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In the end, the Miami Dolphins needed either protections or resolutions when it came to the pursuit of Deshaun Watson. They received neither from the Houston Texans or the quarterback, scuttling a pursuit that stretched back into the summer.
The barrier to a trade was ultimately the lack of any resolution in the 22 civil lawsuits Watson is facing, which allege an array of sexual misconduct or assault. Two sources familiar with Miami’s talks with Houston and also Watson’s camp told Yahoo Sports that in September, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross made it clear he wanted either draft pick protections from the Texans, or a resolution to Watson’s civil suits for Miami to move forward with a trade. The sources said Ross also wanted more clarity regarding a grand jury investigation into criminal complaints made against the quarterback, as well as permission to personally speak with Watson.
The conditions set by Ross ultimately got little traction, with Watson and his legal camp showing little interest in a global settlement with a non-disclosure agreement before a trade had actually been completed, and the Texans refusing to grant Ross permission to speak with Watson until Monday. The sources declined to elaborate on whether Ross and Watson ultimately spoke, but both said a trade had effectively fallen apart by the time the Texans agreed to Ross’ request for a dialogue with the quarterback.
Ultimately, the past week saw the talks between the two teams circle back to the same place where they fell apart in August, when Miami disengaged from the Texans after the team expressed a desire for a lucrative package of draft choices but also refused to include pick protections. While Miami remained interested after talks broke down then, the only path forward without pick protections was Ross expressing that Watson needed to at least resolve the civil suits against him. That still wouldn’t have remedied the criminal complaints, but there has been no indication to date that Watson will face charges stemming from some of the same allegations that appear in the civil suits.
There was also a question raised by Watson’s camp about whether a settlement with an NDA of his civil suits would be viewed by the NFL as an admission of guilt, thereby triggering a violation of the league's personal conduct policy. One source told Yahoo Sports that the belief was that if Watson settled his civil suits, the NFL would respond with a “first offense” penalty of a six-game suspension under the guidelines in the policy covering sexual assault. The NFL declined to offer any official guidance on that point, reiterating that its own investigation into Watson remains ongoing.
Perhaps the only clarity in Watson's future came from the trade deadline itself. Barring the NFL placing him on the commissioner’s exempt list — which remains a possibility through the rest of this season— Watson will now remain on the Texans' roster in the same limbo he has been in since reporting to the team in July.
However, a decision in the grand jury investigation could come down before this season is over, ultimately setting the table for Watson’s offseason. The discovery process in the first of his civil suits is also slated to close in March, with Watson’s deposition slated to be taken in February. A meeting to schedule a trial for Watson's first civil suit isn’t scheduled to take place until May, which could push his first jury trial into the summer.
For prospective trade partners looking for some legal resolution, the movement on Watson’s criminal complaints will likely have been determined long before the civil cases. But without some kind of settlement of his civil suits, teams could still be looking at Watson being engaged in a prolonged legal fight. All of this means there is a possibility that some of the unknowns of last offseason will carry into 2022.
So while Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline is now in the rearview mirror, Wednesday arrives with many of the same questions that have existed since March. The only sure thing is that football is off the table for Deshaun Watson until at least August of 2022, if not longer.