Deshaun Watson is headed to Cleveland. The Texans traded the 26-year-old quarterback to the Browns on Friday, concluding Watson’s time in Houston after five years.
Watson did not play for Houston during the 2021 season. He requested a trade from the Texans before the season, and before 22 women brought lawsuits and criminal charges against Watson that detailed accounts of sexual misconduct and coercion—including two accounts of sexual assault—that took place during massage sessions between March 2020 and March 2021. In March, a Texas grand jury did not indict Watson on criminal charges after prosecutors presented nine of the 10 criminal complaints filed against him. The dismissal of criminal charges opened the door for interested NFL teams to pursue obtaining Watson, and a number of them—including the Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Colts, Seahawks, Buccaneers, and Vikings—inquired about the quarterback. Ultimately, the Browns ended up with Watson, but the next steps for the player and league are unclear. Watson still faces 22 active civil suits, and he’s still under investigation by the NFL. He could still potentially face a suspension.
The Cleveland-Watson pairing comes as a surprise. Watson, who signed a four-year, $160 million extension in September 2020, held the power to choose his next destination thanks to a no-trade clause in his contract. He met with interested teams over the past week, and Thursday informed the Browns they were no longer in the running for his services. (Cleveland’s interest in Watson led to incumbent starter Baker Mayfield requesting a trade.) But on Friday, Watson re-opened the door on joining the Browns.
According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Watson will sign a new deal with Cleveland, worth a fully-guaranteed $230 million (a league record) over five years, nearly $80 million more than the next-highest deal by guaranteed money in league history. Despite the record-setting contract, Watson’s base salary for 2022 reportedly will be just $1 million, meaning that any suspension would cost him only $55,555 per game lost. Cleveland will send three first-round picks, a third-round pick, and a fourth-round pick to Houston in exchange for Watson and a fifth-round pick. Mayfield is not included in the Browns’ deal for Watson, and is expected to be dealt to another team. According to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, Mayfield has indicated that he wants to be traded to Indianapolis.
Despite the many lawsuits pending against Watson, the quarterback’s trade market remained intact throughout the past year. The Panthers and Dolphins reportedly weighed acquiring Watson ahead of the 2021 trade deadline. Prior to this offseason, Watson was said to be willing to waive his no-trade clause for only Miami. The Dolphins reportedly agreed to terms with the Texans on a deal before the trade deadline, but it stalled because Miami wanted Watson to settle his civil cases prior to its completion, which he refused to do.
After criminal charges were dismissed against Watson in March, the Colts, Browns, Falcons, and Saints joined the Panthers as teams with reported interest. (The Dolphins ceased their pursuit at the 2022 NFL combine.) The Texans did not allow Watson to meet with the Colts, their division rivals, knocking them out of contention for the quarterback. Despite more than a year of reported interest, the Panthers were informed they were out of the running, too, because Carolina didn’t want to guarantee the third and fourth years of Watson’s contract, according to The Charlotte Observer’s Jonathan Alexander. As of Friday afternoon, Watson’s decision seemed to be between Atlanta (which appeared to be his most likely landing spot) and New Orleans. But after spurning Cleveland, Watson had a change of heart when the Browns showed a willingness to hand him a record-setting deal.
Watson is one of the league’s most talented quarterbacks, and that talent is the reason several NFL teams maintained interest in trading for him while so many lawsuits against him are still active. Quarterback is the most important position in football, and franchises have shown repeatedly that they will do whatever it takes to attain productive passers. Teams began circling Watson even before the criminal charges against him were dismissed. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, “a number of teams” assigned security personnel to Watson’s case over the past year, while some hired “private investigators” to monitor his situation in Houston.
Still, it’s not clear how much vetting teams actually did, or what their vetting processes entailed. In mid-March, Tony Buzbee, the attorney representing the 22 women who have filed suits against Watson, told The Athletic that none of the NFL teams interested in trading for Watson had “reached out directly” to him or spoken with any of his clients. Additionally, Buzbee said that the league itself had not reached out in “months.”
The Browns and the NFL will have to answer for why they didn’t reach out to the women involved in the case. As NFL Network’s Gregg Rosenthal recently explained, the question that remains is how Watson and his new team plan on publicly addressing the lawsuits against him.
There’s no like-for-like blueprint for how the NFL should handle its investigation into Watson and a potential suspension for the quarterback. The closest precedent the league has are its two investigations into former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from more than a decade ago. In 2009, a woman filed a lawsuit against Roethlisberger, saying the quarterback raped her in Lake Tahoe in 2008. He reached a settlement a few years later and was not suspended by the NFL for that incident. In 2010, a 20-year-old woman said Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her at a nightclub in Milledgeville, Georgia. Roethlisberger was not charged with a crime, but the NFL suspended him six games without pay for violating the league’s personal conduct policy (the suspension was later reduced to four games). Watson could soon face a similar suspension.
On the field, the Browns now have a young franchise quarterback whose talent is comparable with those of the QBs of their divisional rivals, the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Bengals’ Joe Burrow. And Watson joins the best collection of offensive talent he’s ever gotten to play with in the NFL, with a powerful running back corps led by Nick Chubb, one of the best offensive lines in the league, and recently added wide receiver Amari Cooper, who arrived via trade from Dallas. That offense will be guided by head coach Kevin Stefanski, one of the NFL’s sharpest offensive minds. In 2020, Watson threw for a league-high 4,823 yards with 33 touchdowns and finished fifth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. He ranked sixth in EPA per play, and his 73 percent completion rate (second) was 6.5 percentage points higher than expected (fourth). Houston did not make the playoffs despite Watson’s high-level play, but the Browns look like a Super Bowl contender with him under center.
The NFL will have to make a decision on Watson’s status this season and determine whether he violated the league’s policies. According to Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, interested teams have believed that Watson is likely to receive a six-game suspension, just like Roethlisberger did. The Browns likely traded for him with the understanding that he would miss time. They knew what it would mean if they completed a blockbuster trade for Watson, and they didn’t stop there—they handed him one of the richest deals in NFL history.