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Four teams leading the pursuit of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson

In the wake of the grand jury decision not to level any criminal charges against Deshaun Watson despite civil suits and 10 criminal complaints from women who allege sexual misconduct, trade interest in the quarterback has started to heat up.

The Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks have expressed the strongest interest in Watson, two people with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the situation. Other teams, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, could wind up joining the pursuit of the three-time Pro Bowl selection.

The Houston Texans resisted the urge to trade Watson last year after he remained adamant that he no longer wanted to play for the team because of displeasure with ownership and management. Texans brass insisted on commanding a rich bounty of draft picks for Watson, whom they drafted 12th overall in 2017 and then in 2020 signed him to a four-year, $177.5 million contract extension with $111 million in guaranteed money.

Houston officials have said they’re ready to move on from Watson but still want to be handsomely compensated.

Watson can make all of this more interesting because he has a no-trade clause in his contract, so he will only waive that to trigger a move to a team of his choosing. So the highest bidder doesn’t automatically ensure a team will secure his rights.

At least four teams are showing a strong interest in Deshaun Watson.
At least four teams are showing a strong interest in Deshaun Watson.

Watson wants to go to a team with a strong coaching staff and roster to ensure he has the best chance to contend for Super Bowls after four frustrating years in Houston.

It’s believed that New Orleans could top his list of desired destinations. The Saints have a strong defense and a talented collection of offensive weapons. A strong push from the Buccaneers could sway him, however, some league insiders believe. The Browns are the other team best positioned to win now.

Additional uncertainty continues to hang over Watson because it’s not yet known what kind of punishment, if any, he will receive from the NFL.

The absence of criminal charges doesn’t mean he is guilt-free in the eyes of league officials, whose investigation into the many complaints from women who accuse Watson of misconduct during massage therapy sessions he booked with them is ongoing.

In 2010, then-Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension from the league for violating the personal conduct policy despite being cleared of criminal charges after a 20-year-old college student accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Georgia nightclub. The suspension was later reduced to four games.

In 2017, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott received a six-game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy despite avoiding criminal charges in a domestic violence incident.

So Watson certainly could still receive a punishment from the league, and most insiders do expect a ban of somewhere between two and six games.

There are some, however, who wonder if it’s possible commissioner Roger Goodell could decide that Watson, who didn’t play a game the entire 2021 season and lost more than $8 million in endorsements as a fallout from the accusations leveled against him, has already paid his price. But those individuals are in the minority.

There’s no indication when Goodell will rule on Watson’s future. But the absence of criminal charges now makes teams feel more comfortable pursuing him.

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