Salary cap implications if Deshaun Watson suspended for a full season

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The Cleveland Browns, and their fanbase, are hoping for some kind of resolution and clarity with QB Deshaun Watson. This week, Watson settled 20 of the 24 civil cases against him. The NFL said that would have no impact on any potential discipline but there is hope that the timing will lead to a conclusion of the investigation quickly.

Following the investigation, there is a multistep process that will take place.

Much has been made about how Watson’s new contract is structured with many believing the team did it to minimize the financial impact of a suspension. The Browns brushed off that criticism noting that their big contracts, and many around the league, are structured in the same way.

What hasn’t been discussed as much is the salary cap implications of a long suspension. While leaks seem to be pointing to the NFL wanting to impose a long suspension, up to a year, the new arbitration system could lead to surprising results.

If Watson is suspended for a season, his new contract would start next season (called “tolling” in the NFL language) and the five-year deal would run through the end of the 2027 season when the quarterback would be 32 years old.

The salary cap implications for Cleveland would be huge. Currently, Watson is set to count just over $10 million against the team’s salary cap in 2022 but that number jumps to just under $55 million next year. If the NFL hands down a year-long suspension, the Browns save the $10 million in cap space this year and clear almost $45 million in cap space next year.

Currently, both Over the Cap and Spotrac have Cleveland with over $40 million in cap space this year that they can roll over to next year. That jumps to $50 million if Watson is suspended. (That does not include any potential savings if the team is able to trade Baker Mayfield.)

As currently constituted, both sites have the Browns without cap space next year but with the rollover space will have a little room to work. Assuming a year-long suspension for Watson, Cleveland’s 2023 cap space will jump from over $10 million to over $60 million.

If trading Mayfield saves the team $10 million in cap space in 2022, that money would roll over to 2023 and their cap space jumps to $70 million.

While a year-long suspension would be problematic for the team and continue the public relations nightmare, it would clear a lot of cap space for Andrew Berry and company to be creative in 2023.