The Deshaun Watson trade pursuit may have delivered Baker Mayfield and Browns to a breaking point

At some point, engaging in a trade pursuit has consequences that are extremely hard to repair inside an NFL franchise. Particularly when the discussions are centered on an upgrade for a quarterback whose future is uncertain.

This is where we find the Cleveland Browns, who are unquestionably taking their best shot at a Deshaun Watson trade this week. It's the kind of move that was always going to be fraught with complication and risk, largely because of Watson’s still-unfolding litigation that has now moved to the stage of his depositions in the the 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct or assault against the Houston Texans quarterback.

There is another gauntlet as well. It doesn’t have the same gravity or moral implications, but it still presents a pair of football quandaries that necessitate a resolution.

Simply put: What will the Browns do with Baker Mayfield if a Watson pursuit is successful vs. what can be done with Mayfield if a Watson pursuit fails?

Pursuing Deshaun Watson comes at a cost for the Cleveland Browns, and not just morally. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Pursuing Deshaun Watson comes at a cost for the Cleveland Browns, and not just morally. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

One of these scenarios is easier to resolve than the other. And it’s not a mystery figuring out which is which.

If Cleveland lands Watson this week, it’s a virtual certainty that Mayfield will demand a trade. And he might not even get to take that stance, given that Cleveland is likely to work out a landing spot for Mayfield the moment a Watson trade materializes. That might not be easy with Mayfield’s $18.8 million in guaranteed salary next season, but the Browns' front office is more than capable of piecing together an exit strategy for the former No. 1 overall draft pick.

The trickier scenario is what to do if a Watson deal falls through, leaving Cleveland in the awkward position of treating the trade dalliance as simply part of the business (which it is) and hoping Mayfield is capable of moving ahead in spite of it (which he may not be).

This is a part of the downside in taking a shot at acquiring Watson — that a deal for an elite level quarterback doesn’t materialize, leaving nothing behind but collateral damage to a relationship with Mayfield that was already strained.

Tension that already appears to be obvious, given Mayfield’s viral tweet from Tuesday night that reads like an opaque goodbye letter to Browns fans.

While that tweet isn’t exactly a mic drop, it’s something that showcases a quarterback who seems resigned to potentially being elsewhere. Maybe sooner than later. It's a reality that is surely being intensified by the Browns exploring an option in Watson.

This isn’t meant to criticize Cleveland’s front office for having a wandering eye. The Atlanta Falcons are putting Matt Ryan in this same uncomfortable space with their pursuit of Watson, despite Ryan having given a successful 14-year run to that franchise. Even in the case of Ryan, who is going to have a Hall of Fame argument when it’s all over, the NFL is a bottom-line league and Watson is the rare talent who requires an uncomfortable conversation.

That’s why Cleveland is in this right now. When it comes strictly to the football part of the equation, Watson isn’t a modest upgrade over Mayfield. He’s a top-shelf resolution for the next decade at the most important position in the NFL. When you’re serious about contending for a Super Bowl, you don’t ignore that kind of player. Even when he has a maelstrom of troubling sexual assault allegations pending against him — which the Browns had better be taking seriously, given that this pursuit opens the franchise to inevitable questions about what it means for the team’s character compass moving forward. Those same questions will exist for the Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and any other teams willing to make a trade offer for a player with serious civil litigation in front of him.

Add that to the potential rift with Mayfield, and Cleveland has some interesting days ahead, regardless of whether Watson is part of the team when this is all over. But speaking strictly in football terms, that tradeoff — risking upheaval for a long-term quarterback resolution — may be necessary for survival in the AFC. With the Denver Broncos’ addition of Russell Wilson, the conference is nothing less than an unforgiving obstacle course of difference-making quarterbacks. Two of whom, the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow, will likely reside in Cleveland’s division for the next decade or more.

With that knowledge in hand, the Browns know they can’t afford to risk battling it out with a middle-of-the-pack centerpiece. That actually might not be what Mayfield ultimately becomes. There’s still plenty of runway ahead of him to develop into a consistent upper-echelon QB. But he isn’t that now and he might not be that ever.

As long as that’s the case, Cleveland is going to be in the position that it’s in right now: looking for an upgrade and risking a failed pursuit, knowing that the end result could be scuttling the relationship it already has. Then again, if the Browns are willing to risk undermining their relationship with Mayfield in the first place — even for a legally embattled but uniquely talented player like Watson — maybe the remaining relationship with Mayfield isn’t much of a union at all anyway.