Deshaun Watson Agrees to Trade to the Cleveland Browns

A week after a Harris County, Texas, grand jury rejected nine criminal cases against him, Deshaun Watson agreed to waive his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade to the Cleveland Browns from the Houston Texans.

To acquire the 26-year-old Watson, the Browns will give up three first-round draft picks and two additional picks, providing the significant return the Texans were seeking for one of the N.F.L.’s most talented young quarterbacks.

Watson had not played since completing the 2020 season with the Texans, when he requested a trade. Weeks after that demand, 22 women accused Watson of sexual misconduct during massage appointments in civil lawsuits which remain unresolved. Their complaints described a range of actions including Watson exposing himself, purposely touching therapists’ hands with his genitals, ejaculating on them and sexual assault.

Watson has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has said any sexual acts that happened during massage appointments were consensual.

There has been no indication when the N.F.L. will complete its investigation of Watson for potential violations of its personal conduct policy. League investigators were waiting for a resolution in the criminal cases to interview Watson but have already spoken to several of the women who filed complaints against him.

Watson reportedly also met this week with the Falcons, Panthers and Saints. Because Watson had to waive his no-trade clause before a deal could be made, the trade talks played out more like a bidding war, even as the 22 lawsuits filed against him continued to move ahead. Watson also sought to have his compensation guaranteed by his new team, but the Browns went a step further, giving Watson a new and fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract, a person with direct knowledge of the terms of the deal confirmed. That person requested anonymity because the team had not announced the contract terms.

Between meetings with N.F.L. teams, Watson was deposed on Tuesday for two of the civil suits. Tony Buzbee, the lawyer for the 22 plaintiffs, said in an interview Tuesday evening that Watson did not invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate in Tuesday’s depositions and answered questions under oath for the first time. Buzbee said last Friday’s grand jury decision hasn’t affected his clients’ willingness to move forward with their civil cases, nor have there been any renewed settlement conversations. He added that no N.F.L. teams had reached out to him for information on the cases or to seek to talk with any of the women.

Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick by the Browns in 2018, posted to Twitter on Tuesday evening what was essentially a farewell letter to Cleveland after news broke of Watson’s meeting with the Browns. Mayfield was the starting quarterback for the Browns when the franchise broke its 17-year postseason drought, but the team had not sought to sign him to a second contract. He is not part of the Browns’ trade package but is expected to be moved to another team.

The Watson trade will end an impasse between Watson and the Texans that dates back to early 2021, when the quarterback demanded to be moved to a new team after having grown disillusioned with the franchise’s direction.

Watson signed a four-year, $156 million extension with the team in September 2020, but he and the Texans slogged to a 4-12 record while Bill O’Brien was fired as coach and general manager midseason. Watson’s rift with the team grew when team executives failed to uphold their pledge to include him in the search for a new coach and general manager. The Texans went outside the process of the search firm they were working with to hire General Manager Nick Caserio, an executive with ties to Jack Easterby, a former character coach in New England, who assumed an outsize role in the team’s football operations.

Watson was eligible to play in 2021 and earned his full $10.5 million base salary from the Texans, but he was inactive for every game.

The N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy stipulates that players can face discipline even without a criminal conviction if they engage in prohibited behaviors, including sex offenses and any conduct that poses danger to the safety and well-being of another person. Jameis Winston was suspended for three games in 2018 after an Uber driver said he grabbed her crotch. Kareem Hunt was suspended for eight games in 2019 after the release of a video that showed him shoving and kicking a woman at a hotel. Criminal charges were not filed in either case.

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