CHARLOTTE, NC — The Carolina Panthers will make an “aggressive” offer for Deshaun Watson as soon as the Houston quarterback waives his no-trade clause for them to negotiate with the Texans, a league source told ESPN.
An issue with having the waiver clause is not anticipated, the source said.
The Panthers attempted to trade for Watson, 26, early last offseason before reports surfaced of 22 lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints of sexual misconduct against the three-time Pro Bowl selection. They backed off after that.
A grand jury in Houston voted Friday not to indict Watson on the criminal charges, leaving only the lawsuits with accusations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior during massage sessions against the former Clemson star.
That increased interest from many teams in addition to Carolina. Seattle, which earlier in the week traded Russell Wilson to Denver, also is expected to make a strong run at Watson, according to a source. New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Cleveland also reportedly are interested.
Houston can agree to a trade at any time, but it could not be made official until the new league year starts at 4 pm on Wednesday.
All the teams understand the NFL still could suspend Watson for a certain number of games if it finds he violated the league’s personal code of conduct.
In 2010, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games for violating the conduct code after being accused of sexually assaulting a Georgia college student following a night of drinking in Milledgeville, Georgia. That suspension was reduced to four games.
The Steelers went 12-4 in the regular season and reached the Super Bowl, where they lost 31-25 to Green Bay. Panthers owner David Tepper, who has been a driving force in Carolina’s pursuit of Watson, was a minority owner in Pittsburgh then.
“That’s the most important position on the field,” Tepper said of the quarterback in December 2021 when he fired general manager Marty Hurney with two games left in the season. “Unless you have that guy that for sure gets you to playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that because that’s the only thing that matters is Super Bowls.”
The Panthers attempted to upgrade the quarterback position last offseason after backing off Watson. They made an offer to Detroit for Matthew Stafford, who went to the Rams. They ultimately traded with the New York Jets for Sam Darnold, who went 4-7 as the starter.
They also picked up the fifth-year option on Darnold, so they are stuck with his $18.9 million cap number in 2022.
As first reported by Pro Football Network, a source confirmed that no team is believed to have done more due diligence investigating the claims against Watson than Carolina. That’s why the team is comfortable moving forward.
The Texans reportedly have asked for three first-round picks, other draft picks and at least one player for Watson. The Panthers are prepared to make a pitch they don’t believe will mortgage the future, the source said.
The only untradable player for Carolina appears to be safety Jeremy Chinn, who is entering his third year.
Of the teams interested in Watson, Carolina has the highest first-round pick (No. 6) in this year’s draft. Seattle selects ninth with Denver’s pick from the Wilson trade. Philadelphia has the 15th, 16th and 19th picks, New Orleans 18th, Pittsburgh 20th, Cleveland 13th and Tampa Bay 27th.
The Colts don’t have a first-round pick in 2022.
Houston already owns the No. 3 pick.
Whichever team acquires Watson will pick up a $35 million salary-cap number for 2022. The Panthers, with only about $31 million in cap space and only about $13 million to use toward free agency, can create enough space to make that work.
Watson, because of the no-trade clause, still has a big say in where he goes. Since asking the Texans for a trade in January 2021, he reportedly has waived the clause only for Miami.
The Dolphins have since moved on from pursuing Watson, general manager Chris Grier recently said at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Watson is from Gainesville, Georgia, just over a three-hour drive from Charlotte, and played at Clemson, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Charlotte.
Watson, speaking to reporters at a news conference outside his attorney’s office on Friday, said the past year has been “emotional for me.”
He offered no timetable for what’s next.
“I know we’re far from being done of handling what we need to handle on the legal side, but today is definitely a big day,” he said. “I thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ for letting the truth be heard. And I thank everyone that was a part of this for seeing and hearing both sides. That’s what my point and my team wanted to do, is have a fair slate of us telling our side of the story and letting the conclusion come to what happened today, and that’s what the grand jury decided on.
“I’m just going to keep fighting to rebuild my name and rebuild my appearance in the community. And on the legal side handle what we need to handle. But also ready to get on the field, and prep for that.”