The Browns’ starting quarterback for the past four years has been Baker Mayfield, the top pick in the 2018 draft. The Browns’ starting quarterback for this coming year will (ostensibly) be Deshaun Watson, for whom they surrendered three first-round picks (and more) to the Texans.
Both of these players are—as of this writing—healthy and on Cleveland’s active roster. However, my strong sense is that neither player will be the Browns’ quarterback this season. And even if, somehow, one of them does play for the team, it won’t be for long.
Let’s examine these problems, both coming as no surprise to Cleveland.
The Deshaun Watson problem
I have not hidden my disdain for how the Browns have rewarded Watson in the midst of his legal troubles.
I have long lamented the systematic tilt against full guarantees in NFL contracts. Aside from a free agent Kirk Cousins, who was able to wrangle three fully secure years from the Vikings, we have never seen a fully guaranteed veteran contract beyond that limited term. And for years I have wondered who would be the player who would squeeze his team for an NBA/MLB-type, fully secured contract for five years or more (as opposed to the two or three years secured and then leaving it up to the team ). Would it be Aaron Rodgers? Russell Wilson? Drew Brees? Patrick Mahomes? Josh Allen? Lamar Jackson? The answers: No, no, no, no, no and not yet. The answer, perhaps in a large part due to his own misconduct: Deshaun Watson.
If you remember, the Browns were out of the chase for Watson who, having grown up in Georgia, had narrowed his choices to the Falcons and Saints. Then, magically, the Browns were back in the chase and, wait, were actually signing him! The business of sports always wins.
Protecting bad behavior
With the steady drip of more lawsuits and graphic details of Watson’s predatory behavior, as described by massage therapists, the question has arisen: Would the Browns try to void future contract guarantees or even get out of the contract total? My answer? No way, for two reasons: 1) the contract will not allow it, and 2) they are all in on Watson, no matter the bad news.
I have not seen the contract, but have been told about the forfeiture provisions by a league source, and here is what you need to know. First, the Browns cannot claw back any money for misbehavior—old or new—in the first two years of the deal, 2022 and ’23. Even if Watson is suspended the full season this year, his total financial loss will be $1 million, keeping the entire $45 million bonus he received. And next year’s $46 million is fully secured. As for the three subsequent seasons (’24, ’25 and ’26), Watson would be subject to forfeiture of guarantees only from “new misbehavior” causing league discipline. In other words, only for conduct beyond what was known by the Browns upon entering the contract in March.
As to whether the Browns could potentially argue that the additional lawsuits filed since the 22 that were in play when the Browns signed him could be “new misbehavior,” well, good luck with that. The recent reports and lawsuits are the same as the old reports and lawsuits. We have read about Watson’s pattern of behavior with these massage therapists for more than a year now; The New York Times and the new lawsuits detail the very same patterns of behavior. This is not “new misbehavior,” just more of the same.
Browns are all in
On a broader, let’s be real: The Browns are not going to try to claw back money or get out of this contract. They are all in on this player.
Cleveland gave Watson the largest and most secure contract in NFL history. It minimized his financial loss from suspension with a minimal salary (subject to suspension forfeiture) and a $45 million bonus (not subject to suspension forfeiture). And yes, Browns supporters, the team has used this structure with other players (and we have to point out Cleveland denies the contract structure was related to the looming suspension), but query this: Have any of those other players faced certain suspension?
Watson is now the face of the franchise for the next five years, no matter the drips of bad news that will keep pouring out about his misconduct. If he is suspended all of this year (more below) and no more, the Browns will pay him $229 million for four yearsa staggering $55.9 million per year.
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Listen, we know what the Browns really want to say here, but can’t, which is something like this: “There’s never a quarterback of this caliber who comes available; we went out and got him. The PR is bad now, but it will die down.”
But the bad PR is not dying down anytime soon, and the more I hear from Browns fans, the more I sense an “ickiness” about the whole thing.
What will happen
I don’t see the NFL allowing Watson on its stage—in front of tens of millions of people every week—this year. The league has taken players off the field for long stretches for far less misconduct toward fewer women. Whether through the commissioner exemption list or (more likely) a long suspension, I don’t think he’ll play.
Having Watson as the face of one of its legacy franchises is an affront to women everywhere, the same the NFL has been trying to population cultivate for decades. Again, precedent shows players have been suspended six games for sexual misconduct, also without criminal charges. And precedent should matter, as we are under the same commissioner.
Should Watson be allowed to play? Well, that depends on your tolerance for misbehavior and our belief in these accusers. But this is not one woman—or two, or five, or 10, or even 20. Twenty have now settled, and more cases remain open and more women have come forward. Either Watson is 1) a victim of the biggest frame in history, masterminded by a loose network of massage therapists connected by having been sought by Watson on Instagram, or 2) he is, well, a predator.
I still shake my head that the contract of the century in the NFL has, of all the stars in the league, gone to this player. And I think it is more likely than not that he won’t even play on that contract until September 2023.
The Baker Mayfield problem
I vividly remember the Thursday-night game in 2018 in which Mayfield, then a Browns rookie who was the No. 1 draft pick, replaced an injured Tyrod Taylor against the Jets and a star was born. He later led the Browns to the divisional round and, it appeared, was the darling of the town, the organization and Progressive insurance.
That was then, this is now.
After having his fifth-year option picked up for 2022 at almost $19 million, Mayfield’s performance dipped last season, whether due to injury or otherwise. While the Browns are wiping their brow that they didn’t extend Mayfield with tens of millions of guaranteed dollars, they are certainly ruing the day they picked up his (guaranteed) option. Now, for reasons probably more than we know, Mayfield is persona non grata in the organization and the $19 million option hangs on them as an albatross.
What will they do with Mayfield? I see three options, none of which include Mayfield playing for the Browns, even with Watson suspended. That ship has sailed. Here is what could happen.
1. Pay some, trade some
The NFL does not allow cash as part of trade compensation, but it does allow a way around it. The Browns could pay Mayfield a bonus and then trade him, reducing the financial obligations of the acquiring team to make the trade more enticing.
For example, Cleveland could pay Mayfield a $10 million bonus (consider it a parting gift) before trading him on a contract showing $9 million instead of $19 million. The trade compensation will reflect the financial compensation: The more the Browns pay, the higher the pick they will receive.
This “pay some, trade some” model has some precedent, most recently in 2021 when the Panthers paid Teddy Bridgewater a bonus of $7 million, leaving the Broncos responsible for only a $3 million salary to be their starting quarterback.
2. Package an asset
Instead of attracting a trade partner with money, the Browns could attract a trade partner with an asset, perhaps one even more valuable than Mayfield.
Ironically, the Browns were on the receiving end of such a trade in 2017. They took on the dead weight of Brock Osweiler’s $16 million guaranteed contract in order to receive a second-round pick along with it from the Texans. In other words, they paid $16 million for a second-round pick. For a team to take on Mayfield’s $19 million, the Browns would have to package similar compensation in the trade. This is an unlikely option for a team devoid of first-round picks for the next two years (thanks to the Watson trade).
3. Pay him to keep quiet and not play
Deshaun Watson (remember him?) is the precedent here. Watson was paid his $10 million salary as a healthy member of the Texans’ active roster last season. However, through an agreement that was never actually acknowledged, Watson was told—or agreed—to stay quiet, stay away and collect his money. The Browns may tell the same thing to Mayfield, the player Watson has now replaced: Keep quiet, stay out of sight and collect more than $1 million per week. And yes, Mayfield would definitely receive Business of Football Hall of Fame consideration for that.
The Browns’ old quarterback (Mayfield) and the Browns’ new quarterback (Watson) may well both 1) be on the Browns in 2022, and 2) not play for them.
In doing so, they will receive $18 million (Mayfield) and $45 million (Watson) for their troubles.
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