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
Columbus Crew investor operator Jimmy Haslam walks the sideline before the game against Nashville SC at Field in Columbus, Ohio on April 2, 2022. /

The Cleveland Browns exit strategy

So suppose some year in the future, just hypothetically, the Browns finish with a losing record, and the team is old due to not having had a first-round pick in forever. The Browns will owe $55 million-plus or even more to Watson for the upcoming season and perhaps even another year or two.

Now he wants out. In addition, they are way over budget because of monster contracts for Denzel Ward, Myles Garrett, Amari Cooper, and several others. It’s time to get a new quarterback and rebuild for the future. What then? Is there an “exit strategy,” as they say in business terms?

Maybe. When the time comes, the Browns need to find a trading partner who is totally committed to a one-year push for the Super Bowl, just like the 2021 Rams, 2022 Browns, or Colts. The Browns also need Watson to remain a star, and not poison his own well like Baker Mayfield did either by off-the-field issues or on the field performance or health. If the time comes when Watson wants to get traded, it will help if Watson and his agent are equally flexible as Matty Ryan and his agent were.

If Watson needs to be traded, some general manager may get “Quarterback Fever” and pass it on to the owner. The other team, just like the Browns, may be mesmerized by the possibility of a first-year discount, meaning that Watson’s first year could be for less than market value.

That can cause their eyes to glaze over. Then they will start talking about giving up draft picks and signing away the team’s future. Once they catch quarterback fever, they stop caring about the future.

This seems like a ridiculous Browns fantasy, but recall that Cleveland wasn’t the only team willing to trade multiple draft picks for Watson, so it might be possible again. We saw the same thing happen for Carson Wentz (two years in a row) and Matt Ryan.

These trades were all the result of way over-valuing (in this author’s opinion) the quarterback position, and under-valuing the future of the franchises involved. It’s not logical, but it’s true. Don’t expect three first-round picks the second time around, but the Browns could even get a valuable draft haul in return.

That’s the positive scenario, but it’s not guaranteed. Without belaboring the point, no player is risk-free, and Watson has at least as much risk as the average player. Watson has had two ACL surgeries in his brilliant career, and then there is the obvious risk of legal repercussions from the pending court cases that he is involved in. The Browns gambled a huge amount of money on one player. He’s one hit away or one off-the-field incident away from having it all go up in smoke.

However, it is not just Watson’s contract. The Browns are built on the play-now, pay-later plan, in many ways like the Saints. There is no first-round draft pick until 2025. Many of Berry’s signings were made with generous guaranteed money and commitments to pay bonuses in voidable years which will drain future budgets for years to come.

Cleveland has made the collective decision to gamble everything on the 2022 season, and 2023 and beyond will be about clearing cap space and trying to dig themselves out of the hole that they have dug for themselves.

If the time comes that the Browns have to admit that they are rebuilding again, they may find it necessary to see whether the core of the team wants to tough it out with the Browns rebuilding process. The “core” refers to stars Myles Garrett, Denzel Ward, Joel Bitonio, Nick Chubb, and Wyatt Teller. The Browns and the Dawg Pound need to be up-front if Watson is traded.

The message is that we love all of you, but without Watson, the team might win four games. Do you want to be traded to a contender or can we keep you happy in Cleveland somehow? What is best for each player, deep down?

Chaining them to a sinking ship might be what the fans want and expect, but wouldn’t be the act of love that it seems. We would like to see some of them, at least, spend their entire careers with Cleveland, as Joe Thomas did, but not everyone is like Joe Thomas, nor should they be. The cold hard truth is that the Browns will need draft picks and cap space again if they are to avoid a total disaster.

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If, God forbid, Watson is injured or becomes untradeable for some other reason, then the Browns would have to figure out how to play football with a budget that is $55 million dollars lower than the budgets of their rivals, and no first-round draft choice until 2025. Does anyone else think that is a problem? Please comment below!