As the 2021 draft looms, the biggest NFL story of the past six weeks has taken a back seat. It possibly won’t stay there.
There’s still a scenario in which the Texans trade quarterback Deshaun Watson before, during, or immediately after the draft.
The door swings open to a trade if Watson and his 22 accusers reach a global settlement of the civil lawsuits that have been filed against him. That will require plenty of work by the lawyers. The fact that the lawyers have been so quiet since last Friday’s status conference invites speculation that the lawyers are focusing their time and attention on a push to resolve the cases at a time when the claims have maximum settlement value for the plaintiffs.
If Watson can settle the cases, Watson can get traded. Once the window closes as a practical matter on the ability to trade Watson in 2021 (it’s unclear when that window would completely close), the plaintiffs have less leverage — and Watson has more incentive to dig in and fight. Even if he’s looking at placement on paid leave while the cases proceed, Watson can simply report for training camp with the Texans, accept an assignment to the Commissioner Exempt list, receive a salary of more than $10 million in 2021, use part of that money to finance aggressive efforts to expose any and all weaknesses regarding the allegations made against him, and make a push to settle the cases after the 2021 season, so that he can be traded next year.
As I’ve said for weeks, Watson’s best move would be to accept his reckoning, ensure that the 22 individuals believe that any compensation they receive represents fair and appropriate justice, and move on. Although at this point it’s extremely likely that he’d face an unpaid suspension in the range of four to eight games based on the Ben Roethlisberger precedent, Watson can get the civil claims behind him, close the book on a potential criminal investigation, avoid full cooperation by his accusers with the league, and then land with a new team, a new team for which he’d play at the earliest after a suspension ends and at the latest in Week One of 2022.
If a settlement-then-trade scenario is happening, the sooner it unfolds, the better it will be for all involved. The fact that the two lawyers at the center of the controversy, Tony Buzbee and Rusty Hardin, have fallen silent during draft week makes it hard not to wonder whether we’ll soon be hearing about the cases being resolved, followed by news of Watson being traded to a new team.