2022 NFL Preview: The Browns signed up for this Deshaun Watson mess

There’s a reason the Cleveland Browns were placed in the middle of these rankings. It’s impossible to know what to make of them.

When the rankings were finalized, the Deshaun Watson saga hadn’t been settled. With Watson for a full season, the Browns are clearly a top-10 team. Without Watson at all, the Browns would be much lower than No. 15 in the countdown, especially since they couldn’t mend fences with Baker Mayfield. Having Watson for about half of the season would put the Browns … well, about in the middle.

The Browns’ Watson gamble was reckless. Thousands of words have been written on the moral bankruptcy shown by the Browns in trading for a quarterback who had been accused by more than 20 women of sexual misconduct. Those columns are worth your time. In this space, we’ll talk about the football ramifications.

The Browns were blinded by the chance to land one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. They probably figured that it was like most controversial off-field stories (including their own, when they signed Kareem Hunt): Often, those stories burn hot for a couple days and then everyone mostly forgets about it. That happens way more often than it should. But this wasn’t a backup running back. This was the face of the franchise, given a $230 million contract over five years, and his case — in terms of civil suits and also NFL suspension — wasn’t even settled. The Browns saw everyone else bidding for Watson and likely felt FOMO. They probably thought that, at worst, Watson would be suspended half a season, they’d eat the bad PR for however long it lasted, and then they’d have 4.5 years or more with an elite quarterback. A few teams were lining up for the same gamble. The Browns “won” the sweepstakes.

Cleveland banked its reputation, $230 million and a potentially franchise-changing number of draft picks on Watson. Then more accusations came in. It became clear that this wouldn’t be the normal too-short suspension for a player facing some troubling accusations.

The Browns deserve every step back that comes from this gamble. They knew what they were getting into and their hubris in believing it would just blow over prevents much sympathy if Watson gets an unprecedented suspension. Whatever happens in the future, good or bad, is all on the Browns’ decision makers.

From a football sense, you can understand the Browns ignoring everything else — including their own conscience — and being desperate to land a quarterback who is a top-10 talent. Cleveland has been building for a while and has only one playoff win to show for it. Mayfield was supposed to be the answer and showed moments of promise, but he fell out of favor and the Browns basically gave him away to the Carolina Panthers (actually it was worse than just giving him away; Cleveland is paying $10.5 million of his salary this year). There’s a lot to like about the rest of the roster. Nick Chubb is a fantastic running back behind a very good offensive line. Amari Cooper comes over from the Dallas Cowboys as a solid No. 1 receiver. The defense, led by perennial NFL defensive player of the year candidate Myles Garrett, could be one of the best in the NFL.

The Browns, who tore everything down and hoarded salary-cap space and draft picks in hopes of building a title contender, should be entering a fruitful era. But they soured on their quarterback, took an unprecedented gamble on a quarterback who had numerous legal issues and now face an uncertain future.

If the gamble on Watson doesn’t ultimately work out and this rebuilding project stalls as a result, the Browns don’t have anyone to blame but themselves.

The Deshaun Watson situation looms over everything. The final cost: Watson and a 2024 fifth-round pick for three firsts (2022, 2023, 2024), a third (2023), a fourth (2024) and a five-year, $230 million contract that’s guaranteed. That’s a franchise-changing trade, for better or worse. The Browns traded Baker Mayfield to the Panthers, getting only a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick back. They’re paying $10.5 million of Mayfield’s salary this year. Both sides really wanted to be done with each other, Watson’s uncertain future be damned. The Browns swung a couple other trades. They got Amari Cooper from the Cowboys for the low price of a 2022 fifth-round pick and a swap of 2022 sixth-round picks. The Browns traded cornerback Troy Hill to the Los Angeles Rams. They weren’t too active in free agency. The main moves were retaining edge defender Jadeveon Clowney and resigning tight end David Njoku to an expensive four-year, $54.8 million deal. The biggest losses were receiver Jarvis Landry and tight end Austin Hooper. They also signed quarterback Jacoby Brissett to a one-year, $4.65 million deal, which was a more important move than anyone knew at the time. It’s hard to put a grade on what the Browns did this offseason because there is a huge range of outcomes in the Watson ordeal.

GRADE: Incomplete

There’s a chance that Deshaun Watson not playing all last season for the Houston Texans and the very public saga of his legal issues takes something away from his game. When we last saw him, he was one of the elite quarterback talents in the NFL. What seems certain is we’re going to see at least some of Jacoby Brissett as a starter this season. Brissett is either a very good backup or a low-end starter, depending on what role he’s in. He has an 83 career passer rating. He has played for three different teams and none of them posted winning records in his starts. The Browns are good around Brissett and perhaps that pushes him to a career year. Most likely, Brissett will be a below-average starter for as long as he has to fill that role.

The Browns were favored to win the AFC North at BetMGM when the offseason started, and amid the Deshaun Watson uncertainty they’re third behind the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. Cleveland is +300 to win the division. I wouldn’t advise taking that bet. The Browns’ win total is off the board. Ignore this situation until there’s some clarity.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “I’ll probably sit out the Amari Cooper fantasy experience this year. Veteran receivers changing teams can be a dicey proposition, and Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in the passing game. Cleveland never figured out how to unlock Odell Beckham (not all of that fell on Stefanski’s watch, to be fair), and only one receiver has topped 600 yards receiving since Stefanski took over the Browns. Throw in the uncertainty surrounding Deshaun Watson and I’m especially leery of Cooper, who carries an expectant Yahoo ADP of 60. You can do better in this receiver tier.”

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The Browns are a very good running team. They led the NFL with an average of 5.1 yards per carry and did so without a run-heavy quarterback, which usually bumps a team’s rushing stats. Cleveland finished fifth in yards per carry in 2020, coach Kevin Stefanski’s first year with the team. Nick Chubb is one of the most effective runners in the NFL and Kareem Hunt, his backup, is a former NFL rushing champion. No. 3 back D’Ernest Johnson had 534 yards on 100 carries last season, including a 146-yard game against the Denver Broncos when he had to start due to injuries. Johnson would probably rush for 1,000 yards if he was Cleveland’s full-time starter. Depending on the Browns’ passing game, all three top Browns backs could get a huge workload this season. This is a team that wants to use its run game. It might not have much choice this season.

Will this be Myles Garrett’s defensive player of the year season?

Garrett has been tremendous since the Browns made him the first overall pick in 2017. He has had double-digit sacks each of the past four seasons. He has been first-team All-Pro each of the last two seasons. Last year he had the highest grade of any edge defender at Pro Football Focus. Garrett is far removed from the Mason Rudolph incident that led to a suspension; now he’s just known as an elite player on a Hall of Fame track. Garrett will be a contender for NFL defensive player of the year for many more seasons, but he has yet to win one. He’s the favorite to win it with 6-to-1 odds at BetMGM, and one of these years that ticket will cash.

The Browns would have to be secretly thrilled with any suspension that’s a half-season or less for Deshaun Watson. Let’s say it’s eight games, because anything less would be surprising (eight games would be light too, but that’s a conversation for a different space). Could the Browns ride their offensive line, run game and defense to a 4-4 record until Watson gets back? Sure. It’s not easy to take over QB duties in midseason with a new team, but Watson is a talented player and Cleveland isn’t a bad situation. Watson is a blue-chip QB, the Browns have a good roster and if they get in the playoffs with Watson available to play, they could make a deep run. But, unlike previous seasons, if that happened very few neutral fans would be rooting for the once-lovable, underdog Browns.

When Charles Robinson and I talked about the potential Watson suspension, we mentioned two previous cases: Trevor Bauer’s two-year suspension from Major League Baseball, and Calvin Ridley’s year-long suspension for betting on NFL games. Bauer is not the same sport but it still is a precedent that will be mentioned often if Watson gets off lightly. And it’s hard to imagine the NFL giving Watson a shorter suspension than Ridley, who placed a few hundred dollars on parlays when he wasn’t even playing. My assumption is Watson won’t play this season but we’ll see. No matter how long Watson is suspended, this is a story that will hang over him and the franchise the rest of his career. The Browns paid $230 million in guaranteed money, traded five valuable picks and have to be regretting it. The Browns also took a big loss to trade Baker Mayfield, and I still think they should have used their leverage and forced him to play or leave his salary on the table. Jacoby Brissett doesn’t strike me as a quarterback that can lead a team to the playoffs. The Browns might find themselves with another losing season, and we don’t even know if Watson’s suspension could last into the 2023 season. Again, Cleveland signed up for this mess so there’s no sympathy. But it is a heck of a mess.

I don’t believe Deshaun Watson plays this season. The NFL is unpredictable with suspensions, and maybe Watson will get off lightly. That uncertainty is why they’re in the middle of these previews. My guess is Watson gets at least a full year, Jacoby Brissett is below average, and the Browns finish with a losing record. That would be a wasted season when the Browns are supposed to be a contender. Then even when Watson returns, assuming he does return for the Browns, they won’t be anyone’s idea of a feel-good story.

32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
24. Carolina Panthers
23. Washington Commanders
22. Pittsburgh Steelers
21. Minnesota Vikings
20. Miami Dolphins
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Las Vegas Raiders
17. Arizona Cardinals
16. Tennessee Titans

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