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Assessing the Deshaun Watson trade: 2 years removed (Part 2)

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By: Thomas Moore

Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The DBN staff tackles a big question: If you were the Browns, would you still make the trade for Deshaun Watson?

The Cleveland Browns made the decision two years ago this month to trade for quarterback Deshaun Watson.

The club made the move hoping that it would be franchise-altering and finally settle the game’s most important position after decades of misses.

Related: Assessing the Deshaun Watson trade (Part 1)

The results, so far, have been mixed.

On the field, Watson has played just 12 games, first because of a suspension for violating the NFL’s person-conduct policy and then because of a shoulder injury that required surgery. He was off his game in 2022 after not having played for almost two seasons, but Watson’s play was trending in the right direction last season, as the Browns won four of the five games he completed, including a thrilling comeback victory against the Baltimore Ravens.

Off the field, it has been a similar situation. Several national media members have wagged their fingers at the Browns for acquiring Watson given his off-field issues, and a handful of NFL owners have continually looked disapprovingly at the Browns, although that has more to do with the $230 million guaranteed contract than anything else.

The Browns also lost some hard-earned goodwill with a portion of the fan base, which understandably has struggled to accept Watson on the team. That hasn’t impacted the team in other areas, however, as Cleveland Browns Stadium was consistently full last season, local TV ratings remain strong, and no advertisers appear to have distanced themselves from the team.

Still, the trade remains controversial for many reasons, and the rocky nature of the past two seasons has done little to help the situation.

The team remains committed to Watson and continues to hold the belief that he can return to the player he was with the Houston Texans. But two years into the relationship, it is fair to wonder if, given the opportunity and with the benefit of hindsight, would general manager Andrew Berry, head coach Kevin Stefanski, and the rest of the decision-makers still make the trade?

There is no way that anyone involved with the Browns would ever answer that question, so in their place, we turn to the Dawgs By Nature team to answer a rather complicated question:

Given everything that has gone on in the past two seasons, if you could turn back the clock would you still make the trade for Deshaun Watson?

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Chris Pokorny: I don’t need the luxury of hindsight: I wouldn’t have done the Deshaun Watson deal then, and I still wouldn’t do it today. As I’ve said all along, I remain a die-hard Browns fan, and I still hope that Watson gets things together so this team can make playoff runs and a Super Bowl push. I don’t think the move was necessary back then because I did not see him as an elite-tier quarterback. Forget the amount of money that Cleveland threw at him – the team has gone through too many years of not having first-round draft picks, which makes it difficult to add promising talent without breaking the bank in free agency.

The team made a playoff run under Baker Mayfield, and then put too much weight into him struggling in one year that he played through a shoulder injury. Now, you see him thriving with a team that was written off (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and the Texans ended up beating the Browns this past postseason, using all of Cleveland’s draft ammunition to help build their team along the way. I’m not saying the trade was a disaster, but I would’ve stayed the course, and I think the team would be better off now for doing so.

Jared Mueller: It really is a tough question because it assumes a lot of things. Even if the trade wasn’t made, Baker Mayfield is traded somewhere else. I also don’t assume the Browns would be bad enough to get a top-flight quarterback (probably would have added Jimmy Garoppolo) with any of the picks they had traded away.

Cleveland could have traded up (in the draft), but Trevor Lawrence wasn’t attainable and the rest of the first-round quarterbacks in 2021 have basically been moved on from. Kenny Pickett was the top quarterback taken in 2022, and by 2023, if the Browns didn’t have a quarterback, the whole front office and coaching staff would be different.

Talking that out through writing the above, I guess that means I think Cleveland would be in a similar or worse position (with more cap space) if they hadn’t made the trade. I also think Watson showed that he can be good again and has more upside than any quarterback they could have gotten.

Would I make the trade again? I guess.

Cleveland Browns v Arizona Cardinals
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Barry Shuck: There are two parts to Deshaun Watson: the player and the contract. Let’s throw out the contract for a minute. Since coming to the Browns, Watson has only played in 12 out of 34 regular season games. That is an issue. However, he has been a dynamite player in a position that needs a playmaker. That was when he was with Clemson and the Houston Texans. So far, what has he proved in Cleveland? Joe Flacco came in and threw five 300-yard games. Watson has yet to do that for the franchise. Is he still that guy who earned three straight Pro Bowls and threw for almost 5,000 yards in his last season with Houston? Currently, not even close.

But here’s the rub: there is the expectation that the Clemson/Texans version of Watson will re-appear and be great again. That is what keeps his mystique going. He has been, and should be, and perhaps can be, great again. The offensive line is capable (when healthy), the offense boasts a Pro Bowl tight end and running back, plus new weapons with speed. Hell, with the Texans, he threw for 4,823 yards with 33 touchdowns against just 7 picks and only won four games! He has dealt with mediocre skill position talent around him. Their defense was horrible. With Cleveland, the defense is magic, which is such an asset to a quarterback to not have to keep scoring points. Can Watson rebound? If he can stay healthy, I truly believe he can be a Top-7 quarterback in this league again. Just revert your memory to that second Ravens game that he pulled out as a shining example of a dude who has done that before.

Now for the contract. There is nobody in the NFL that plays, coaches, officiates, owns, covers, or cheers in this game that will stand by that the Browns got anything but bamboozled in the long run. And guess what? Look at how the Texans are suddenly in the playoffs and winning their division with the aid of all of Cleveland’s high draft picks. That tells the financial story right there.

To answer the question, yes I would still make the trade if I were Berry.

EZ Weav: It’s worth noting first and foremost that while it’s anyone’s prerogative to assess something like this after two years (or six months, or six years) nothing about this investment or commitment set a hard (or really any kind of) window on determining its success. It was known and understood the Browns were already going to lose some portion of the first year, and then certainly adjustment periods after that until everything was set.

However, the reason they got DeShaun Watson was to try to maximize the chances to win a Super Bowl at some point during his tenure on the team. If that were to happen then the next follow-up objective would be a repeat, and then so on and so forth, but before any of that can even be dreamed about the only thing that matters is doing what is necessary to win a championship.

At the end of the 2021 season, it’s not unreasonable for a lot of well-intentioned people to surmise that Baker Mayfield probably wasn’t going to be that guy. Mayfield would always give you a baseline of competency and might not have been as bad as all of 2021 displayed (albeit the tape showed seriously poor decisions and not physical limitations at the end), but there looked to be a hard ceiling. As somebody who loved and still loves Baker, and pulled for him (and defended him) his whole time here, and still pulls for him with his new team (which has been my side-team to the Browns for as long as I’ve been watching football), I feel pretty confident in saying right now here today that the hard ceiling still exists.

Perhaps it isn’t as low as what we thought it might have been at the end of his time here, but the only reason the Baker stuff is relevant is because that is really the only other option the Browns had if they had not pursued Watson when they did. It’s also not for nothing that Baker pushed himself out of the door before the Watson trade was even consummated, so the option of keeping with him is of course mired by his own asinine antics during that negotiation week and beyond. This is to say nothing of what to do about paying him had the Browns decided to just tough it out with him, only to hope he takes the reading of rolling defenses post-snap more seriously than crushing the haters on social media.

Tennessee Titans v Cleveland Browns
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Now you could say that knowing absolutely everything we know now, the Browns could have thrown a package of draft picks at the Chicago Bears in order to obtain the first pick in the 2023 Draft because the Carolina Panthers did that very thing. Of course. in this timeline, the Browns would be competing with the Panthers, so it’d probably take more than the multiple first-rounders and Amari Cooper. All told a package like that would probably have to resemble something closer to what the Browns gave to the Texans for Watson.

While all of that is technically possible (and not infallible, as the Panthers could end up beating the Browns on the compensation) there’s no way you can prognosticate something like that in March of 2022, and then set about your plans accordingly. All of this is relevant because if we’re going to have a serious, straight-faced discussion about whether or not the DeShaun Watson trade was worth it two years into it, then it is damn sure worth asking what the other options available were. Because “Not-Watson” is great until you actually think about what the Browns could have or should have done instead.

If your answer is Baker, I don’t know what to tell you. We just disagree. I think it’s all established and if he proves me wrong and goes on a run someday, then I’ll just be proud of him. But as things stand keeping him, and his attitude at the time (that had to sort of get beaten out via hard times), and then subsequently paying him in the neighborhood of $40 million a year (because that’s the market y’all), puts the Browns in a cycle where they might be good but they would never be good enough. So that’s Option 1.

Option 2 is the crystal ball Bears trade-up scenario. Beyond that, we’re staring down the barrel of Kenny Pickett. Or maybe the Browns spend a first-round pick on Will Levis last year. Maybe they convince Aaron Rodgers that they are a better staging area for his show. Perhaps this year we’re high-fiving each other that the Browns got Russel Wilson and Justin Fields.

To be clear: I am not unhappy with DeShaun Watson at quarterback. When he went down last year, the Browns were 6-3 and had just beaten the Ravens in their house. They had a clear track to the No. 1 seed in the conference. I, like anyone else, would have liked for the success to have already occurred, but I’m pretty encouraged by three blowout wins and a comeback victory against the Ravens out of five starts. I’m looking forward to seeing what a full, healthy year looks like.

I’m going into this season feeling like the Browns are good enough to win a Super Bowl. I don’t see another available option, either at that time or between then and now, where I would be feeling the same way. So yes it was worth it, and if the Browns weren’t going to do it again, what would they do? And would whatever that thing is put them closer to winning a title than they are right now? Because that’s the only question that matters.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Curtiss Brown: I am going to give an honest assessment because I have thought about this deeply. If I was given the chance to potentially make the Deshaun Watson deal again, two years removed I would say yes.

Now please listen before you blow this article up with unnecessary comments. What is it that the Cleveland Browns lack since the team has returned? A quarterback. People thought Baker Mayfield was going to be the guy (mainly because Baker was somewhat of a symbol that represents Cleveland, which I think is outrageous) but it never happened.

Now look at the current landscape in the NFL. The top tier teams, such as the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens (and I’ll throw in the Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Los Angeles Chargers in there) what is it that they have? A playmaker at the quarterback position. Sure, you can have all the other pieces, but if you want to win a Super Bowl, let alone get there, you need to have the guy at quarterback.

The Browns didn’t have that, which is the harsh reality people need to accept. Sure, Baker was competent, but he didn’t show enough at the time to be that guy to put the team over the top. I understand Baker had a shoulder injury his last season in Cleveland, but that didn’t excuse the mistakes he constantly made that many believed would be corrected. If he stayed for another year, considering how the owner is, I’m pretty sure Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry would’ve been fired and you are back at Square 1 yet again.

I can’t fault Cleveland for doing what other teams were willing to do, which was take a swing. Despite his off-field issues at the time of his requesting the trade, Watson had suitors. The Miami Dolphins were interested, and the Atlanta Falcons were deemed the front-runners to land Watson at one point. Aside from the Falcons, the Carolina Panthers and the New Orleans Saints also had an interest in Watson. Even if Watson chose another team, Cleveland would’ve had a new quarterback regardless in 2022, but Cleveland took a swing. The backlash was going to happen, but if they chose to stand pat, who knows what would’ve happened? Telling you right now, they wouldn’t be in a position to land C.J. Stroud in 2023 (considering how bad the team would have to be).

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns
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I’ve said this numerous times, Watson needs to play better and stay on the field. His play hasn’t necessarily dropped off, but he needs to be consistent. We’ve seen Watson elevate mediocre talent before, going back to when he was in Houston. Outside of DeAndre Hopkins (who is still a No. 1 wide receiver at this point), the rest of his supporting cast was mediocre and at times below average. Houston’s defense also declined at one point during his tenure, but Watson was able to finish in the top 10 in terms of efficiency in his last year with the Texans.

As far as the contract goes, another team would’ve done the same thing. At the time he was on the market, teams lined up for Watson. If he went elsewhere, would the outrage be the same if another team did what Cleveland did? Atlanta was reportedly one of the teams that asked why they weren’t allowed to match what Cleveland offered. Would the media criticize Atlanta the same way Cleveland has been criticized? Probably. Probably not. Teams are desperate, that’s how things are nowadays, and regardless the owners will do anything to improve their team.

Do I think Watson can return to top 5 level play, like his 2020 season in Houston? Probably not. But if he can get to anything close to 2019 form, that’s doable. If you can get that, who knows where Cleveland could go. Watson just needs to play better.

You’ve heard from the DBN staff, now it’s your turn. Would you still make the trade for Deshaun Watson? Tell us why or why not in the comments!

Originally posted on Dawgs By Nature – All Posts