A potential Deshaun Watson trade was put back on the NFL radar screen after the Houston Chronicle's John McClain reported last week the Texans quarterback could be dealt before next Tuesday's 4 p.m. ET trading deadline. The prevailing thought has been Watson wouldn't be moved until sometime in 2022 because the 22 civil lawsuits he's facing for sexual assault and misconduct during massage therapy appointments cooled his trade market.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing. No criminal charges have been filed.
Watson demanded a trade early in the offseason several months after signing a four-year, $156 million contract extension (worth up to $160 million through incentives) running through the 2025 season. The impetus for the demand was Watson's lack of involvement in the Texans' head coach and general manager search after owner Cal McNair indicated he would be included in the process. Originally, the Texans had "zero interest" in him playing elsewhere. That changed after multiple allegations surfaced.
Watson has been a healthy scratch this season. He remains on the Texans' 53-man roster where he is being paid his $10.54 million 2021 base salary but by mutual agreement isn't in uniform for games and doesn't practice with the team.
Watson has control over where he plays next because he is one of 11 NFL players with a no-trade clause. The others are Bills quarterback Josh Allen, Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (2021 only), Bears tight end Jimmy Graham, Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Watson's no trade clause reads as follows:
"Club shall not be permitted to trade Player's Contract to any other Club in the NFL during the 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 or 2025 NFL League Years without Player's prior written consent."
Watson is willing to waive his no-trade clause for the Dolphins. The latest from McClain is the Dolphins and Texans have agreed to a framework of a trade. The Texans have reportedly wanted three first-round picks and two second-round picks in return. The Dolphins traded their 2022 first-round pick to the Eagles to move up to sixth in this year's NFL Draft after acquiring the 49ers' 2022 first-round pick in a trade to move down from the third spot to the 12th spot. Miami has its own 2023 and 2024 first-round picks in addition to San Francisco's 2023 first-round pick.
The holdup is Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wants the legal issues resolved before executing the trade. This could be done with Watson settling the civil lawsuits prior to the trading deadline. He also wants clarity from Commissioner Roger Goodell on a suspension under the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy. It's hard to imagine any team acquiring Watson without some sort of protections or conditions on the draft picks based on his availability because of his legal matters.
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The Panthers, who were the most aggressive suitors before the allegations, were rumored to be re-emerging as a possible trade partner because of quarterback Sam Darnold's struggles and a four-game losing streak after starting the season with three straight victories. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, the Panthers aren't going to pursue Watson before the trading deadline.
Indications are Watson would be able to play immediately if traded. Goodell said Tuesday during a press conference at the league meetings in New York he didn't feel he had the necessary information at this point to put Watson on the commissioner's exempt list, as there is an ongoing police investigation and the league doesn't have access to all of the information.
Being put on the exempt list is a paid leave absence until a disciplinary decision is made. The mutual agreement between Watson and the Texans is essentially acting in a similar fashion.
Goodell's position is in accordance with the NFL's current policy. The exempt list is reserved for when a player is formally charged with a felony offense or a crime of violence. Sexual assault by force or of a person who is incapable of giving consent is specifically mentioned as a crime of violence. Goodell also has authority to put a player on this list if an investigation leads him to believe the policy has been violated by committing such conduct when warranted by the circumstances and evidence. Indictment by a grand jury, filing of charges in criminal court by a prosecutor or arraignment in a criminal court are considered formal charges.
Watson could ultimately be suspended under the policy without any criminal charges or a conviction with credible evidence he engaged in the alleged conduct if the past is any indication. In 2017, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott served a six-game suspension relating to a domestic violence allegation, although he was never criminally charged. Last year, Antonio Brown was suspended for the first eight games of the season for multiple policy violations.
Any team looking to acquire Watson must have enough salary cap room available to absorb the remainder of his current salary. With a trade occurring after Week 8, the acquiring team would need $5,855,556 of salary cap space to accommodate 10/18ths of Watson's 2021 base salary.
With only $2.67 million of existing cap room, according to NFLPA data, the Dolphins would need to restructure contracts in order to accommodate Watson's remaining 2021 salary. The most logical restructure candidate is cornerback Byron Jones, who is under contract through the 2024 season, since he has Miami's biggest 2021 cap number at $16,107,700. It is also the league's most for a cornerback.
The Dolphins would also have Watson under contract for the next four years with salaries totaling $136 million. Watson's salaries and cap numbers would be $35 million (fully guaranteed), $37 million, $32 million and $32 million in 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025. His 2023 compensation, which consists of a $20 million base salary and a $17 million fifth day of the league year roster bonus, are guaranteed for injury and become fully guaranteed March 20 on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. Any suspension under the policy would void these guarantees.
Watson's 2022 compensation wouldn't be an issue with the salary cap. The Dolphins have the NFL's fewest 2022 cap commitments at just under $132.25 million with 36 players under contract.
Presumably, the Dolphins would be looking to move current starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, 2020's fifth overall pick. Finding a taker for him would only free up $433,333 of 2021 cap room since his current base salary is $780,000. Miami's 2022 cap charge for Tagovailoa would be $9,789,250 because of the signing bonus proration from his 2022 and 2023 contract years. This would be a $1,532,313 increase over Tagovailoa's $8,256,937 2022 cap number.
The draft-choice compensation the Jets received from the Panthers prior to this year's draft might be a good barometer for what the Dolphins could receive for Tagovailoa. Darnold was acquired for a 2021 sixth-round pick, a 2022 second-round pick and a 2022 fourth-round pick. Given the cap savings for this year would be nominal, holding on to Tagovailoa until next offseason would be an option with a Watson acquisition before the trading deadline if this type of return isn't readily available. The Washington Football Team has been linked to Tagovailoa.
The Texans would pick up $5,855,556 of 2021 cap space by trading Watson. There would be $10,084,444 of dead money, a salary cap for a player no longer on the roster, consisting of Watson's $5.4 million of 2021 signing bonus proration and the $4,684,444 in base salary earned before the trade (8/18ths of $10.54 million).
Watson's 2022 through 2025 salaries would come off Houston's books with the trade. This would leave Houston with $16.2 million in 2022 dead money from the remaining signing bonus proration, resulting in a gain of $24.2 million of cap room next year since Watson's $40.4 million 2022 cap number would no longer be part of the equation. The Texans would also pick up $42.4 million, $37.4 million and $32 million in cap space in 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Watson can't be dealt until March 16 when the 2022 league year begins if he isn't traded before next Tuesday's deadline. Next offseason, more teams could be interested but Watson would have to be willing to waive his no-trade clause for more than just the Dolphins. The Texans would also know the specific draft slots of other teams with the order of the first round being set.
The Darnold experiment seems to be failing in Carolina. He remains the Panthers' starting quarterback although he was benched early in the fourth quarter of Week 7's loss to the Giants.
The Eagles have the most draft capital with potentially having three 2022 first-round picks. In addition to their own pick and Miami's, the Colts' 2022 second-round pick acquired in the Carson Wentz trade becomes a 2022 first-round pick if he takes at least 75% of Indianapolis' offensive snaps or 70% and the Colts make the playoffs this season.
The Washington Football Team doesn't have a long-term solution at quarterback. Head coach Ron Rivera admitted in a radio interview this week that a franchise quarterback is needed.
Teddy Bridgewater, who was acquired from the Panthers for a 2021 sixth-round pick, has been an improvement over last year's Broncos starter Drew Lock. The Broncos haven't had quarterback stability since winning Super Bowl 50 during the 2015 season. Denver was reportedly an acceptable destination to Watson over the offseason.
At age 39, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to retire after the season. Pittsburgh doesn't have the same draft capital as some of the other teams.
However, there still might not be clarity with Watson's legal situation. Watson's deposition in the civil lawsuits won't take place until Feb. 22 at the earliest. The pre-trial discovery process ends on March 25 and a status conference in which a trial date would likely be set is scheduled for May 2. The 2022 NFL Draft is April 28-30.