Cleveland Browns say team did 'extensive' research into Deshaun Watson before completing trade

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns called their research and investigation into Deshaun Watson, including the allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct against him, "extensive" in a statement the team released Sunday announcing the trade.

"We are acutely aware and empathetic to the highly personal sentiments expressed about this decision," Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam said in a statement. "Our team's comprehensive evaluation process was of utmost importance due to the sensitive nature of his situation and the complex factors involved. We also understand there are still some legal proceedings that are ongoing and we will respect due process.

"It was pivotal that we, along with Andrew Berry and Kevin Stefanski, meet with Deshaun to have a straightforward dialogue, discuss our priorities, and hear directly from him on how he wants to approach his career on and off the field. He was humble, sincere and candid. In our conversations, Deshaun detailed his commitment to leading our team; he understands and embraces the hard work needed to build his name both in the community and on the field. ... We are confident in Deshaun and excited about moving forward with him as our quarterback and supporting his genuine and determined efforts.''

On Friday, the Browns acquired Watson from the Houston Texans. Cleveland traded its 2022, 2023 and 2024 first-round draft selections, as well as two other picks, in the deal. The Browns also gave Watson a new five-year contract worth $230 million guaranteed, the most guaranteed money on a single contract in NFL history by $80 million.

Unlike the Texans, who announced the trade shortly after it was agreed to Friday, the Browns waited two days before publicly acknowledging it.

"We have done extensive investigative, legal and reference work over the past several months to provide us with the appropriate information needed to make an informed decision about pursuing him and moving forward with him as our quarterback," Browns general manager Andrew Berry said in a statement. "Deshaun has been among the very best at the position and he understands the work needed to re-establish himself on and off the field in Cleveland. We are confident that he will make positive contributions to our team and community as we support his return to football."

The Browns didn't provide specifics of their investigation. They also didn't speak to any of the 22 women who have filed civil lawsuits against Watson and accused him of sexual assault and sexual misconduct, according to their attorney.

"The Browns organization did not reach out to me. I didn't expect them to do so, and can understand why they didn't. But, knowing what I know, they probably should have," attorney Tony Buzbee told ESPN.

The NFL could suspend Watson for a minimum of six games through its code of conduct policy for violations related to sexual assault. The league confirmed in a statement that any trade would have "no effect on the NFL's ongoing and comprehensive investigation of the serious allegations against Watson. If the league's investigation determines Watson violated the personal conduct policy, discipline may be imposed pursuant to the policy."

A league source told ESPN, however, that as part of Watson's new deal, he will make only $1 million in his base salary for 2022. That means if he's suspended by the NFL for violating its code of conduct policy related to sexual assault, he would lose less than $60,000 per game lost.

Cleveland's announcement of the trade came just nine days after a Texas grand jury declined to indict Watson on criminal charges following a police investigation sparked by the civil lawsuits. The allegations in the lawsuits ranged from touching women with his genitals to forced oral sex. Eight of the women who sued Watson filed criminal complaints against him with Houston police and had been set to appear before the grand jury.

Two other women who didn't sue Watson also filed police complaints.

The Browns met with Watson in Houston on Tuesday, shortly after he answered questions under oath in depositions connected to the civil lawsuits.

On Thursday, the Browns were informed they were no longer in the running for Watson. But by Friday, he'd had a change of heart and agreed to waive his no-trade clause to come to Cleveland.

"Our organization did a tremendous amount of background on Deshaun," Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said in a statement. "We understand the concerns and questions that exist but are confident in the extensive work Andrew and his staff have done to feel confident about him joining our organization. It was important for us to meet with Deshaun in person as part of our team's evaluation process, we had a candid conversation regarding his approach to coming into our organization and community. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to coach Deshaun, he is ready to put in the hard work needed to help our team improve and make a positive impact in our community."

ESPN's Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.