We knew it was coming. We just didn’t know for how long it would be. Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson is officially suspended for the first 6 weeks of the regular season. The outrage from fans and media members could mean the NFL adds a few more games, but for now, let’s examine what we know and how the news will affect your betting.
The Cleveland Browns will be without their franchise quarterback for the following games:
- Week 1: at Panthers
- Week 2: vs. Jets
- Week 3: vs. Steelers
- Week 4: at Falcons
- Week 5: vs. Chargers
- Week 6: vs. Patriots
First, we’d be remiss to ignore that four of their first six games are at home. Normally that’s something to celebrate if you’re a Browns fan, but Cleveland was an abysmal 3-6 against the spread (ATS) at home last season and 3-5 ATS the year before. Maybe they’d rather be on the road.
Still, there aren’t many reasons to believe that Cleveland should panic. The biggest reason for optimism is Jacoby Brissett. Brissett has above-average numbers in his pro career: 60% completion rate, 36 TDs, and 17 INTs. He also has experience with some of the best coaches in the NFL. His rookie year was under Bill Belichick and the Patriots; enough said. Then, he helped out the Indianapolis Colts under Chuck Pagano and Frank Reich, two of the more respected minds in football. Last season, he served as Tua’s backup in Miami, starting in five of those contests behind the direction of Brian Flores. Few backup quarterbacks have as much leadership and starting experience as Brissett.
We could argue that he’s done a lot with very little talent, too. In Cleveland, that won’t be an issue. Brissett will have arguably the best running back duo in football in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb. When Hunt was healthy in 2020, he earned 1,145 yards and 11 TDs in one season. Nick Chubb’s ability and accolades are well-documented. He went to three Pro Bowls and accumulated 5,567 total yards and 39 TDs in four years as a Brown. Both are workhorse running backs who are exceptional at following lead blockers and finding the first-down marker.
Expect the Browns to utilize the run-pass-option (RPO) often with Brissett who, at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, is not easy to tackle. Rounding up a formidable offense is an offensive line that’s been one of the most consistent and formidable in the NFL for the last three years. Add Amari Cooper, another big trade in the offseason for Cleveland, and Brissett has a great setup to lead his team without Watson.
From a betting perspective, the market will certainly adjust. Love him or hate him, Watson was one of the NFL’s most talented quarterbacks before last year’s allegations. Without Watson, the Browns simply will not be significant favorites in the first six weeks of the regular season. On the bright side for Browns backers, I think they’ll still be favorites in three out of the six. Their opening matchup against Carolina already moved considerably since it opened at Cleveland -4. Despite the Panthers’ poor forecast this season, the line is either a “pick-em” – meaning no team is the favorite – or the Panthers are favored slightly at -1 or -1.5. Since Baker Mayfield is in a revenge spot against his former team and the game is in Carolina, that makes sense.
Let’s take a look at how we would handicap the next five games with Watson out. At this point, it’s all speculation, but it always helps to project the market before the lines are released. If nothing else, you can use it as a foundation to compare your own analysis.
Week 2: Jets at Browns
Expected Line: Browns -3.5
Sportsbooks are expecting Cleveland to lose in Carolina, which makes this a cushy spot for the Browns to get some redemption and a victory at home the following Sunday. Plus, it’s still the Jets against a much more talented roster. The Browns should be the favorite by at least a field goal.
Week 3: Steelers at Browns
Expected Line: Browns -1
The Browns are at home, and after they likely beat the Jets, a prime-time game just four days later on Thursday Night Football awaits. The rivalry between Cleveland and Pittsburgh usually means close games, and the talent will be relatively even with Watson off the field. This is a tough game to judge, but I can’t imagine we’ll see much margin here.
Week 4: Browns at Falcons
Expected Line: Browns -5
By this time, Jacoby Brissett and a talented Browns roster should be in-rhythm and gaining confidence. That’s not a good thing for Atlanta. We project the Falcons to be one of the worst teams in football. Even at home, this won’t be an easy spot for them, coming off of a Week 3 matchup against a Seattle team that will feel like an equal; that won’t happen often for Atlanta in 2022. The Browns should be able to run the ball and control the time of possession with ease. Cleveland, despite Watson’s absence, will likely be the favorite by more than a field goal here. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was closer to a touchdown.
Week 5: Chargers at Browns
Expected Line: Browns +2.5
Speaking of a brutal change in competition, the Browns will go from facing one of the worst teams in the NFL in Week 4 to one of the more challenging and talent-heavy teams in the L.A. Chargers in Week 5. The X-factor in this one is obvious: Justin Herbert. The Chargers will have, by far, the better quarterback in this contest, and in the NFL, that makes all the difference. Brissett could struggle to keep Cleveland within distance if the Chargers find success through the air. If Watson was starting, the Browns would either be the favorite, or the game would be “even”.
Week 6: Patriots at Browns
Expected Line: EVEN
This is one of the harder games to gauge. We’re talking about a game that’s in mid-October, Watson will be slated to return the following week, the Browns are at home, and they’ll probably be thinking about their game in Baltimore the following Sunday. The talent, in this case, favors the Browns, while the coaching and starting quarterback favors New England. I’ll leave this at even for now. With Watson, the Browns would likely be 3-4 point favorites.
In summation, Browns’ supporters have plenty to feel confident about. Their two road games are facing two of the worst teams in the NFL, and they should be favored in at least half of these contests. Brissett, Chubb, Cooper, and a very formidable defense can keep them afloat until they get more consistency at the quarterback position.