By TOM WITHERS – AP Sportswriter
CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cleveland Browns have made a selling point for Deshaun Watson, who is allowed to choose where to play next despite ongoing legal entanglements.
A contingent from Cleveland met with the controversial quarterback in Houston on Tuesday, a person familiar with the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the situation. It is not known which of the Browns attended the meeting.
Twenty-two women filed sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against Watson, prompting him to stop playing for the Texans last season. But when a grand jury declined to indict him on criminal charges last week, the Browns and several other teams began pursuing the three-time Pro Bowler.
Watson is still facing civil charges and was questioned for four hours at his attorney’s office Tuesday before his meeting with Cleveland. And he could face NFL disciplinary action under the Personal Conduct Policy.
The person who spoke to the AP said the Browns, who took Watson on in the 2017 draft, were doing their due diligence and wanted to get to know him better.
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Watson met with New Orleans and Carolina on Monday, according to multiple reports, and he will reportedly visit Atlanta on Wednesday before selecting a team.
The 27-year-old has a no-trade clause built into his four-year, $156 million contract and would have to agree to a deal with Cleveland. The Texans are believed to be looking for at least three first-round picks for one of the league’s most talented QBs.
The Browns’ decision to visit Watson appears to herald the end of Baker Mayfield’s tenure as the team’s franchise quarterback. Mayfield, No. 1 overall in 2018, ended the team’s long playoff drought ahead of an injury-hit 2021 season.
There was no certainty that Mayfield would stick with the starting job next season. Now it seems to belong to Watson – or someone else.
Knowing he’s probably done with the Browns, Mayfield posted a long note on social mediathanked Cleveland and his fans for hugging him and his wife Emily.
“Through all the ups and downs, we’ve made a lot of memories in this process and we’ve grown together,” Mayfield wrote. “I have no idea what happens next, what is the meaning behind the silence I have had throughout the duration of this trial. I can only control what I can, which is to trust in God’s plan during this process.
“I gave this franchise everything I have. I’ve always done that at every stage and at every level. And that won’t change wherever I take my next snap. Whatever happens. I just want to say thank you to the fans who have really embraced who I am and the mentality that suits the hard working people of this city so well.
“Cleveland will always be a part of Emily and my story. And we will always be grateful for the impact it has had and will have in our lives. Sincerely, Baker Reagan Mayfield.”
Any trade involving Watson would certainly trigger a backlash, and the Browns are weighing all of those factors. Cleveland faced widespread criticism in 2019 when the team signed running back Kareem Hunt, who was caught on video shoving a woman, and was suspended by the NFL for six games.
The Browns were busy again on Day 2 of the NFL’s legal free-agency manipulation period.
The team fired center JC Tretter, recently reelected as president of the NFL Players Association, in a cost-cutting move and traded linebacker Mack Wilson to New England for linebacker Chase Winovich.
Tretter spent five seasons with Cleveland as a stalwart leader and anchor of one of the league’s best offensive lines. The 31-year-old suffered some serious leg injuries in 80 games.
Tretter also played a key role in unionizing protocols with the league during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was unanimously re-elected to a second term on Friday.
“For the last five seasons, JC has been a mainstay for us and an iron man at the center,” said Browns general manager Andrew Berry. “He came to our organization at a time of instability and was one of the key veterans in helping turn the tide in recent years.
“His leadership – both in the dressing room and on the field – will be missed.”
Tretter posted a “letter to Cleveland” on Twitter thanking the people working behind the scenes, the team’s training and strength and conditioning staff and his teammates, noting All-Pro guard Joel highlights Bitonio.
“You are the heart of the Cleveland Browns,” Tretter told Bitonio. “It has been my pleasure to play alongside you for five years and I look forward to the day you are inducted into the ring of honor with the other Browns greats.”
Previously, the Browns and Patriots agreed to trade linebackers, with Wilson going to New England and Winovich going to Cleveland. The trade cannot be officially announced until the league year starts on Wednesday.
Wilson was a fifth-round draft pick in 2019. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Winovich, drafted by New England in the third round this year, has 11 career sacks in 45 games. Shortly after the deal was agreed, Winovich thanked the Patriots on Twitter.
“I am so grateful for my experience in New England,” Winovich wrote. “The love, spirit and support was absolutely unreal. This whole region will always have the very special places in my heart.
“The time has now come for the next chapter of my journey.”
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