Can Deshaun Watson play this year? Explaining the 2021 NFL status of Texans QB as trade rumors swirl



Deshaun Watson is one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL when he’s on the field. He hasn’t yet been in 2021.

Watson hasn’t played for the Texans so far after a tumultuous offseason that saw him demand a trade away from Houston before being accused of sexual assault and sexual misconduct in 22 active civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints.

That said, Watson isn’t suspended and remains on the Texans’ 53-man roster. He has been rendered a healthy scratch each week and has often worked out on his own at practice.

It seems like Houston has no plans to play Watson. However, could Watson see action if he’s traded? That’s a question that teams across the NFL will be asking as the Texans continue to dangle Watson before the NFL trade deadline.

Here’s everything we know about Watson’s status and whether he’ll play during the 2021 NFL season or not.

MORE: What to know about the sexual assault lawsuits against Deshaun Watson

Can Deshaun Watson play in 2021?

Watson is technically eligible to play in 2021 as of this writing. The NFL has yet to suspend him and if the Texans so chose, they could insert him into the starting lineup. They just haven’t taken that approach as they try to trade him while navigating the accusations levied against him.

That said, any team that trades for Watson will be able to play him if they so desire. It doesn’t seem likely the NFL will suspend him yet; they are waiting for Watson’s criminal proceedings to wrap up before launching their own inquiry, as Watson’s layer Rusty Hardin explained in August.

“The NFL regularly tries to not reach out to the defendant and his lawyers and seek evidence from them until the criminal investigation is over,” Hardin said. “Historically, they want to make sure they don’t interfere with the criminal investigation. When the criminal investigation is over, then they will do their own separate finishing up. … I have had no contact with the NFL, except to call initially and say, ‘Whenever the time is appropriate, we will fully cooperate. You let us know.’ And that’s going to be the case.”

It could be a while before that investigation finishes, so the NFL seems unlikely to suspend Watson. However, there is another tool that the league could use to effectively suspend Watson if they so desired: the commissioner’s exempt list.

MORE: Where Deshaun Watson ranks among NFL’s highest-paid players for 2021

What is the commissioner’s exempt list?

The commissioner’s exempt list is a tool that the NFL has used in the past to ensure players aren’t able to play amid ongoing criminal investigations. Its use became more common in 2014, when Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy were all placed on it while dealing with off-the-field, domestic violence-related issues.

As NBC Sports Boston explained in 2019, the commissioner’s exempt list is, effectively, a form of paid leave.

While on the commissioner’s exempt list, a player is paid as if he were on the active roster, yet he does not count against his team’s 53-man active roster limit. A player on the exempt list is not allowed to practice or attend games, but he is allowed to be present at the facility for meetings, to work out, and to receive treatment. 

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is the one who decides which players are or aren’t placed on the list, hence the name.

IYER: Deshaun Watson among players to watch ahead of trade deadline

Will the NFL place Deshaun Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list?

The NFL hasn’t placed Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list because they haven’t had to, per Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the league hasn’t made a decision about Watson because it doesn’t have to make a decision about Watson. With the Texans content to pay him to not play and with Watson content to not play and get paid for it, the NFL has no reason to do anything about it. He’s already on paid leave.

That makes sense to an extent, but it could make things messy if Watson gets traded and the team that acquires him attempts to play him. As such, teams that are considering trading for Watson will have to be ready for the league to potentially place him on the exempt list if they attempt to start him. That would serve as the equivalent of a suspension.

MORE: Texans “haven’t budged” on Deshaun Watson trade price

Deshaun Watson trade rumors

There had largely been silence on the Deshaun Watson front until John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texans were “getting closer” to a deal with the Dolphins on Oct. 20. McClain wrote: “A deal could go down this week, according to people familiar with the negotiations.”

The Dolphins were originally viewed as one of the suitors for Watson when Watson’s trade demand was first made public. However, their apparent interest waned — along with that of other teams — when the allegations surrounding Watson became public.

The Texans continued to have a high asking price for Watson. They reportedly wanted at least three first-round picks in a trade for him even after the lawsuits were filed.

What has changed that is apparently making Miami more interested in a deal? It’s unclear if the Texans’ asking price has dropped, but the Dolphins have gone 1-5 to start the season. Tua Tagovailoa has looked good at times, but he also has missed three games with a rib injury.

Watson would be an on-field upgrade over Tagovailoa at this point. Still, any potential trade will come down to Miami’s level of comfort surrounding Watson’s uncertain playing status and having to sacrifice significant resources to acquire him.

MORE: Why Dolphins, Panthers, others didn’t originally trade for Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson sexual assault accusations, lawsuits

There have been a total of 23 lawsuits filed against Watson since attorney Tony Buzbee filed the first three lawsuits on March 16 and 17. One has since been dropped, but 22 lawsuits against Watson remain active.

The lawsuits come from a bevy of massage therapists who accuse Watson of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. The accusations range from inappropriate touching to forced oral sex.

“Watson’s behavior is part of a disturbing pattern of preying on vulnerable women,” Buzbee wrote in the third lawsuit he filed, per ESPN’s Sarah Barshop. Meanwhile, the 14th lawsuit noted that the plaintiff viewed Watson as a “serial predator.”

Watson denied any wrongdoing in a Twitter statement he made on March 16.

As a result of a social media post by a publicity-seeking plaintiff’s lawyer, I recently became aware of a lawsuit that has apparently been filed against me. I have not yet seen the complaint, but I know this: I have never treated any woman with anything other than the utmost respect. The plaintiff’s lawyer claims that this isn’t about money, but before filing suit he made a baseless six-figure settlement demand, which I quickly rejected. Unlike him, this isn’t about money for me — it’s about clearing my name, and I look forward to doing that. 

You can read more about the lawsuits against Watson in-depth by clicking here. Please note that the details of them are disturbing.





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