Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson went from being a premium fantasy football commodity to embattled in a sexual harassment scandal that cost him all of 2021 and the first 13 weeks of the ’22 season. He returned in Week 13 to look as rusty as one would expect following such a lengthy layoff, completing 12 of his 22 attempts for a mere 131 yards and an interception. It didn’t get much better from there.
No one should have been surprised by the lack of passing success over the six-game stretch last year, though Watson showed glimpses of his trademark rushing skills. We saw a small sample of his former self during the final two games of the regular season as he accounted for five touchdown throws and posted 23.6 and 23.9 fantasy points, respectively. In total, he completed a career-low 58.2 percent of his passes for 183.7 yards per game and averaged only 17.8 points in fake football. His previous career low was 24.8 points in 2018.
A case for Watson's revival
With a full offseason ahead, Watson should be fully ready to roll come Week 1 from a rust-removal perspective. He’ll have more weapons to work with after several offseason moves, highlighted by a trade acquisition of dynamic slot receiver Elijah Moore. Rookie Cedric Tillman comes aboard after a limited but successful run with the Tennessee Volunteers.
No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper (78-1,160-9) returns after posting his best fantasy season since 2019. While his production immediately dipped with Watson’s return, the two showed signs of developing chemistry in Weeks 16 and 17, totaling nine receptions on 14 targets for 177 yards and a pair of scores.
Watson initially connected with Donovan Peoples-Jones (61-839-3) on 12-target, eight-catch, 114-yard Week 14, though it was short-lived. A full summer together should help build a stronger rapport. DPJ enters Year 4 and offers a respectable blend of possession skills with an underappreciated vertical game in his repertoire.
Moore comes over from the New York Jets after a quality rookie season and a disappointing sophomore campaign. His 12.3 yards-per-catch average over 80 career receptions isn’t indicative of his downfield ability, and Moore even offers a hint of upside in the rushing game. Getting on the same page with Watson is imperative, of course, but there’s no question the Mississippi alum gets a significant upgrade at quarterback.
Tight end David Njoku is coming off a personal-best fantasy season in PPR scoring, and he’s just a season removed from averaging a hearty 13.2 yards per grab. Injuries and inconsistency continue to plague him, but he’s a matchup headache in the right situation.
The Browns — when healthy — boast one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. The offseason saw massive right tackle Dawand Jones get selected in Round 4, two years after spending a fourth-rounder on James Hudson. Guard Wes Martin was signed in late March. All three help bolster depth and safeguard against injury.
The case against a rebound
The offensive system is the first and foremost concern here. Kevin Stefanski will once again call plays, and he’s known for a run-heavy approach. While some of that can be pinned on not having quality quarterbacks, the philosophy is rooted in a classic West Coast origin.
In 2022, only seven teams ran the ball at greater percentage than Cleveland’s 49.6 percent. The Browns ranked sixth in 2021 and just three teams had a higher run-to-pass ratio in Stefanski’s first year as head coach. As the Minnesota Vikings‘ play caller in 2019, his offense also finished third in rushing percentage, so blaming it all on the quarterback situation isn’t applicable.
Expect an increase in passing, but make no mistake, this offense goes through Nick Chubb on the ground. That means efficiency is extremely important from Watson.
It’s fair to question whether he’ll regress as a rusher. The veteran will be 28 in September, and Cleveland’s brass likely has been in his ear reminding him to protect their exorbitant contract investment.
Finally, and this isn’t more than an ancillary thought to consider, but Cleveland dramatically upgraded at defensive coordinator with the hiring of Jim Schwartz, so there could be less need to pass if the Browns are in more games later into the contests.
Deshaun Watson's fantasy football outlook
There’s definitely more to like than not about him, but Watson is far from a sure thing as your QB1. He has better weapons through the air and a stellar line to protect him, as well as a legitimate No. 1 back to keep defenders from sitting back in expanded coverage packages all day.
Cleveland’s strength of schedule for quarterbacks is brutal as outlined by David Dorey. I personally don’t put a ton of weight into such a thing, because so much changes not only year over year but from Week 1 to Week 8 and to 14.
Between the added weapons and wide array of skill sets, in conjunction with a strong offensive line and a full offseason program, Watson should be near the top of your list of QB2 candidates. In the event the former Houston Texan returns to his 2018-20 average of rushing prowess, expect him to creep into low-end QB1 territory more often than not.