The Cleveland Browns are set to meet with Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson on Tuesday in Houston after being granted permission to talk with the three-time Pro Bowl selection, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
They will work to sell him on their vision for him as a potential trade acquisition once the NFL free agency period opens, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
The Browns’ leadership team will attempt to convince Watson that he should waive the no-trade clause in his $156 million contract for them one day after he met with the New Orleans Saints and the Carolina Panthers, according to sources.
Both the Saints and Panthers have submitted trade proposals for Watson, per sources. The Saints, who sent general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Dennis Allen to Houston on Monday, are regarded as a potential leader at this stage for Watson.
Sources say that the Panthers made an aggressive sales pitch to the Georgia native with owner David Tepper and coach Matt Rhule traveling to talk with Watson. Both teams have been interested in Watson since last year.
The Browns, meanwhile, are not entirely sold on moving forward with Baker Mayfield as their starting quarterback and have fielded exploratory trade calls, according to sources.
While it’s far from a lock that the Browns will ultimately move on from Mayfield, a former top overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, they are more than open to the idea, per sources, of potentially upgrading at the quarterback position.
Mayfield is due an $18.858 million fully guaranteed salary in 2022. He played hurt last season, displaying grit as he battled shoulder injuries. There are viable scenarios where Mayfield could turn things around and get the long-term commitment he’s sought from the Browns.
The prospect of potentially landing Watson, a clear upgrade at the quarterback position, is intriguing to the Browns and other NFL teams, especially after his legal victory last Friday when a grand jury declined to charge him with any crimes after he was initially the subject of 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct.
When will Deshaun Watson be traded?
Watson is the top player available in the NFL via the trade market and led the league in passing yardage two seasons ago before his relationship deteriorated with the Texans, and he issued a standing trade request.
He will continue to hold meetings, and the situation is in the beginning phase of trying to find a new team to play for and the right fit for him, according to sources. Any deal will be dependent on Watson waiving his no-trade clause, which could prove to be difficult. Leading up to this point, the only team that Watson has ever waived that clause for was the Miami Dolphins.
While that deal was close, it unraveled at the NFL trade deadline when Dolphins owner Stephen Ross insisted that Watson settle all 22 civil lawsuits — alleging inappropriate behavior in massage therapy sessions — but only 18 of the plaintiffs were willing to reach settlements.
Besides Watson waiving his no-trade clause, the Texans also have to sign off on any trade parameters, per sources. No deal is imminent or developing at this time, per sources.
If not the Browns, who might end up with the Texans’ QB?
Watson is expected to prioritize teams that are best positioned to win a Super Bowl, share his vision for how to orchestrate an offense, have talented personnel, and are a culture fit, according to league sources.
Are the Saints the leader in the clubhouse for Watson?
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 DeAndre Hopkins’ style of play, Watson’s former receiver in Houston.
Loomis is determined to land Watson and is prepared to make aggressive, roster-shaking moves to pull this off, according to league sources.
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 another player that sources indicate could be part of a trade.
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-rounders.
Although the Saints have salary cap issues, Loomis and vice president of football administration Khai Hartley have diligently worked 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. Currently, they are roughly $6.3 million over the cap but have always been good at managing the salary cap.
Panthers are ‘all-in’ on Watson
The 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 with Watson, who passed for a league-high 4,833 yards with 33 touchdowns and 7 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 Carolina 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 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.
What would the Panthers give up in a trade for Watson?
The Panthers have the No. 6 pick in 2022, and the Texans own the third overall selection. Sources say the Panthers 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 DJ Moore and running back Christian McCaffrey.
What’s the latest with Deshaun Watson’s legal issues?
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 not to 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 with his career in another NFL city. 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 last week 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 Dolphins, 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.
“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.”
Aaron Wilson is a reporter and analyst for Pro Football Network and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.