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INDIANAPOLIS — Until at least April, NFL teams are going to remain out on Deshaun Watson trade talks. But that’s when two key pieces of information are expected to either create traction for the Houston Texans or make it virtually impossible to deal Watson.
That’s the consensus among a handful of general managers and head coaches that have back-burnered interest in Watson, but also continued to monitor his legal status heading into this week’s scouting combine in Indianapolis. Specifically, the teams are monitoring the slow-snaking course of his 22 civil lawsuits — as well as a grand jury finding that Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, believes is on track for an April 1 resolution. That date is key for teams because it is expected to unlock two significant pieces of information that franchises are refusing to move forward without: First, will Watson be forced to plead to a felony indictment from a grand jury; and second, if a grand jury declines to indict Watson, what will the NFL determine under its personal conduct policy once there is no threat of interfering with an ongoing criminal investigation?
As one NFC source framed it, “There are way too many unknowns for our [team] owner to sign off on anything. There’s just no way to even have the conversation again without something changing. It’s too risky. We just have to move forward. If something works out and the picture around him gets more clarity, then I think it’s worth considering.”
That’s a common refrain among franchises — the idea that Watson being cleared of criminality opens a path to a trade. At the very least, a grand jury decision would move Watson into a definitive direction that he currently lacks. If he’s indicted on a felony and will face a criminal trial, the possibility of a trade is essentially wiped out. If he’s not indicted, both the Texans and inquiring teams can request clarity from the league office under the personal conduct policy. Watson could still face a significant suspension under the policy, but that can’t happen until after he meets with NFL investigators for an interview following the resolution of the criminal portion of his legal docket.
Once teams know the status of the criminal investigation and then get clarity on where the league stands, it then opens a conversation about the direction of his civil cases. As it stands now, Watson has been ordered by a judge to begin sitting for depositions in the coming weeks in any of the civil cases that do not have a criminal component. If an accuser has not levied a criminal complaint against Watson, his depositions in the lawsuits brought by those women should not be in danger of influencing a criminal charge.
Hardin disagreed with that decision during a court hearing last week, insisting to a judge that none of Watson’s depositions should move forward until the criminal aspect of the allegations against him have been determined.
“Deshaun is more than willing to give his testimony and give depositions,” Hardin said. “As his lawyer I think it would be crazy to allow it until we know what’s going to happen on the criminal side.”
Hardin’s plea was unsuccessful during the hearing and Watson will now be compelled to sit for depositions in the civil cases that don’t have an external criminal complaint tied to them. Eight of Watson’s 22 accusers have pursued criminal charges against him with the Houston Police Department, with the findings having been forwarded to the Harris County District Attorney for grand jury consideration.
All of this is the backdrop that the Texans are currently grappling with, leaving the team in a holding pattern until a grand jury decision. Even after that, the Texans will have to hope that Watson’s legal camp expedites his cooperation with the NFL investigation and scheduling an interview if it’s determined he won’t face criminal charges. And even if Watson avoids legal charges and a league suspension, any inquiring teams will have lingering questions about his civil cases — likely to the point of pressuring Watson to settle the lawsuits, as Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had requested prior to last season’s trade deadline.
That takes a lot of moving parts out of the Texans' hands, before even getting to the basic fundamental problem with any trade, which is this: Even if Watson were cleared of a grand jury indictment … and even if the NFL declined to suspend him … and even if he either won or settled all of his civil cases … the fact remains that Watson controls his trade destination. Whether the Texans like it or not, his no-trade clause and salary spike in 2022 continue to give Watson monumental leverage in any negotiation. And that advantage will grow stronger if there is no grand jury indictment, no NFL suspension and a resolution to his sexual misconduct civil lawsuits.
This is why Texans general manager Nick Caserio can do little more than shrug when it comes to Watson’s future.
As Caserio put it Tuesday, “I would say that situation… we’re day to day in terms of handling that. Once the [legal] information becomes more relevant or prevalent, then we’ll handle it accordingly. My philosophy from the beginning has always been to do the right thing by the Houston Texans organization, and we’re going to continue to do that here moving forward.”
Unfortunately for Caserio, he’s not the only one adamant about doing the right thing for his organization. Franchises interested in Watson will continue to do the same until at least April, and that’s going to leave this whole affair where it has been for the previous 11 months: Being judged in the court of opinion, until some actual legal momentum prevails with new information.