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The Browns sent a seismic shock through the NFL as they sent three first-round picks to the Texans to acquire Deshaun Watson. Watson, who is facing civil lawsuits from 22 women alleging sexual assault and harassment, has not played since 2020. He demanded a trade from the Texans prior to the 2021 season. He sat out the entire season once the allegations about his misconduct surfaced. Now, he is poised to be the franchise quarterback in Cleveland for at least the next five years after signing a full-guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract.
I wrote Friday about stunning this decision is given the pending lawsuits against Watson. For the sake of not repeating myself, I won’t completely rehash my feelings on this situation. In short, it is risky, despicable and disheartening that Cleveland was willing to overlook the allegations of 22 different women against Watson.
There are three clear messages the Browns sent by making this move. The first is that they simply do not view these allegations as serious and are much more infatuated with Watson’s ability on the football field. Quarterback is the most important position in football, particularly in the NFL. Cleveland already had Baker Mayfield, whom they drafted No. 1 overall one year after passing on Watson, twice. While Mayfield certainly has his drawbacks, he did lead the Browns to their first playoff victory since 1994. An injury-plagued season saw him fall out of favor with the front office. Cleveland viewed Watson as such an improvement over Mayfield, it was willing to tank Mayfield’s trade value by acquiring Watson before moving him. The Browns also paid a price rarely seen in terms of draft capital to acquire Watson. You can only imagine what the asking price for him might have been if he was not potentially a sexual predator. The bottom line: upgrading at the quarterback position is worth whatever price must be paid.
The second message is also pretty obvious: the Browns do not believe in Baker Mayfield long term. After four seasons, Cleveland was willing to move on from the former Heisman winner. Mayfield’s career numbers aren’t bad. He has averaged 23 passing touchdowns, 14 interceptions and roughly 3,500 passing yards per season. Those are figures many NFL teams would be happy with, but pale in comparison to the league’s elite.
It is hard to argue if Mayfield is truly to blame. After all, he joined the Browns following an 0-16 season. He also played four four different head coaches, including one interim, in his four seasons. Not exactly the stability most teams desire when looking to develop a young quarterback. We’ve also seen that the latest iteration of the Browns offense might not be the most pass-friendly. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry were both run out of town because they could not perform in it. At a certain point, you have to wonder about who really deserves the blame for Mayfield falling short of expectations. That being said, Mayfield will almost definitely have an opportunity to start somewhere this season.
Finally, this whole process speaks volumes about how the Browns viewed the other quarterbacks available this season, in free agency, on the trade market and, most importantly, in the NFL draft. How this Watson trade played out gives us a really interesting glimpse into how the Browns felt about Mayfield in comparison to other available quarterbacks. Mayfield requested a trade even after it initially looked like Cleveland’s pursuit of Watson did not pan out. Reports then surfaced that the Browns were not willing to grant that request in hopes of mending the relationship with Mayfield.
What this tells us is that the front office was comfortable sticking with Mayfield if it could not land Watson (or perhaps Aaron Rodgers, had he become available). They viewed him as a better option than Carson Wentz, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Jimmy Garoppolo or any of the prospects in this draft class. Whether or not the rest of the league agrees with that is unclear, but take a moment to think about the teams that have been linked to Watson or other quarterback moves made this offseason. Washington was in position to draft a quarterback, but opted for Wentz. Carolina could have its pick of the group, but wanted Watson, Russell Wilson or pretty much anyone else. Same can be said for Denver, who landed Wilson. New Orleans just re-signed Winston.
It seems like no teams are interested in this 2022 quarterback class. I have to imagine Seattle, Carolina and Indianapolis will be prime suitors for Mayfield and Garoppolo. That being said, one of them is going to be left without a clear starting option. At that point, the Seahawks might entertain signing Colin Kaepernick, who has not played in the league since 2016, over drafted a rookie to start this season.
Don’t get me wrong, some of these guys will get drafted early. Detroit is rumored to like Malik Willis a lot and has the perfect situation for him to essentially redshirt a year before taking over as the starter. The Steelers and Falcons will be searching for long-term solutions at the position. I don’t think Atlanta takes one at No. 8, but perhaps it could trade back into the end of the first round.
We’ve long known this is not a popular quarterback class in the league or in the media. I think we are now starting to understand just how little teams think of this crop of prospects. April is going to be very interesting.