Nick Caserio and the entire Texans organization gained much more than emotional closure by trading Deshaun Watson to the Cleveland Browns, ending an extremely awkward year between the franchise and its former star quarterback with an official goodbye and a prime opportunity to accelerate their rebuilding efforts.
Watson pivoted to the Browns over competing overtures from the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and Carolina Panthers for a fresh start and a fully guaranteed $230 million contract, including a $45 million signing bonus, with the largest guarantees in NFL history.
And the Texans gained valuable draft capital -- three first-round draft picks, a 2023 third-round selection, and a 2024 fourth-round pick -- major resources for them to build their roster.
The Texans also obtained certainty after the Watson situation had been unresolved for 15 months. Watson initially requested a trade after becoming disenchanted with the AFC South franchise over not having the input and communication he thought he had been assured of during the hiring process of Caserio and former coach David Culley. Further complicating matters were the three-time Pro Bowl selection's legal issues that are still not entirely behind him.
Watson was on the Texans' roster for the entire 2021 season and was paid a $10.54 million base salary. However, he didn't play in any games and was nearly traded to the Miami Dolphins before the deal unraveled at the league deadline over Dolphins owner Stephen Ross' insistence that Watson settle all litigation against him.
One week after a Harris County grand jury declined to charge him for alleged sexual misconduct on nine criminal complaints presented, Watson was traded. He still faces 22 civil lawsuits alleging inappropriate behavior, but Watson maintains his innocence and has his third deposition scheduled for Tuesday. No settlement discussions are happening at this time, according to attorney Rusty Hardin.
During a Saturday press conference at NRG Stadium, a relaxed Caserio struck an upbeat tone as he looked forward to the future.
"Deshaun has clarity on his end, relative to what his future holds from a football standpoint," Caserio said. "I think there are some things still on a legal front that probably have to take place, but just clarity for him individually, I think clarity for our organization in terms of what the expectation is moving forward. Felt like that opportunity, and we felt it was the right time, so that's why we went ahead and made a decision that we did. I think we're excited about moving forward.
"Again, the most important thing is clarity. Everybody has clarity, everybody just has an understanding of where we stand. That's the most important thing for all of us to understand and recognize. We managed the situation probably as best as we could, and I tried to probably take the burden and responsibility onto my shoulders because, ultimately, it was going to be something that I was going to have to deal with and handle. Try to take it off the players, try to take it off the coaches, and let them focus on the things that they do well, which is playing and coaching football."
The presence of Watson's no-trade clause was a key factor in this high-stakes deal. His agent, David Mulugheta, was able to use the leverage and land a contract that includes a $45 million signing bonus and a $1 million base salary, which reduces Watson's financial exposure if he's suspended by the NFL under its personal conduct policy. The NFL hasn't concluded its investigation and will need to interview Watson before investigator Lisa Friel presents her findings and recommendation to Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The no-trade clause in Watson's $156 million original contract extension was pivotal as it created something of a free agency situation. The Texans only allowed teams making a legitimate offer of at least three first-round draft picks to meet with Watson. It was a collaborative process. Beyond the Browns, Saints, Panthers, and Falcons, the Philadelphia Eagles continued to monitor throughout the process and were one of the more aggressive potential suitors last offseason with general manager Howie Roseman even sending an investigator to Houston, according to league sources.
Yet, Watson wasn't inclined to waive his no-trade clause for the Eagles and nothing ever developed. One league source noted that Watson is friends with Hurts and wouldn't have wanted to take away his starting job by supplanting him. The San Francisco 49ers called about Watson last year and had interest, per sources. However, they decided to move forward with Trey Lance as they'll eventually trade veteran Jimmy Garoppolo.
"I would say there was a fair amount of teams, but what we tried to do was bring the teams that had a legitimate interest, and that was based off the compensation that was presented," Caserio said. "Going back to the earlier questions, I think there was a certain threshold that I had established in order to make it a legitimate discussion, and if we got to that point then we could engage further. I don't want to get into the exact number, but there was a few more, however many teams than what everybody was reporting towards the end."
Caserio downplayed reports of players on other teams being involved in potential trade scenarios. The Browns didn't send the Texans any players in the trade.
"I would say other than three first-round picks, I would say probably the rest of it was a little bit of speculation," Caserio said. "You just try to look at what makes the most sense. Not to go stock market here, but the market is the market. So, whatever the market says, you can't create the market. The market is whatever the market is."
Caserio has been in touch with Watson since the trade was finalized. The Texans have moved on, and so has Watson, one of the most dynamic players in the NFL and the league's passing yardage leader two seasons ago.
"We've had some communication. I shot him a text, just wish him well," Caserio said. "He'll probably do good things for the city of Cleveland. It's kind of ironic he's going to the place where I grew up, but he's a great player. He'll do a lot of great things for the city. I certainly wish him well in his future endeavors."
Caserio inherited an extremely difficult situation when he arrived in Houston after earning six Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots as the primary lieutenant to Bill Belichick. Watson had already demanded a trade and reiterated he was "intentional" in his desire to never play for the Texans again, according to sources. He communicated that he didn't want to play for the Texans during a Zoom video with Culley.
Caserio navigated an unprecedented situation as well as he possibly could, maintaining his patience and resolve to get fair value for the three-time Pro Bowl passer.
"It's all about finding solutions," Caserio said. "You take the information, and you can't change what happened. So, here's the information, here's the situation, and nobody's going to make excuses. Nobody is going to b---- and moan about your situation and the circumstances.
"Let's deal with it now. Let's identify the problems. Let's provide solutions and understand that we are going to have to find ways to fix it and make it work and if that doesn't work, then turn the page. I think you have to be very flexible. You've got to be able to pivot to something different."
The Texans had no first-round or second-round picks in the draft last year due to the trade with the Dolphins for Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil. They wound up selecting quarterback Davis Mills in the third round as part of a small but successful five-player draft class. There was also a one-sided trade of All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson. A move prompted primarily by former coach and general manager Bill O'Brien and Hopkins having a fractured relationship.
"Maybe the way you thought it was originally going to go, it doesn't go that way, then you have to be able to adjust and adapt," Caserio said. "I think that's the beauty of the challenge, and I think every team deals with that. Every circumstance is different. You obviously have an idea in your mind of how you want that to look, and it might take a little bit longer than you thought, but you can't erase or fix what has happened in the past.
"It's out of my hands, it's out of my control. We're not going to make excuses on what happened. There is a lot of good things that I would say have taken place in this organization, and everyone is focusing on the things that have happened."
The Texans, and other NFL teams, may be wary of inserting a no-trade clause in future contracts. Of course, having a player of Watson's caliber become disgruntled is a rare occurrence.
"I would say whatever took place prior to my arrival, I certainly can't control," Caserio said. "What I'm going to try to do is do what I feel is best for our organization and whatever that entails, whether that's contract from a contract structure. A lot of that, too, comes down to negotiation with the other side. There's always going to be, even during free agency if you want to look at it in real time, there's going to be a little bit of a give and take."
The Texans gained $24.5 million in salary cap space by trading Watson, and they'll likely have a huge surplus in 2023. Houston will need to spend roughly $10-12 million on their rookie draft class, including the third and 13th overall selections, one second-round pick, and two third-rounders this year. They'll also need at least $6 million in cap space for the practice squad and injured reserve players.
The Texans retained defensive tackle Maliek Collins, center Justin Britt, linebacker Christian Kirksey, cornerback Desmond King, and other players. They also signed former Detroit Lions linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin to a two-year, $7.5 million contract.
"The guys that we brought back, those guys are experienced players, do a lot of good things for our program, have a presence about them, and provide good leadership," Caserio said. "I would say Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a player we actually identified last year in free agency. We tried to sign him, and at the time, it didn't work itself out. He's a player that has some of the traits and characteristics that fit our program."
The Texans are expected to sign a veteran running back and will likely continue to add linebackers and cornerbacks.
"It doesn't preclude you from going out and adding a player," Caserio said. "It might be at the expense of a player that's here currently. We're going to certainly be conscious and fairly fiscally responsible as we go through. We're not going to be haphazard. We want to be able to kind of work through the season, but if there's an opportunity that we think makes sense for us in a player to add to our team, then we're not going to bypass that.
"Once we get through the season, then looking ahead to next year, there's going to be a vast amount of cap space that's available. I'm sure everybody's expecting us in free agency to go out there and sign the highest-paid players, but we'll deal with that next year."
After trading Watson, Caserio indicated the Texans are starting from scratch at quarterback. He was noncommittal on if Mills is QB1, but he is expected to be the starter even though Caserio didn't rule out the possibility of adding to the position.
Mills completed 66.8% of his passes for 2,664 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season.
"Davis had opportunities last year and did a nice job with those opportunities," Caserio said. "I would say when you get into the draft, you really don't want to necessarily eliminate any position or particular player. You just want to look at it with the mentality and just figure out what makes the most sense for the organization.
"But Davis has certainly earned an opportunity here, and that's kind of the extent of what he's earned. But I think he's excited about the chances that he has in front of him, and we'll see how it all unfolds."
Now, Caserio has to take advantage of the draft picks he's acquired and build a stronger roster for a team whose top players currently include wide receiver Brandin Cooks, Tunsil, defensive end Jon Greenard, and Collins. The Texans are on their second head coach in Caserio's tenure, with Culley fired after a 4-13 season and replaced by Lovie Smith.
"There are players that want to come to Houston. There are players that want to be in our program. There are players that want to play for Lovie. There are players that want to play with the players that we have in our program. Our job is to try and go out and find players that fit the profile of what we are looking for, of the team we are trying to create, of the team that we want to be, and be able to identify those players and bring them into the building.
"Our job is to try and find solutions to take the next step and move the organization forward, and that is my commitment to everybody in our building. That is my commitment to the fans, and that is my commitment to the organization. That is my commitment to ownership, and I'll be damned if I don't go down swinging."
The Texans should be able to improve this offseason. It's a major step forward, but it's not the culmination of the efforts.
"There's a lot of work that we need to get done, no question about it," Caserio said. "We're a long way from where we need to be. There's a lot of work ahead of us, but I think everybody's excited, everybody's anticipating the next step in the offseason program. No one player, no one thing is going to change this organization, and it's not going to happen overnight.
Defining success for the Texans is a moving target. They hope to build something sustainable and have a playoff contender as soon as possible.
"That's not for me to judge," Caserio said. "I think take it one year at a time, just take it one day at a time, and I'd say the big thing for us is we need to make progress. The most important thing is trying to make progress. How quickly is that progress going to take place? That's certainly irresponsible for me to make that projection, but I think we need to make progress. We've got to move in the right direction. Ultimately, if you don't do well enough, in the end, there's going to be somebody else sitting in this chair."
Aaron Wilson is a Pro Football Network reporter and analyst and a contributor to Sports Talk 790.