On Wednesday I wrote that the Browns were re-setting their offensive table for … someone.
The Browns will trade a multi-pick package that includes three first-rounders to the Texans for Watson after the quarterback waived his no-trade clause to go to Cleveland.
Remember that — while every day this NFL offseason feels like a month — it was less than 36 hours ago that Browns were told they were out of the running to land Watson. Of the four teams that were in the running, it appeared Cleveland had finished in fourth place. Now he’s their quarterback for the foreseeable future.
What moved the needle here? It came down to what it always comes down to: Money.
When the Browns came back to Watson and offered what no other team would, a fully-guaranteed contract, he changed his mind. That contract is the reason he flipped the script and chose Cleveland.
#Browns came from being totally out of the running for Watson to back in with a willingness to commit to his next 5 seasons of salary. That completely changed the landscape. It always felt like it was going to take an all-in move for Cleveland from the start. So they went for it
— Charles Robinson (@CharlesRobinson) March 18, 2022
Some things in life never change.
It’s stunning that, after everything that’s happened with Watson over the last year, he would not only get to hold all the power in choosing his next destination but ultimately be able to hold these teams hostage for a massive, record-breaking contract extension. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.
It hammers home the reality that NFL teams will charge into the unknown if what’s waiting for them on the other side is an answer at the quarterback position.
It’s uncomfortable given the serious and voluminous amount of sexual misconduct allegations levied at Watson but perhaps it’s the most predictable part of this entire saga. Us NFL fans and those who cover the league will have to live with and acknowledge it when discussing Watson.
The Browns will also not be able to dodge it. Watson’s legal entanglements didn’t end when the grand jury decided not to indict him. Both Watson and his legal team have made it clear they intend to fight for his innocence. He will have to speak publicly about all this at some point, as will the Browns’ brass who decided to make this trade. The rest of the road is long for Watson, Kevin Stefanski, Andrew Berry and the Haslam family, all of whom have now put themselves squarely in Watson’s corner.
There is also the strong likelihood that despite avoiding criminal charges, Watson will have to serve an NFL suspension. We’ve seen players like Ben Roethlisberger and Ezekiel Elliott find themselves suspended for four to six games despite never facing criminal charges. Watson could end up getting a similar punishment at a bare minimum from the league office.
The Browns even went so far as to structure his contract to financially protect him in the event he is suspended.
All of what’s followed Watson over the last year will continue to follow the player going forward. To divorce it from the subject of his football career would be disingenuous. Neither Watson nor the Browns will be able to avoid it. Neither should we.
From an on-field perspective, the Browns deployed such dramatic financial lengths to charge through the abyss not just because they needed an answer, but because the answer was Watson.
Uniquely young and talented for any quarterback who has ever been available in trade, someone like him never hits the open market. The Browns replied with such unprecedented measures — sure to draw the ire of many — in response to an unprecedented opportunity.
Cleveland had the opportunity to not just avoid quarterback purgatory with a Baker Mayfield-type, to not just skip the quarterback wilderness step entirely, but to make a leap to a tier of quarterback this franchise has never known — in one swoop.
A quarterback like Watson changes the outlook of any team he plays for the moment he hits the field. Whatever your projection model would have held for the Browns with Mayfield or a Jimmy Garoppolo/Matt Ryan-like pivot point, throw those out the window. Watson changed the outlook of a Texans team once stuck in the mud at quarterback for years, mounting playoff births in both 2018 and 2019.
Even when Houston fielded an embarrassing operation around him in 2020, Watson ranked second in adjusted yards per attempt. Wide receiver Will Fuller enjoyed a career season that year while running mate Brandin Cooks enjoyed one of his best with 81 catches for 1,150 yards.
Watson is a talent elevator — and now he’ll bring those powers to Cleveland.
What's the fantasy fallout of Deshaun Watson becoming a Brown?
A dynamic rushing attack will now enjoy the added wrinkle of a quarterback who has rushed for over 400 yards in three straight seasons, averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored 17 times in his career. Nick Chubb is an electric talent who hardly needed the jolt to a new status but the touchdown potential just went through the roof for a back who was RB11 last season. All running backs benefit when playing in an offense captained by an elite quarterback. Chubb will be no exception, as would Kareem Hunt if he’s still on the roster or D’Ernest Johnson if he takes his slot in the event Hunt is moved.
The Browns already featured one of the best rushing ecosystems in the NFL and that was with poor-to-solid quarterback play the last two years. This is another layer of electricity.
Watson will also be at the controls of a remade passing attack, headlined by Amari Cooper at outside receiver. Watson will operate behind the protection of one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines. Cooper was facing a possible fantasy downgrade after moving from Cleveland to Dallas.
He’s now set to inherit the dominant target share of a Deshaun Watson offense. That’s even better than splitting the work with other star pass-catchers in Dak Prescott’s Dallas attack. Even if Cooper is a flawed and volatile player he’s a speed threat who will thrive in the deep areas. He needed this type of quarterback move to truly unlock him.
Cooper will not be the last wide receiver addition made by Cleveland. Watson clearly has pull in this organization now and several players will line up to pitch their services. Perhaps his old Texans teammate Will Fuller will want to come along for the ride. Currently on the roster, David Njoku also receives a massive bump up in the wake of this move and Austin Hooper’s exit. He could enter the TE1 discussion fresh of a big investment by the club via the franchise tag.
It all intersects back at Watson, who was the QB5 in 2020. We have every reason to believe he can match that type of output. This is a far better offensive ecosystem than the one he left behind in Houston.
Of course, all this is contingent on the massive caveat, “When Watson plays.”
We should still be bracing for a lengthy suspension. Clearly, the team is ready, based on that contract. So all the rosy things we’ve said about these Browns players only apply when this transformative talent hits the grass.
Until then, Chubb and the backfield can be projected as they would with a Mayfield or slightly worse talent in tow. Cooper will be a volatile receiver with a low weekly floor, as you’ll be banking on efficiency over volume with a lesser passer, and anyone else is unlikely to be a starting option until Watson plays.
Drafting any Browns player will be a tricky proposition if Watson is suspended. You’ll have to deal with some lumps while you wait for the rewards. The Browns decided to take that journey. If you believe it’s not worth the trouble for your fake football team, there’s not a soul on earth who should be convinced it’s a necessity to talk you out of it.
The AFC figures to be a knockout fight this coming year and for most of the next decade. The level of talent, youth or mix of both at the quarterback position has sent multiple teams into an all-out race to keep up. No team took a bigger, more unprecedented swing than the Cleveland Browns.
As of today, they inherit Watson and all that comes with him.