. But once teams became aware of the lawsuits filed against Watson, several declined to pursue the trade further.
In the two weeks before Tuesday’s trade deadline, there were reports out of Houston a deal with the Dolphins was close. But on Wednesday morning, Miami general manager Chris Grier called “90 percent” of the rumors false.
“We never got to a point where anything was going to be realistic in terms of happening,” Grier said. “It was still us just doing our due diligence, just talking through things. We never got to a point where anything was that close to happening.”
While the Dolphins were interested in Watson, owner Stephen Ross wasn’t comfortable going forward with it, Schefter reported Tuesday. On Tuesday night, Tony Buzbee, the attorney for the 22 plaintiffs, told Fox 26 in Houston there was a “pretty tough effort to try to settle” the lawsuits before the trade deadline.
According to Schefter, Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair privately told people he wanted the team to separate from Watson before the trade deadline, but he ultimately left the decision up to Caserio.
Grier said Wednesday he didn’t want to get into the specifics of trade offers with other teams, but a team source told ESPN the Dolphins weren’t willing to guarantee all three first-round draft picks Houston wanted the package for Watson to be built around.
A no-trade clause in Watson’s contract extension, signed in September 2020, limited Caserio while looking for a trade partner. In fact, Watson would only waive his no-trade clause for the Dolphins, a source told ESPN. The Texans and Panthers did not get very far in trade talks, a source said, because Watson had not agreed to be traded to Carolina.
Last week, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters the league didn’t have enough information about the lawsuits to make a decision on potential discipline for Watson. The information they did have wasn’t enough to place the quarterback on the commissioner’s exempt list.
If Watson is put on the list, he would be paid — as he is now — but not allowed to practice or play. Because Goodell didn’t put Watson on the exempt list, the Texans are carrying him on their 53-man roster and making him a healthy scratch on game day. Watson gets a $620,000 game check each week even though he is deactivated.
If the Texans trade Watson before June 1, Houston would take on $16.2 million in dead money on their 2022 salary cap. If the trade happens after June 1, there would be $5.4 million of dead money against the cap in 2022 and $10.8 million the following year.
Even before Watson was accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior, it was going to be a challenging task to trade the 25-year-old franchise quarterback because of his contract. Along with the dead money the Texans would have to eat because of the guaranteed money and the $27 million signing bonus, acquiring Watson would have the potential to decimate an interested team’s draft capital and pool of young talent, considering what Houston would have wanted in return.
If the civil cases were to go to trial, the earliest it could begin is in early May. According to the agreed-to case docket, a status conference would be set for May 2, 2022, and the court would set a trial date.
Even if Watson and the 22 women were able to settle the civil lawsuits, Watson could still face criminal charges. Ten women have filed complaints with Houston police against Watson, his attorney Rusty Hardin told ESPN’s John Barr in July. According to Hardin, eight of them are among the women who have filed suits against Watson; two have not sued the quarterback.
Of course, if there are criminal charges filed against Watson, the Texans won’t receive the value Caserio was determined to get. But given Houston’s insistence of not accepting a conditional pick, that’s clearly a risk the front office is willing to take.
While a lot will depend on whether there are criminal charges and/or the lawsuits are settled, there is a huge difference in keeping Watson on the roster in 2022 if a trade is not made. In 2021, the Texans are paying Watson a base salary of $10.54 million. In 2022, they would be paying him $35 million.
ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques contributed to this story.
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