If a Deshaun Watson trade materializes during the 2021 NFL draft, it will be a one-team pursuit

HOUSTON — For six days, there has been unprecedented silence on the Deshaun Watson front. This after nearly five straight weeks of legal cannon fire in the form of 23 civil lawsuits from separate women, statements and counter-statements from lawyers, and a tidal wave of warring allegations of deception and lies.

And now the two sides have suddenly fallen silent on the doorstep of the NFL draft, the exact week when Watson was most likely to have been traded to another team if it hadn’t been for his pending litigation. It's a reality that leaves open the extremely faint possibility that some kind of unexpected resolution could still happen during this draft, leaving one team, the Miami Dolphins, as the last potential suitor who could still take the leap with Watson.

We’ll get to that in a moment. First, the silence …

How settlement talks emerged in 2 high-profile NFL player cases

If there has been anything to be gleaned from the stream of legal wrangling for NFL players in recent years, it’s that when the lawyers go unexpectedly quiet, it can often happen when the communication behind closed doors picks up.

A little over two years ago, the collusion grievance brought by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid against the NFL came to an unexpected end. It happened in the midst of extraordinary silence between the two sides. The leaks in the case went dry. The deposition and discovery requests halted. And in the middle of a dead zone in the collusion case, word broke that a settlement had been brokered. More recently, the civil case between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Antonio Brown and his former trainer, Britney Taylor, came to a similar conclusion. First, extended silence, and then a private settlement between the two sides that retracted their respective legal claws and allowed both to move on with their lives.

None of that is evidence that Watson and his remaining 22 accusers — who allege some form of sexual misconduct or sexual assault in their civil filings — are finalizing an all-in-one class settlement. But that is unquestionably still a legal remedy on the table for the two sides.

As it stands, Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, and the counsel for the 22 accusers, Tony Buzbee, have both said publicly that a settlement was something Watson’s camp considered with Ashley Solis, the first woman to file a suit against Watson. There has also been faint settlement messaging from both sides in their legal exchanges.

In between all of it, neither lawyer has made the definitive proclamation of: “There will never be a settlement in these cases.” The reason: It’s an exit strategy that can be beneficial for both sides, essentially exchanging some financial tradeoff for the years of litigation that could lie ahead. It’s not a hard data point that a settlement will happen, just a recognition of the fact that nobody has closed the door on it. And even if it has, all it takes is Watson changing his mind.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 13: Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) looks on in action during a game between the Chicago Bears and the Houston Texans on December 13, 2020, at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Dolphins only team in play for remote trade possibility involving Watson

So where does that leave a potential Watson deal on the first day of the draft? It leaves it about as weak as it has ever been this offseason, both for the Houston Texans in terms of suitors and Watson in terms of the teams willing to gamble on a settlement. The reality is that given where this all started for the Texans and Watson, almost everyone began making other plans at their quarterback position by the end of March following the realization that the allegations against Watson appeared serious and wouldn’t be short-lived.

In January, three franchises would have materialized as the strongest bidders for Watson, according to a wide array of team sources who spoke to Yahoo Sports. They were the Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers and New York Jets. Several others had interest, but their thirst for a pursuit dwindled considerably when it became apparent that Houston would ultimately have been looking for a starting offer of three first-round draft picks, two second-round picks and players. The San Francisco 49ers were already looking for other options at quarterback and the New England Patriots believed that could line them up to re-acquire Jimmy Garoppolo, significantly tamping down the interest of both franchises in Watson. The Denver Broncos, with new incoming general manager George Paton, weren’t looking to make a massive resource-draining move in the first year of a new direction. And the Chicago Bears and Washington Football Team had only passing initial interest.

Between the Dolphins, Panthers and Jets, it’s clear that Miami and Carolina would have most likely put the strongest offers on the table had the litigation not occurred. Sources have told Yahoo Sports that both would have parted with three first-round picks, as well as more assets to sweeten the deal. As for the Jets, that kind of package was already far more than their initial offer would have been, making it unlikely that general manager Joe Douglas would have entered into the bidding war that Houston wanted.

As the Watson allegations spiraled, the Panthers began making other arrangements that ultimately ended with the team trading for Sam Darnold and sending Teddy Bridgewater to the Broncos. While neither move completely takes the Panthers out of Watson consideration long term, it signals the franchise isn’t intent on the same hot pursuit that it hoped to engage in two months ago.

That leaves Miami, a team that has all the draft picks necessary to make a Watson deal happen today, next week, next month or even next offseason. It's a pursuit that sources have said would have previously received the support of head coach Brian Flores and general manager Chris Grier. In truth, very little has changed on the Dolphins' end in terms of the franchise's ability to make a deal. Tua Tagovailoa is still the starting quarterback.

The other important note: Multiple sources have told Yahoo Sports that Miami has always been Watson’s preferred destination. Even when he and his camp were leaving the door open for other scenarios, the idea was always to get whatever bidding war that took place to ultimately land in Miami’s favor. Indeed, if a full-slate settlement were ever to happen in Watson’s legal cases, it would be with the aim of getting him traded to Miami — same as it was in January and February and right into the mid-March litigation drop.

This week and perhaps in the months to follow, that makes almost any pursuit boil down to one team. If it happens, it’s not going to be what the Texans had hoped for. Instead, it will be weighing the cost of keeping Watson, who has become a damaged football asset and might remain that even after the resolution of his legal cases. After all, there is still the NFL investigation to consider, and it may not hinge on an endpoint to his civil litigation.

That unknown matters to teams. But it might not matter to all of them. We’ll know if that’s the case in a few short days.

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