There are still pending civil suits against Deshaun Watson from 22 women who allege various degrees of sexual misconduct that span multiple years. A Supreme Court dismissed 10 criminal cases, which is why we’re here with Watson traded — more than a year after he initially requested a trade before any allegations surfaced.
I get this is very much an on-field analysis site that has stuck to covering that, leaving bigger topics to those who are admittedly more qualified to talk about them, but it’s impossible to not start here with a Watson trade given how it shapes the entire situation. As recently as Tuesday, The Atheltic reported no team in the running for Watson had contacted the attorney for the 22 women, instead doing their “due diligence” through Watson and his lawyer.
Once the criminal cases were dropped, teams flung themselves at Watson — a player who held all the power in his landing spot due to a no-trade clause — and the teams that made the cut to be considered then set up meetings to pitch Watson on their franchises.
It’s not even as if everything disappeared with the criminal cases dropped. The civil cases are still ongoing and Watson is virtually guaranteed to be suspended at some point by the NFL (the league has made it very clear they do not need a criminal conviction for a suspension in these types of situations) and if his reaction to the Supreme Court ruling is any indication, his actions are not yet something he feels — or has even feignedly expressed — remorse over.
But Watson is young and extremely talented at the league’s most important and valuable position, which is why multiple teams were prepared to send the Houston Texans a massive haul and why the Cleveland Browns, even after they were told they were out of the running, still pursued Watson gave up three first-round picks and more for the quarterback on top of of a fully guaranteed $230 million over five years — a raise over a four-year/$156 million extension Watson signed in 2020 that he never officially played on.
Watson’s $46 million per year now tops the $45 million average on the Patrick Mahomes contract signed in 2020.
This new contract has even built in a workaround in the event Watson is suspended in 2021. Any suspension would come out of the base salary for the given year and so the Browns have set Watson’s base salary to just $1 million, making the financial loss as small as possible.
Cleveland now has to make this fit both on and off the field. We’ve seen what a top-tier quarterback can do to elevate an offense like the one the Browns run under Kevin Stefasnksi and Watson is a top-tier quarterback. In 2020 he was second in EPA per dropback on a team that went 4-12. Over the course of his career, he’s averaged 0.16 EPA per dropback, which would have ranked second in 2021. Watson has both raised the quality of players around him and taken advantage of star pairings.
He’s likely to get that with Amari Cooper, who the Browns just traded for last week.
It remains to be seen what the give and take will be between the player and the offensive system. With so much power given to Watson already, does he hold all the leverage when deciding the style of play? Stefanski was brought up and has excelled with the heavy under center, play-action version of offense and to this point, the Browns have built the roster in that image.
Only the Cowboys and Panthers have more money invested in running backs and only five teams ran the ball more on early downs than the Browns in 2021. Much of the offensive structure is set up around the under center aspect, which builds off the run game and the look of the run. Over the past two seasons, Baker Mayfield was under center for 53.7% of his dropbacks. During the 2020 season, Watson was under center on 17.9%. Over his career, that’s been just 24.4%.
What’s most likely is we see something similar to how Sean McVay meshed his offensive philosophy with Matthew Stafford’s strengths last season. There are already some similarities there. The Browns used empty heavily with Mayfield and Watson has used that on over 20% of his dropbacks in his last two years on the field. Cleveland has to hope the meshing of offense and quarterback works that well.
That’s another piece of this, too. The Browns now need Watson to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league year after year. There’s no other way to remotely justify what it took to make this move without that.
But that’s not guaranteed. Like what happened with the Denver Broncos and Russell Wison in the AFC West, the Browns have not even assured themselves a spot at the top of their division with his move (and again, this is a much different backdrop than the Wilson trade). Both the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals have rosters worthy of topping the AFC North.
Cleveland will now work on a trade for Mayfield, who already wanted out before the trade for Watson was made official. He has just $18.9 million remaining for his fifth-year option, which is a more than palatable price for an acquiring team.
We’ve seen Mayfield have the ability to manage a well-structured offense — he was 11th in EPA per dropback in 2020 — but we’ve also seen the floor of what could happen when the situation isn’t ideal. After high expectations were set from 2020, Mayfield ranked 21st in EPA per dropback.
Still, at 27 years old, there’s enough for a franchise to take a swing. Carson Wentz just went to two third-round picks after he went for a first the offseason prior and Mayfield has been as good, if not better, than Wentz over the past two seasons. That’s admittedly not the highest bar to clear or the most flattering comp, but as is the entire case here, quarterback play is at a premium.
Whatever the Browns get back for Mayfield, also softens what they gave up for Watson. It’s likely that third-round pick cancels out. Cleveland also would clear all $18.9 million from Mayfield’s contract with the trade.
The Watson presentations have also left the wake of potential quarterback movement in Atlanta with Matt Ryan and New Orleans, the two other finalists.
There are a ton of layers to this trade and it’s not easy to lay them all out in a brief way. The drawn-out process that led to the actual trade of Watson is now over but the fallout is far from done.