Dealing of Sam Darnold reveals a truth about Deshaun Watson: trade partners are backing away

·NFL columnist
·5 min read

Three months ago, the Carolina Panthers had significant interest in Deshaun Watson. Team owner David Tepper was serious enough about acquiring the Pro Bowl quarterback that when it became apparent Watson wanted out of Houston in January, the Panthers' front office called the Texans looking to engage in serious trade talks, ready to put a massive draft pick haul on the table.

What Carolina got was a cold shoulder. One response described Texans general manager Nick Caserio as being “annoyed” with the Panthers’ inquiring about the star quarterback, a source familiar with the exchange told Yahoo Sports.

Well, the NFL world turns on a dime, and it’s now quickly spinning out of control for the Texans. In the wake of an onslaught of civil lawsuits pending against Watson (22 and counting as of Monday) and an undetailed criminal complaint filed with the Houston Police Department, two teams have now completely removed themselves from any consideration of acquiring Watson.

First it was the San Francisco 49ers, who used three first-round draft picks last month to move up to the No. 3 choice in the draft and target their quarterback. Then on Monday it was the Panthers, who traded second-, fourth- and sixth-round picks to the New York Jets for Sam Darnold, with the intention of picking up the quarterback’s fifth-year contract option and taking a two-year “show me” period as their starter.

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 29:  Deshaun Watson #4 of the Houston Texans warms up before a game against the Carolina Panthers at NRG Stadium on September 29, 2019 in Houston, Texas.   The Panthers defeated the Texans 16-10. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Deshaun Watson, pictured in 2019, is facing 22 civil lawsuits involving a varying degree of alleged sexual misconduct. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Panthers, David Tepper once bullish on Deshaun Watson

It can't be underscored strongly enough: The Carolina move is a serious fracture in any remaining Watson trade market, assuming one still exists.

When it comes to taking a massive risk and sticking with a Watson trade pursuit in the midst of his legal woes, the Panthers' Tepper was in the wheelhouse category. Not only was Carolina’s interest in Watson very much driven by Tepper and his loss of faith in Teddy Bridgewater as a viable Super Bowl-level quarterback, he is a team owner who came with two unique traits in hand.

First, Tepper comes to the table as an aggressive billionaire hedge fund manager who knows the value of acquiring distressed assets. He is adept at understanding the value of risk and calculating the price at which risk becomes tenable. And second, Tepper first entered the NFL fraternity in 2009, when he became a minority owner with the Pittsburgh Steelers right on the doorstep of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being accused of sexual assault by two different women in 2009 and 2010.

Those realities put Tepper in a uniquely educated position to weigh the Watson situation from the vantage of someone keenly aware that the ultimate risk (and potential criticism) would be entirely in his hands. Yet, in the face of that — and with the Texans likely having lost considerable leverage in their asking price for Watson — Tepper backed away. And he did it by claiming Darnold when there was no rush to do so, given that few other teams were in the market to peel him off the Jets' roster.

Why Broncos, Dolphins as destinations look bleak now

Carolina's move speaks more about how other teams are viewing Watson than the leaks coming from his camp that multiple other franchises are still interested. That’s not to say other teams aren’t still in the hunt, mind you. But it’s getting to the point that reports of strong interest should be taken with a grain of salt.

Back when it was reported the 49ers were still interested, the truth was that San Francisco was already in the process of targeting a move up in the draft — and not eyeing any move for Watson. And just when it was believed Carolina was still monitoring Watson’s legal situation three weeks ago, the team was striking up trade talks with the Jets about Darnold.

So where does that leave Watson’s market? Well, it depends who you ask.

Privately, his camp is conveying that the Miami Dolphins are still in the conversation — but it’s fair to wonder if that continues to be legitimate, given all the signals that the team is committing to a build around Tua Tagovailoa. And if Miami is bowing out, that leaves the Jets and the Denver Broncos.

Since Watson’s civil suits first started piling up, sources inside the Jets were clear they’d be willing to call Houston if Watson became available. But they were not interested in continuing a pursuit at the gargantuan price the Texans were expected to seek. If that price were modified to reflect the new level of risk with Watson, a conversation between the Jets and Texans would materialize.

As for the Broncos, they now have a new, low-risk option on the table who general manager George Paton is familiar with from his time with the Minnesota Vikings: Bridgewater. After acquiring Darnold, Carolina will poke around the league for a cheaply priced Bridgewater trade, with the Broncos and Paton being high on that list of calls.

All of this is pointing to the kind of halting momentum that was assumed as the Watson litigation began accumulating in March. Even in the case of a top-five NFL quarterback who is only 25 years old, the league is still fairly risk averse. And with the Houston Police Department now announcing its own investigation into a criminal complaint against Watson, the concerns of any suitors are now three pronged, split between a police probe, civil litigation and the NFL’s own in-house investigation.

The concern has risen to a level that Texans owner Cal McNair has addressed it in a statement acknowledging the seriousness of the civil allegations against Watson, as well as the parallel investigations between the league and law enforcement. But in one particular line, McNair may have forecast the timeline of where all of this is going when he said: “While we await the conclusion of these investigations, we express our strong stance against any form of sexual assault.”

That sentence alone could say everything we need to know about Watson’s future. If the Texans are awaiting the conclusion of multiple investigations into Watson, the quarterback could be idle for a while. And if McNair telegraphing it isn’t enough, the departure of partners from the trading block should say the rest.

More from Yahoo Sports: