Inside Deshaun Watson trade buzz: QB eligible to play should Texans deal him, but many worry that may not hold

NEW YORK — Absent a material change in the criminal investigation into his sexual misconduct allegations, Deshaun Watson is indeed believed to be eligible to play for a team should the Houston Texans trade him before the Nov. 2 deadline.

This is according to multiple sources, and it supports what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said publicly as recently as Tuesday evening at the NFL owners meetings. Though many in league circles believe this claim is dubious and that the NFL could pull a “fast one” on a team potentially trading for Watson, I’m told the league is steadfast about not placing Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list if there are no criminal charges filed.

“Obviously, the police have been investigating, and we don’t have access to all of that information at this point in time,” Goodell said. “We pride ourselves on not interfering in that and in being as cooperative as we can in order to get all the facts. I think that process is still ongoing.”

Though it’s true the list is normally reserved for players who are charged with a felony or violent crimes, and it’s also true the league has yet to investigate Watson since they normally reserve that for the end of their own investigation, only precedent is blocking the league from placing Watson on the list.

According to the collective bargaining agreement, players are placed on the exempt list “prior to the determination of discipline and any appeal therefrom under the Personal Conduct Policy will be paid while on the Commissioner Exempt list and credited for the regular and post-season games missed against any suspension ultimately imposed.”

A player could be placed on the list and then suspended without pay, and that’s been a concern for some teams as it relates to any potential Watson discipline.

Watson is facing 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints alleging sexual misconduct and assault. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The NFL has interviewed at least 10 Watson accusers, according to a league source. The league has yet to interview Watson, usually waiting until the interviews with accusers are complete before interviewing the accused. Watson’s attorney has said he would cooperate with the league.

So what is a ‘material change’ in the investigation? Houston police would need to present its investigation findings to the district attorney, who could then decide to press charges or summon a grand jury. It is extremely unlikely any of that happens by next Tuesday’s trade deadline.

A team wishing to trade for Watson will have to do so without that key information. Dolphins owner Steven Ross, who declined multiple requests for comment this week, has been considering this for months with Watson, who very clearly wants to relocate to Miami above all other options.

Interestingly enough, I’m told contact between Texans GM Nick Caserio and Dolphins GM Chris Grier has been almost nonexistent in the last two or so weeks. And as far as I know, the compensation for Watson is still equal to three first-round picks plus Day 2 picks or players.

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper has gone back and forth on whether to ultimately deal for Watson. Tepper was heavily interested in Watson when news of his trade request first broke in January, but the sexual allegations followed and that cooled all interest in Watson around the league. Tepper and the Panthers pulled out of looking to trade for Watson near the end of the preseason, too. But since then, Watson hasn’t been moved to Miami and the Panthers have a growing question mark at quarterback with the bench-worthy play of Sam Darnold.

On Wednesday, the Panthers again pulled out of the running for Watson, according to a league source. But make no mistake, that interest remains.

Tepper desperately wants to win and realizes it won’t be done with Darnold at quarterback. Shortly after buying the team he moved the two NFC championship trophies from their place of prominence in the team offices and placed an empty glass trophy case there for the Lombardi Trophy the franchise is missing. The case is still there today sitting empty.

But Tepper also bought the team from disgraced owner Jerry Richardson, and he fears both the unknown with Watson’s legal situation as well as the blowback he’d get for potentially being hypocritical.

Upon taking control of the team in July 2018, Tepper said: “Whatever it was, was. This is now. This is going to be an open place, so there are not going to be non-disclosure agreements no matter what in this new place and that sort of thing. That was then, this is now. … This is going to be an open place where people are going to have the right people to talk to, to come up with problems. And by the way, if I do something incredibly stupid, they should be talking about me. That’s what this place is going to be.”

Because there will be no answers to the myriad questions by Tuesday, there’s no reason for the Texans to change their tactics right now. Many around the league expect Houston to stretch this to Monday night or Tuesday. The Texans could squeeze more juice from Miami. They could get Tepper to become even more desperate with another poor performance by Darnold. Or the specter of not playing at all in 2021 makes Watson panic enough to relent on his no-trade clause and open up to other teams like Philadelphia.

Or, of course, the Texans could keep Watson. They’ve been content to sit him and pay him in a lost season while suffering the embarrassment. By March, perhaps his legal issues will be resolved, and then he’d potentially be more attractive to teams looking to trade for him after missing out on an available Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, combined with a poor quarterback draft class.

Watson, by all accounts, can play in 2021. He just would have to be playing for some other team.

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