One of the ongoing questions heading into the “slow period” of the NFL – between OTAs and the start of training camps in late July – is the ongoing saga of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has made headlines off the field for the last 14 months.
Watson sat out the entire 2021 season, which was supposed to be the first year of four-year, $160 million extension he signed with the Houston Texans. An avalanche of civil lawsuits brought against him – most by massage therapists – claiming sexual assault or misconduct. A 23rd woman joined the lawsuit against Watson at the end of May, and No. 24 is reportedly expected to file come Monday.
However, when two grand juries failed to bring back a criminal indictment, the Texans saw an opportunity to trade their besieged signal-caller, and the Browns jumped at the opportunity to acquire a franchise quarterback better than Baker Mayfield.
Houston landed three first-round picks, a third-rounder in 2023, and a fourth-rounder in 2024 in exchange for Watson. If that investment by the Browns wasn’t enough, the team immediately announced that it tore up Watson’s contract with the Texans and replaced it with a five-year, $230 million deal with every dollar guaranteed.
Both sides of this strange, unsettling saga are unprecedented. On the football side of things, fully guaranteeing contracts has rarely been something NFL franchise do willingly. Nobody has ever committed this much in terms of guaranteed money – Watson’s guarantee was $80 million more than the previous high (Buffalo QB Josh Allen). It’s a field-tilter for quarterback salaries and guarantees that could set a standard many owners will look to avoid.
The other precedent-setting issue facing the NFL is the length of Watson’s anticipated suspension. Despite sitting out all of last season, Watson not subject to league discipline. Comparisons have been made to a 2010 suspension of Ben Roethlisberger, accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old Georgia college student at a nightclub. What made his six-game suspension (reduced to four games after Roethlisberger complied with numerous league-imposed stipulations) is that there were no criminal charges filed against him. Prior to that, the league waited until the legal process was completed before handing out its own punishment. Since Roethlisberger’s case, the NFL has suspended numerous players without criminal charges being filed.
What makes this case new to the NFL is Watson having been accused by 24 different women who make the same basic claim – just to varying degrees of misconduct. The NFL’s enforcement arm has a difficult decision to make after its own independent investigation. The league is still struggling with accusations of collusion against Colin Kaepernick and the offseason revelations in a lawsuit brought by Brian Flores.
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What sort of punishment do claims made by 24 different women warrant? Major League Baseball, typically the last pro sport to be proactive, recently doubled the established suspension limit of major sports by banning Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer for more than two years for allegations of sexual impropriety that also didn’t result in criminal charges.
The Browns have been taken off a lot of betting websites for wagers on the odds for Cleveland to win the AFC North, the AFC, and the Super Bowl, because everyone is waiting for the NFL to weigh on whether Watson will be suspended. It is expected that he will be, but the duration is anyone’s guess.
The suspension likely won’t be less than four games. Is six a possibility? Eight? Another full season?
All of those options are likely on the table. The uncertainty may be the reason the Browns didn’t accept a low-ball trade offer for Mayfield on draft weekend. Mayfield clearly isn’t Cleveland’s first choice – that was made painfully obvious – but he is the guy who has been the starter in Cleveland the last three years. Perhaps the fear of getting the worst-case scenario suspension for Watson is why Mayfield is still under contract with the Browns. Cleveland added veteran journeyman Jacoby Brissett in free agency a day after the Watson trade news broke, likely believing Mayfield wouldn’t be this difficult to trade away.
Fantasy football outlook
Watson’s fantasy football value for 2022 will be determined once the NFL weighs in on the matter and hands down its punishment.
Whatever the NFL decides, it is certain to face criticism for not handing down a stiff enough punishment given the gravity and sheer volume of the allegations. Until the league office delivers its judgment, the fate of the 2022 Browns will continue to remain in limbo.
Should Watson even be on your radar if you’re forced to draft prior to whenever that info is known? It depends upon a number of factors, such as scoring rules, league size, draft tendencies, and more, but the easiest way to frame it is as follows: Gamble on Watson only after about Round 11, and only if you have an established starter in case he winds up missing serious time. He has gone, on average, anywhere from Round 9 to 14 in drafts we’ve been apart of so far.
We’ll definitely provide more clarity upon the league’s ruling. What we know for sure is Watson enters a run-heavy offense with a so-so cast of aerial targets. He has excelled with worse at receiver, but there’s arguably more downside than potential for a strong season, regardless of how much time he may miss.