Immediately after details of Deshaun Watson’s trade to the Cleveland Browns came together Friday, the long-term ramifications on the NFL began to buzz through front offices and the league’s agent community.
The legacy of it all: There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that this was a moment of disruption for the mega-contracts reserved for the most elite quarterbacks. I/t could ripple with other top players, too — which, in the kindest analysis, was poorly received elsewhere.
“Fully guaranteed [five years] and [$90 million] more total guaranteed than [Patrick] Mahomes?!” one executive texted Yahoo Sports.
“F***ing ridiculous,” another said.
It’s not unusual to get a salty reaction when a contract breaks through a few walls of precedent in any given offseason, especially when it’s a sizable quarterback deal. But Watson’s new contract with Cleveland was particularly jarring given that he’s still facing 22 civil lawsuits for an array of sexual misconduct allegations which theoretically gave pursuing teams a reason to mitigate risk and exposure. But the Browns flipped that ideology and used the risk as a negotiating advantage.
The franchise showed an eye-popping willingness to expose itself to downside while giving Watson the most guaranteed money in history and a contract structure that appears to protect him financially in the event of a suspension in 2022.
For multitude reasons, it’s the kind of deal that won’t be popular for some other teams, not to mention a league office that now must grapple with a chess match designed to protect Watson from financial penalties under the personal conduct policy. Among the granular details in the deal and the potential reverberations:
• Watson got more total guaranteed money than any player in NFL history, despite having a résumé that doesn’t stack up with many of his elite contemporaries. Some teams will take the position at the negotiating table that Watson’s deal is an outlier born from desperation, timing and circumstance. NFL teams simply don’t trade quarterbacks of Watson’s age and caliber, let alone when that quarterback has a no-trade clause significantly shifting leverage into the player’s hands. Agents also will rarely have a player of Watson’s stature, leverage and circumstance to create this kind of scenario.
• Watson got more guaranteed years than any player in NFL history. This is particularly upsetting for some teams who were already grousing about the prospect of fighting off four years of guaranteed money as the new standard for basically all top-10 quarterback deals. This deal will basically seal that prospect, particularly after Matthew Stafford’s recent contract extension with the Los Angeles Rams, which is basically four years of realistic guaranteed payouts for $152 million.
In essence, every top-10 NFL quarterback and likely some on that fringe will now be looking at four years of ironclad guarantees. The question now is whether elite-level deals for upcoming young quarterbacks — like the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow — will be five fully guaranteed years.
• The contract structure for Watson has also become an eyebrow-raiser, since it lowers his base salary in 2022 to only $1.035 million. The concern with that is pointed largely at the NFL, who could suspend Watson this coming season under the personal conduct policy due to his 22 pending civil lawsuits. Unless the NFL levels a massive (and unprecedented) fine as part of a suspension, whatever game checks Watson potentially misses next season would come out of that $1.035 million.
In effect, he could face a limited financial penalty for missed games in 2022. His remaining guaranteed money also won’t be voided for suspension, per terms of the contract. That’s a striking level of protection for Watson against NFL penalties. That is also going to open Cleveland to a lot of scrutiny from critics and possibly even the league office, which isn’t likely to be pleased about a chess move to lessen a personal conduct penalty.
Taken in its full context, the trade was nothing less than a Tour-De-Leverage for Watson and the Browns.
As one league executive framed it, this was a prime example of Watson using his no-trade clause as leverage against the Texans (who ultimately had to trade him to his preferred destination), but also against teams courting him (who had to meet his financial demands to stay on his list).
The executive also made an interesting point: Once Watson chose his team, that franchise could then use Watson’s no-trade clause to knock down some of the trade terms.
“[Browns general manager Andrew Berry] bought the leverage he needed from Watson’s side with that deal,” the executive said. “With the draft picks the Texans got back, you could see what that contract did for the Browns. They were strong at the [negotiating] table because Watson was all-in with them and that contract. It gave the Browns a chance to push back a little and probably saved them two second-round picks or some starters.”
“When I heard the picks [three first-rounders, a third and a fourth], I thought some players must be going [to the Texans],” the executive continued. “But you could see why that didn’t happen. That contract made Cleveland [Watson’s] only destination. And that gave Cleveland leverage to basically make it a trade for three [firsts].”
How the rest all plays out remains to be seen. Without question, the terms of Watson's deal will factor into some significant quarterback contracts in the next few years. Watson’s salary load will also impact the Browns' roster-building efforts, too. And there’s still no clarity on what will happen in his legal future, with some of his first civil cases slated to enter a courtroom this offseason.
Those civil cases could weigh on a suspension in 2022 or beyond, making the trade, compensation and contract extension only the first in a line of events that could shape parts of the league for years to come. That means in many ways, last week’s trade was a beginning as much as it was an ending for Watson, the NFL, and both the Browns and Texans.