HOUSTON — As spring workouts wrap up in the NFL, the makeup of the Houston Texans’ quarterback depth chart has become a little clearer with the additions of Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills, but Deshaun Watson’s NFL future remains in limbo.
Watson didn’t show up for voluntary organized team activities. Mandatory minicamp is June 15-17. If Watson doesn’t attend, he would be fined $95,877 unless the Texans opt to make the three-day minicamp voluntary or cancel it entirely, as several other NFL teams have.
Here’s a look at the Texans’ quarterback situation and where things stand in Houston:
What are the chances Watson plays in Houston again, and what does that mean?
It seems unlikely Watson, the Texans’ 2020 starting quarterback, will play again for the team. Two months after asking for a trade because he reportedly wasn’t happy with the way Houston handled the search for its general manager, the first of 23 lawsuits were filed against him. There are currently 22 active lawsuits alleging sexual assault and inappropriate behavior by Watson.
Hours before the first lawsuit was filed March 16, the Texans agreed to a one-year, incentive-laden contract with Taylor. He said last week when he signed with the Texans he wasn’t “for sure about” whether he’d be the starting quarterback, but that he saw it as “an opportunity for me to be able to showcase what I can do.” Later in that same news conference, Taylor said, “the opportunity to be able to start here is something that I look forward to.”
First-year head coach David Culley said last week “you can tell by what we’ve seen on the field that [Taylor has] been listening, he’s been picking up the offense.”
“I feel like from what we’ve seen out there the last few days that he is right where we feel like he should be,” Culley said.
But even if Taylor starts Week 1, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will be under center for the whole season. The Texans drafted Mills in the third round — their first pick of the draft — in April, and he will likely get a long look this season.
It’s quite possible the Texans eventually trade Watson once the legal process plays out and get a high 2022 pick, and it’s even more possible they play poorly enough for their own first-round pick to be near the top of the draft. Houston needs to know confidently whether Mills is in the cards for the future or if they should use a top pick on a quarterback next April.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Taylor has lost playing time to a rookie quarterback. In 2018, he started the first three games for the Browns before suffering a concussion and being replaced by Baker Mayfield. Last season, Taylor started one game before a team doctor accidentally punctured his lung with a pain-killing shot while attempting to treat a rib injury before a Week 2 game. He was replaced by Justin Herbert, who kept the starting job and went on to be named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Watson is still on the Texans’ roster. What is the status of the 22 active lawsuits?
After a lot of public sparring between lawyers Rusty Hardin (the attorney for Watson) and Tony Buzbee (the attorney for the 22 plaintiffs), it has been relatively quiet as the law firms go through the discovery phase.
Both Hardin and Buzbee said last month that the two sides are not in settlement discussions.
According to the docket for the case, if these lawsuits continue to trial, depositions are set to begin in September. The plaintiffs would be deposed before Watson, who can’t be deposed before Feb. 22, 2022.
Without a settlement, the lawsuits would not be resolved before the 2021 NFL season.
What about any criminal charges?
Last month, Buzbee told Fox 26 in Houston that eight to 10 of his clients have met with the Houston Police Department. The next day, an HPD spokesperson told ESPN the investigation into allegations against Watson is “ongoing” but would not say how many women have spoken with law enforcement.
Even if Watson settles the lawsuits, he could face criminal charges.
What does that mean about Watson’s status for 2021?
The NFL is conducting its own investigation into the lawsuits and according to Buzbee on Fox 26, at least four of the plaintiffs have spoken to the league.
“The allegations are very concerning and the league immediately began investigating the matter under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email to ESPN in May. “The investigation includes gathering information, monitoring law enforcement developments and conducting interviews with relevant people willing to participate with counsel present.”
One possibility is commissioner Roger Goodell puts Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list, which would mean Watson would not count toward the Texans’ active roster, would have to stay away from the team and be paid. If Watson is suspended, he won’t be paid.
Watson is scheduled to make $10.5 million in 2021 on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract. Because of the contract extension he signed in September 2020, Watson’s salary jumps to $35 million in 2022.
If Watson is not put on the commissioner’s exempt list before training camp and chooses not to report, what are the financial implications?
The Texans could fine Watson up to $50,000 for each day of training camp missed, plus one week’s salary — $620,000 — for each preseason game he misses.
Unlike the old CBA, fines cannot be forgiven by the team. If Watson misses mandatory minicamp ($95,877), 28 days of training camp ($1.4 million) and three preseason games ($1.86 million), he could be looking at being fined more than $3.3 million, and that’s before the regular season.
We’re past June 1. Why does that matter for a trade?
While it seems unlikely that a team would trade for Watson while he’s in legal limbo, it could happen. Had the Texans decided to trade the quarterback before June 1, all $21.6 million of his remaining signing bonus ($5.4 million times four years) would have accelerated into Houston’s cap for 2021.
But now that it’s past June 1, $5.4 million would count toward the cap for 2021 and the $16.2 million of dead money (from the 2022, 2023 and 2024 seasons) becomes part of the 2022 cap.
Could the Texans trade him midseason?
They could trade him before the trade deadline in early November, but it seems unlikely the Texans would get as much value as if they waited until the end of the season. If Texans general manager Nick Caserio does decide to trade Watson, he’d rather know what pick he’s trading for, instead of making a deal in the middle of the season and hoping for the trade partner to lose. It’s the same reason some felt if the Texans were going to trade Watson before this season, they would do it before the start of the draft.