The Deshaun Watson saga has been a story that has encapsulated teams and media alike for over a year now. Rather than getting into the potential legal disciplinary actions, I will be focusing on my area of expertise: NFL team building.
Below, I will dive into the Browns’ roster and discuss what a potential suspension would be like for the rest of the team in the coming years.
Cleveland’s Push to Win Now
The moves Cleveland made this offseason were a product of their many years of building through the draft. Together, the Browns put together a very talented roster that could compete with any roster in the league, as they were preparing to compete for a Super Bowl.
Over the past few offseasons, Cleveland signed many of their key players to extensions including Myles Garrett, Nick Chubb, Wyatt Teller, Joel Bitonio, Denzel Ward, and David Njoku, giving out around $423M between the six players for the near future.
With the core of homegrown players in place and other talented free-agent acquisitions from years past, the Browns also made multiple trades this offseason. In an attempt to contend in 2022 and keep up with the arms race in the AFC, Cleveland traded for Deshaun Watson, Amari Cooper, and Chase Winovich.
Additionally, Cleveland was able to re-sign Jadeveon Clowney, who had thought about playing elsewhere in 2022 but wanted to stay with the Browns and reunite with Deshaun Watson.
The point is that the Browns invested very heavily into the roster — a roster that is built to win in 2022. Beyond 2022, this roster could look very different. Important players will be free agents after this season such as Jack Conklin and Kareem Hunt, while the younger players that were extended will start to have very large cap hits, making it hard to retain other contributors on the team.
The Browns are ready to win now, and the team was built that way with the vision of Deshaun Watson under center. If Watson is not playing QB for the Browns in 2022, it certainly changes things.
As this article is written, Watson has a cap hit of $10.028M this season, which is a great price for a QB of Watson’s caliber, especially when Cleveland has to carry the $18.858M cap hit from Baker Mayfield’s fifth-year option.
However, if Watson is suspended a full year, his entire contract would toll, pushing his contract out a year. As a result, his 2022 salary would move to 2023, and his 2023 salary would move to 2024, etc. Watson’s contract would keep him in Cleveland until 2027, not 2026.
Below are the top 10 cap hits on the Browns’ 2022 roster. On the left are the top 10 cap hits with Deshaun Watson’s contract included, and on the right are the top 10 cap hits if Watson is suspended a full season and his contract is removed.
Pushing the $10.028M cap hit from 2022 to 2023 would reduce the Browns’ total cap hit of active players to just over $176M in 2022. While saving the $10.028M this year would be helpful for the Browns, they would be missing their superstar QB.
What’s Next for the 2022 Browns?
Focusing on 2022, without Deshaun Watson present, the biggest question is who will play QB this season? Baker Mayfield would make an excellent backup option to fill in for Watson, but the relationship between the team and Mayfield looks like it may be too far gone. As of now, it seems as though the relationship will not be mended and there is a good chance that he will be traded.
If Mayfield and Watson are both out of the question to start for the Browns, then newly signed Jacoby Brissett will likely take over. Brissett has started two full seasons in his career and started five games in 2021. While Brissett has played well at points in his career, he has not proven to be a starting-level QB and is not Deshaun Watson.
If neither QB is going to start for Cleveland in 2022, then they may explore other options on the trade market. It is not the same circumstance, but this situation reminds me of one we had in Minnesota in 2016. Our starter at the time, Teddy Bridgewater, a Pro-Bowler in 2015, suffered a torn ACL just before our first game in 2016. As a result, we needed to explore all our options to replace him and do it quickly. Because of the timing of the injury, there were very few options available, especially at QB, as the injury occurred after the draft and free agency. This meant that trading for a QB was the only legitimate option. The problem is that there are not many starting-caliber QBs available via trade and with few options, the price of the player is driven way up. This is less than ideal, especially considering the player may only be the QB for one season.
Philadelphia was willing to deal Sam Bradford just in time for the season because they had just drafted Carson Wentz to be the starter. Due to the timing of the trade, we gave up a first-round pick for Bradford, who had injury concerns of his own.
Going back to Cleveland’s situation, if they do not feel comfortable with Brissett, it will be very hard to replace him thanks to the limited options on the QB market and the limited draft capital that Cleveland possesses.
The details of the suspension will also be very important to consider. Depending on how the league carries out the suspension, Watson could be allowed in the building and be able to practice during training camp, as his suspension would not start until the first game. If that is the case, will Watson be taking backup reps?
Similarly, if Mayfield reports to training camp since he will be fined for each day he misses, but the team intends to trade him, which team will he practice with? And if neither Watson nor Mayfield will be the starter, and it will instead be Brissett, will he get enough reps with the first team?
There will be many moving parts and uncertainty throughout training camp for the Browns at the most important position on their roster.
Having worked with Coach Stefanski in Minnesota, Cleveland should still feel comfortable no matter who is playing QB. He is a very intelligent coach who knows how to tailor his offense to the personnel on the roster, relying on the talented OL and RB duo to lead the offense and open up the passing game. Having Watson under center would have allowed coach Stefanski to really open up the offense, but either way, he will adjust the offense for whoever is playing QB
Off the Field Questions
Outside of the on-field play, what happens off the field around the distractions of Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield could be just as big deterrents of the season as the QB question. First off, many of the current players were expecting to play for Deshaun Watson, if that is not the case, it will be imperative to make sure the players can rally behind a different QB.
Additionally, noise from sports and national media alike will create distractions, which can severely affect a locker room, and further, affect their play on the field. When I was with the Vikings in 2014, Adrian Peterson was deactivated and eventually suspended by the commissioner. When the news first came out, our team was distracted, which led to a bad loss in Week Two to New England. The distraction combined with losing such a critical piece to our offense affected us for the rest of the year. Cleveland’s roster must be able to silence the noise and remain focused on winning, which will be difficult to do.
Looking Further into the Future
Cleveland built its roster to win in 2022 and although there are many young players, the rosters in 2023 and 2024 could look very different.
On the left are Cleveland’s top 10 cap hits in 2023 if Watson is not suspended in 2022. Combining Watson’s $54.993M cap hit and the other large cap hits on the team, the Browns would be over the 2022 salary cap of $208.2M by a good margin with just 50 players on the roster. The difficulty of managing their cap situation will depend on how much the salary cap increases over the next few years.
On the right are the Browns’ 2023 projected top 10 cap hits if Deshaun Watson is, indeed, suspended in 2022 and his cap hit is pushed to 2023. The new 2023 table would have the Browns under the current salary cap. While saving close to $45M against the cap would be very helpful for Cleveland, the 2023 roster may not be as well-equipped to win as the 2022 roster.
After the 2022 season, Cleveland will have many unrestricted free agents including Jack Conklin, Kareem Hunt, Jadeveon Clowney, Greedy Williams, Anthony Walker Jr, and Chase Winovich. Although they are saving money with Watson’s contract being pushed out, the salary cap will still make it difficult to retain most of these players.
Not to mention, after not playing for two full seasons, Deshaun Watson will not be the same player he was in 2020, at least not right away. Although he may have practice time before he plays in a game next, once he returns, he will be lacking valuable game experience with his new team and weapons on offense, which will, undoubtedly, hurt his play.
With Watson, the Browns are ready to win in 2022, but are less so in 2023, even if they are saving money next season.
Looking into 2024
Assuming Watson plays in 2023 and his contract moves forward, Cleveland will likely face some difficult roster decisions to fight the salary cap in 2024. Below are the top 10 cap hits, as of now, for the Browns in 2024.
Since Watson’s scheduled 2023 and 2024 salaries are the same, the potential suspension and contract being pushed back will not change anything. Either way in 2024, Cleveland’s roster could be in trouble due to their large cap hits.
Looking at the Browns’ 2024 top 10 cap hits, including Watson’s massive $54.993M charge, Cleveland will be over the current salary cap with just the top 10 charges on the roster. When accounting for the rest of the roster, the 41 players signed through 2024, Cleveland will be close to a cap hit of $256M, which is much larger than the current salary cap. The salary cap is projected to increase in future years, so the management of their roster will depend on what the number increases to. The large toll on the salary cap could cause key players to be traded or cut, especially when considering that players currently on their rookie deals will want new contracts like Jedrick Wills or Greg Newsome II.
The 2024 roster will also look different because Cleveland will have UFAs that they will be unable to bring back. After the 2023 season, Cleveland will have John Johnson, Grant Delpit, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and more key players no longer under contract.
With the inability to add new talent or even potentially retain key players on their roster thanks to the salary cap, it will be vital that Cleveland can supplement talent through the draft. That said, Cleveland will be strapped for draft capital, as they will not pick in the first round until 2025. As a part of the Watson deal, Cleveland gave up first-round picks in 2022, 2023, and 2024, a third-round selection in 2023, and fourth-round selections in 2022 and 2024. As a result, it will be very hard for the Browns to infuse their roster with young and cheap players without having the draft capital to do so.
Thanks to the trades and extensions, Cleveland has pigeon-holed its roster into a win-now mode, and without Watson under center in 2022, if he is suspended, it will be challenging to do so. Each year that passes, with Watson along with other players’ cap hits increasing, it will be more difficult to win in future years.