That’s a logical take, but the lofty expectations go beyond that.
The Browns have other key offensive components, including one of the better lines in the NFL, that should help them get the most out of Watson and the rest of Kevin Stefanski’s offense. They’ve also added some key pieces on defense, including a veteran coordinator Jim Schwartz who has a strong track record for generating improvement on that side of the ball.
Every year there are teams that go from worst to first, so why not the Browns?
Can the Browns Win the AFC North?
The AFC North title race should be highly competitive.
The Cincinnati Bengals, who reached back-to-back conference championship games and a Super Bowl the past two seasons behind elite quarterback Joe Burrow, rightfully are the favorite to win a third consecutive AFC North title. With Lamar Jackson’s contract settled for the long haul and the addition of game-breakers around the MVP passer, the Baltimore Ravens should be in the hunt.
Yet, after going 7-10 and finishing last in the division in 2022, the Browns seem poised to leap into contention and snap a two-year playoff drought.
Of course, any strides they make will begin with Watson’s performance.
What To Expect From Watson in 2023?
After not playing in 2021 and being suspended for the first 11 games of last season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, Watson was more than a little rusty upon his return in early December. Watson didn’t come close to showing he was worth the $230-million guaranteed contract he received after the Browns acquired him in a trade with the Houston Texans.
He went 3-3 as a starter in 2022, with the inactivity and transitioning to new teammates, coaches and scheme contributing to a major decline from his first four NFL seasons with the Texans.
At the end of last season, Watson acknowledged to reporters he anticipated last year would be challenging.
“I knew I wasn’t going to walk in and just be the MVP of the NFL,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to put in. I’ve put in a lot of work, and I have a long way to go.”
With an entire offseason during which he spent time working with his receivers, and training camp, Watson should find himself in a much better position to look like the quarterback who threw 33 touchdowns and more than 4,800 yards in 2020.
He understands he’s carrying the weight of higher expectations for himself and the team. Watson also knows there are plenty of people who can’t get past the circumstances that led to his suspension or accept the Browns’ decision to give him a second chance. He has detractors, even among long-suffering Dawg Pound diehards.
Watson is ready to let his play do the loudest talking on his behalf.
“I’m very motivated,” he told cleveland.com. “I’m very excited to be able to have the opportunities to go out there and prove what I have before and even better. And that’s the goal, is to be better than when people last saw me. Yeah, I mean, honestly, people are entitled to their own opinions, but at the same time, you got to respect their opinions.
“… So those opportunities for me this upcoming season, I have to take advantage of it.”
Helping him do so is one of the league’s top offensive lines. The Browns return all of their starters – tackles Jedrick Wills and Jack Conklin, guards Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller and center Ethan Pocic – who got a good feel for Watson’s style of play during his six starts last season.
The most important lesson they learned was blocks must be held as long as possible because Watson will hold the ball and extend plays far more than the quarterback for whom they blocked for most of 2022, Jacoby Brissett.
Then there is Nick Chubb, who rushed for a career-best 1,525 yards last season while averaging five yards after contact, an NFL-high for players with 225-plus carries.
Notably, he ran for 12 touchdowns with Brissett at quarterback and zero with Watson behind center. It will be interesting to see how Chubb’s role is impacted by the distinct possibility that Stefanski will alter his scheme to put a brighter spotlight on Watson.
Another reason for optimism is the hiring of Schwartz to replace Joe Woods as defensive coordinator after the team finished 20th in the NFL in points allowed.
Schwartz brings 19 years of experience as either a defensive coordinator or head coach. He’s known for a highly aggressive style with an emphasis on pressuring the quarterback. Schwartz’s scheme calls for the ends to line up wide and the cornerbacks to play man-to-man coverage outside. Whatever is thrown in the middle of the field is handled by linebackers and safeties.
The approach played a key role in helping the Philadelphia Eagles win a Super Bowl when he was their defensive coordinator in 2017. It should work well for Myles Garrett, one of the league’s most dynamic pass rushers, at one end and trade acquisition Za’Darius Smith at the other, as well as cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Grant Delpit.
“The future is definitely bright for the Cleveland Browns,” Watson said. “And regardless of what people say or what people think, I’m here for a reason, and it is what it is.”
For the Browns, it figures, at worst, to be a first playoff berth since Stefanski’s first season as coach in 2020 and, at best, a division crown.
Vic Carucci has been a national editor for NFL.com and a contributor to NFL Network, a senior editor for the Cleveland Browns and an NFL writer and columnist for the Buffalo News. Follow him on Twitter at @viccarucci.