How the Cleveland Browns can survive Deshaun Watson era cap purgatory

Browns, Andrew Berry. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Browns, Andrew Berry. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /
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Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, center, takes questions from local media during his introductory press conference at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on Friday. /

Can the Cleveland Browns survive paying unprecedented salary cap charges in the Watson era? 

When the news broke that the Cleveland Browns were signing Deshaun Watson to a gargantuan contract, the Dawg Pound was split in two.

Many of us were thrilled that a star of his magnitude was coming to Cleveland. Almost everyone recognized that year one of the Watson era would be a bargain, with a cap hit of only $10 million, in rounded numbers. However, in 2023 the number goes up to $55 million, which amounts to 24.4% of the league’s estimated cap allowance of $225 million.

So what, you may ask? The essential problem is that no team has won the Super Bowl in recent memory while paying more than about 15% of its cap allowance on one player. Check out the following chart on Super Bowl quarterbacks (numbers from

Year Winning QB   Team       Rank    Cap Hit   Pct Cap  Losing QB   Team    Rank  Cap Hit    Pct Cap
2012 Flacco            Ravens       16       $8.0 M      6.6%   Kaepernick 49ers        48       $1.2 M   1.0%
2013 Wilson           Seahawks  52      $681 K      0.6%   Manning     Denver        3       17.5 M 14.2%
2014 Brady             Patriots      12   $14.8 M    11.1%   Wilson         Seahawks 53     $817 K    0.6%
2015 P. Manning   Broncos        6   $17.5 M    12.2%   Newton       Panthers   15    $13.0 M   9.1%
2016 Brady             Patriots      18   $13.8 M      8.9%    Ryan            Falcons        3    $23.8 M 15.3%
2017 Foles              Eagles         47     $1.6 M      1.0%    Brady           Patriots     20   $14.0 M    8.4%
2018 Brady             Patriots      11   $22.0 M    12.4%   Goff              Rams          26     $7.6 M    4.9%
2019 Mahomes     Chiefs          32     $4.5 M      2.5%    Garoppolo  49ers          15   $20.0 M 11.0%
2020 Brady             Bucs               5   $25.0 M    12.6%   Mahomes   Chiefs         32     $5.3 M    2.7%
2021 Stafford         Rams            9    $20.0 M    11.0%   Burrow       Bengals      19     $8.2 M    4.5%

10 Year Average                                                          7.8%                                                                         7.2%

So, if the Browns are going to really pay Watson 24.4% of the cap allowance, that amounts to more than three times what the average of the Super Bowl-winning quarterback has received over the past 10 years.

Now, there are a large number of us within the Dawg Pound who are totally okay with this. The rationale is that the NFL is a quarterback’s league, and so the team needs a premier quarterback no matter what the cost. Many fans doubt whether the salary cap is real, and believe that Andrew Berry can simply refinance everything and all these problems will evaporate.

In that case, Dawg Pound Daily should definitely quit publishing stories like this one that worry about the salary cap and other non-existent issues, and ship the author off to a Siberian Gulag and let the authorities there take care of him.

Another school of thought, however, realizes that by overspending on the quarterback and trading away three consecutive first-round draft picks, the Browns will eventually weaken the rest of the team and descend back into mediocrity. The NFL in general is going through a phase in which several teams are overspending the historical level on quarterbacks, and the Browns are way out in front.

It stands to reason that they will crash and burn. By 2024, the talent will be depleted from the roster and the Browns are headed into a crisis. That is the assumption that this author works from.

So, how can they survive?

At first, this author thought there was no way the Browns could survive and they would be looking at a four-win season in a few years. But it looked like Atlanta was going to impale itself on Matty Ryan’s huge contract this season, and they got out of it by getting Indianapolis to take over the payments.

They refinanced, and suddenly Ryan is affordable this season. Similarly, Indy was stuck with Carson Wentz, and somehow, by magic, he took his overweight contract to the Washington Commanders and Indy got draft picks for him. Amazing! It seemed certain that both Atlanta and Indianapolis were going to be crushed under the burden of their awful quarterback contracts, but they lived.

What is extremely curious is that Matt Ryan adjusted his contract to make it more favorable to the Colts in order to make the move. Had he stayed in Atlanta, he could have collected more money, but he would have remained in limbo, like where Baker Mayfield is now. But the Colts not only received a first-year discount, but some adjustment of the downstream money to make it a more liveable deal overall, and his flexibility enabled the deal to go forward.

Another counter-example was the New Orleans Saints, who went all-in for Drew Brees’ final year in 2020, and wound up almost $100 million over the salary cap in 2021. This was staggering. Yet by cutting players, restructuring contracts, and inventing “voidable years” (applying bonus dollars to future years in which no salary is due to be paid), the Saints knocked $111 million dollars off their cap in one season! Incredible!

So if the Saints, Colts, and Falcons can wriggle off the hook, why not the Browns?

Cleveland has to face the fact that they are already overspent for 2023. Overthecap publishes an estimate for the top 51 contracts. The number 51 is chosen because of an obscure rule that requires NFL teams to use their top 51 player salaries to report their payroll during the offseason, even though the regular-season roster size is 53.

The payroll is currently projected at $232.7 million. Add $1.7 million to get them to 53 players. Add $3.3 million for the practice squad. Let’s estimate the draft plus in-season pickups cost $5 million (that’s too low, but let’s be optimistic). The total sum amounts to $242.7 million dollars for 2023. 2023 estimated NFL cap allowance number is $225 million, meaning the Browns are overspent by $17.7 million dollars off the payroll.

The situation is actually worse than that, if you dare to read the next page, but there may be things that Andrew Berry can do to keep the playoff window open one more year.