Browns meeting with DeShaun Watson

Browns release JC Tretter, union president; meeting Watson

CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cleveland Browns released center JC Tretter, who was recently re-elected as president of the NFL Players Association, while the team accelerated its pursuit of controversial quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Tretter spent five seasons with Cleveland as a dependable leader and anchor of one of the league’s best offensive lines. The 31-year-old played through some serious leg injuries during while playing in 80 games.

Tretter also played a major role in the union setting protocols with the league during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was unanimously re-elected to a second term on Friday.

“For the past five seasons, JC has been a mainstay and iron man at center for us,” said Browns general manager Andrew Berry. “He came to our organization at a time of instability and was one of the key veterans that helped turn the tide over the past several years.

“His leadership — both within the locker room and the field — will be missed.”

Tretter posted “A letter to Cleveland” on Twitter thanking the people who work behind the scenes, the team’s training and strength and conditioning staffs and his teammates, singling out All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio.

“You are the heart of the Cleveland Browns,” Tretter said to Bitonio. “It has been my pleasure to play next to you for five years and I look forward to the day you are put in the ring of honor with the other Browns greats.”

Tretter’s release came as the Browns intensified their interest in Watson, who has played his last game with Houston. Cleveland has a scheduled meeting Tuesday with Watson, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press.

Watson met with New Orleans and Carolina on Monday, according to multiple reports.

The Browns are doing their due diligence and want to get to know Watson better, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.

Watson has a no-trade clause and would have to agree to be traded to Cleveland.

The Browns may have a little more to offer in quarterback Baker Mayfield, who had an injury-altered 2021 season. Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry has said several times this offseason that Mayfield is expected to return as the starter, but it appears the Browns could move from that plan.

The Texans are believed to be seeking at least three first-round picks for the talented Watson, who didn’t play last season after 22 women filed lawsuits alleging sexual assault and harassment. On Friday, a grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing by Watson, who is scheduled to be deposed in civil suits this week by the women.

Any trade involving Watson would certainly trigger backlash and the Browns are weighing all those factors in this pursuit of the three-time Pro Bowler. Cleveland received similar criticism in 2019 when it signed running back Kareem Hunt, who was seen on video shoving a woman and was suspended six games by the NFL.

Watson might face disciplinary action from the NFL under the personal conduct policy.

Earlier, the Browns and Patriots agreed to swap linebackers, with Mack Wilson going to New England and Chase Winovich headed to Cleveland, a person familiar said.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the trade can’t be announced until the league year starts 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 that year, has 11 career sacks in 45 games. Shortly after the deal was agreed upon, Winovich posted thanks to the Patriots on Twitter.

“I am so grateful for my experience in New England.” Winovich wrote. “The love, spirit, and support have been absolutely unreal. This entire region will always hold the most special of places in my heart.

“The time is now for the next chapter of my journey.”