Deshaun Watson was in an unwinnable situation last season.
Watson did that to himself, and the many tales of his off-field conduct don't lead to any sympathy. But if we're looking at it just from the scope of being the Cleveland Browns quarterback, there's no way Watson could have succeeded last season.
Watson didn't play at all in 2021, then had just nine preseason snaps with the Browns due to his 11-game suspension for multiple violations of the league’s personal conduct policy. He was asked to join a new team in early December, with new teammates, new coaches and a new scheme, and be a functional quarterback. That came after an offseason of intense scrutiny on Watson and a lot of criticism for the Browns over their trade for Watson and his $230 million guaranteed contract. He had most of the football world rooting against him and eager to point out all of his struggles. Again, that was his own doing. But it didn't help.
He had almost no chance to succeed, and he didn't. Watson was well off his career numbers in his first six Browns games.
"I knew it was going to be challenging," Watson said after the team's season finale, via the Browns' site. "I knew I wasn't going to walk in and just be the MVP of the NFL. I've got a lot of work to put in. I've put in a lot of work, and I have a long way to go."
The Browns didn't acquire Watson for a few games at the end of last season. They ignored the red flags because they saw a quarterback who was one of the NFL's best with the Houston Texans, and envisioned Watson leading them to a few deep playoff runs.
That could still happen. Watson will turn just 28 years old this season. He was a dynamic player with Houston, and for Clemson before that. We can probably just ignore the abbreviated 2022 season for Watson because it was an impossible situation. He won't have a majority of the football world rooting him on this season, but Watson can still be the exact type of quarterback the Browns thought they were getting. Having a normal offseason should help immensely. An expanded offense that fits Watson's strengths could be a positive too.
“The future is definitely bright for the Cleveland Browns and regardless of what people say or what people think, I’m here for a reason and it is what it is," Watson said after the season finale, via Cleveland.com.
There's still a chance for this long and complete rebuild by the Browns to finally pay off big, though they would do so as a villain and not as a lovable loser. Cleveland has been stacking talent through high draft picks and gobs of salary cap space, and plenty of that talent is still around. The offensive line is very good. Nick Chubb might be the best pure runner in the NFL. There are viable receivers led by Amari Cooper. The defense wasn't good last season but additions were made and it still has Myles Garrett as a centerpiece.
It comes down to Watson. If he rebounds and is elite again, Cleveland could be a Super Bowl contender. If the rust and negative attention had a lasting toll on Watson and his level from last season is just what he'll be going forward, the Browns are in trouble. Suffering through 1-31 over two seasons will have been all for nothing (well, one playoff win).
The gamble on Watson is just starting.
The Browns made three significant free-agent deals and all three were on defense. Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (four years, $57 million), safety Juan Thornhill (three years, $21 million) and defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (three years, $19 million) add to the talent level of a defense that wasn't great last season. The Browns didn't resign Jadeveon Clowney, but that might be addition by subtraction. The Browns also made a low-cost trade for defensive end Za'Darius Smith, who had 10 sacks last season. They got him from the Minnesota Vikings for two late-round draft swaps. The Browns also got receiver Elijah Moore from the New York Jets for swapping their second-round pick for the Jets' third-round pick. That could be a steal; Moore looked very good as a rookie before everything turned sour with the Jets and Moore last season. The Browns needed to be good in free agency and trades because the draft cupboard will be empty for a while due to the Deshaun Watson trade. Cleveland didn't have a pick in the top 73 this year. With the 74th pick they took Tennessee receiver Cedric Tillman, and the other top-100 pick was used on Baylor defensive lineman Siaki Ika at No. 98. Cleveland did pretty well to use their resources in spots that needed help.
Last season Deshaun Watson was nowhere close to his production with the Houston Texans. Even if you account for a difficult situation (which included, on top of everything else, some miserable winter weather games), the dropoff is startling:
Four Texans seasons: 269.2 yards per game, 104 TD, 36 INT, 67.8 completion percentage, 104.5 passer rating
Last season: 184.7 yards per game, 7 TD, 5 INT, 58.2 completion percentage, 79.1 passer rating
There's an argument to be made that Watson will bounce back with a normal offseason, but that's not guaranteed. He didn't play in a game for nearly two calendar years (not counting nine preseason snaps last August) and we've seen that layoffs like take something out of a player. There's also an intangible aspect of becoming the NFL's most infamous player last year. A lot of success at quarterback comes from confidence and who knows if Watson lost some of that given all the attention paid to his sexual misconduct allegations? There's at least some question about whether Watson will rebound all the way to his Texans form.
BetMGM odds breakdown
Earlier this offseason I took the Browns under 9.5 wins at BetMGM. Now I'm not so sure. On first glance, the Browns have gotten to double-digit wins just once since 2007. They went 7-10 last season and play in a very tough division. It made sense to fade the Browns. But the more you look at the roster, the easier it is to see the upside. I'd lean under still but it's a hard call. One bet I do like is on Nick Chubb to win NFL Offensive Player of the Year and another on him to lead the NFL in rushing. Chubb should have a monster season, which we'll get to in a moment.
Yahoo's fantasy take
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Nick Chubb seems incapable of having down seasons. He's averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry for five straight years, and he's never scored fewer than eight touchdowns. And the dots connect for a possible career season upcoming.
"Cleveland's offensive line is better than average, perhaps a top 5 unit. That's a good start. Deshaun Watson is a question mark at quarterback, but it's unlikely his play will be as rusty and ineffective as it was at the end of last year. And Chubb should be busier than usual in 2023, given that talented backups Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson have departed.
"Chubb looks like a reasonable bet to lead the league in rushing, and he might set a personal best for receiving yards, too. He's a destination pick for me in the second round of any fantasy draft."
Stat to remember
Here is every running back since 1946 to average more than 5.1 yards per carry for their career: Hall of Famer Marion Motley (5.7), the underrated Jamaal Charles (5.4), all-time great Jim Brown (5.2) and Nick Chubb (5.2). There's no questioning Chubb's talent. He's remarkable. But he has also never won a rushing title, in part because the Browns will not overwork him. Last season Chubb broke 300 carries in a season for the first time, getting 302. He has 16.1 per game for his career. The last three seasons he has played 49%, 53% and 56% of the Browns' offensive snaps, which is low for a back of his caliber. A big part of that was Kareem Hunt being on the roster, but Hunt is gone. The Browns did very little to invest in the backup spot, presumably leaving it for 2022 fifth-round pick Jerome Ford and his eight career carries. The Browns could still add a veteran, but it seems like we're about to see Chubb shatter his career high in carries. Which will mean a lot of yards.
How much will Jim Schwartz affect the defense?
The Browns suffered through a miserable season on defense and coordinator Joe Woods was unsurprisingly fired. The Browns hired a familiar name to NFL fans, getting Jim Schwartz to run the defense. Schwartz has 19 years as either a defensive coordinator or head coach and his style is well known: defensive ends will line up wide (which is why adding defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, a top run defender, was huge for Cleveland) and get after the quarterback as cornerbacks play aggressive man coverage behind, with linebackers and safeties cleaning up everything that gets funneled inside. Schwartz has had a good amount of success with his scheme, including a Super Bowl title as the defensive coordinator of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles. It seems the scheme should fit players like end Myles Garrett, cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Grant Delpit very well. We should see a much different Browns defense this season.
It's not hard to build a case for the Browns being a division champion and dangerous playoff team. They weren't bad on offense last season and that was with Jacoby Brissett and a rusty Deshaun Watson at quarterback. It'll get a lot better if Watson plays like he did in Houston. We already know the Browns will run it well as long as Nick Chubb is healthy. The defense was a mess last season but there were some key personnel additions, a new coordinator and plenty of talent on that side of the ball. There are really good teams in the AFC North, but the Browns could end up beating them all for a division crown.
This feels like a huge season for Cleveland. Maybe it all comes together and the Browns are in the playoffs. But after all the waiting for the Big Breakout — the 0-16 season as part of the team's tanking approach happened six years ago, after all — if they put together a losing season then it's hard to imagine there will be much patience. Kevin Stefanski was great his first season and has had two losing seasons since. It's not all his fault but will the Browns keep going forward with him if he has a third losing season in a row? Maybe the Browns will decide that whatever their process was trying to build didn't work and they have to start over, though they'll still be stuck with a wildly unpopular quarterback who they paid $230 million guaranteed and might never be elite again. If this is all the Browns can be, on the wrong side of mediocrity every season, then some difficult decisions will need to be made next offseason.
The crystal ball says ...
I think the Browns will be better than last season, but something is keeping me from putting them in the playoffs this season. Maybe it's wondering if Deshaun Watson will never shake all the rust off, if Kevin Stefanski is really the answer or if we've consistently overrated the talent on the roster. And, let's be honest, the Browns' horrible history probably is a factor in the skepticism too. I think Cleveland ends up hanging around .500, in the playoff race but coming up just short of the postseason. I can't rule out a huge season for the Browns, but I need to see it first before I buy in.
Other team previews
31. Houston Texans
30. Chicago Bears
29. Tennessee Titans
28. Los Angeles Rams
22. Denver Broncos
21. Atlanta Falcons
18. New York Giants
14. Cleveland Browns
11. Seattle Seahawks
10. Baltimore Ravens