Deshaun Watson rules out Browns as QB mulls trade options, future NFL team

Nate Ulrich
Akron Beacon Journal

The Browns passed on Deshaun Watson five years ago in the NFL draft.

On Thursday, Watson passed on Cleveland.

The Browns have been informed they are out of the running for Watson, a person familiar with the situation confirmed to the USA TODAY Network. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. Watson has a no-trade clause in his contract, and he decided he won't waive it for Cleveland. 

The Browns were willing to accept whatever public backlash would have come from making Watson the face of their franchise because owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam believe the quarterback is capable of leading Cleveland to its first Super Bowl.

The Haslams authorized a massive trade offer for the controversial quarterback, essentially signaling they can no longer envision hoisting a Lombardi Trophy with Baker Mayfield beside them.

In the end, Watson rejected the Browns. His other suitors, per reports, are the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons.

The Browns risked their partnership with Mayfield by taking a massive swing at Watson, and the organization whiffed with the entire NFL watching the sweepstakes unfold.

Watson is a three-time Pro Bowl selection who has been accused of sexual misconduct by two dozen women during massage appointments. Last Friday, a grand jury decided Watson wouldn't be criminally charged, but he still faces 22 civil lawsuits and a likely NFL suspension.

None of it stopped the Browns from trying to trade for Watson, 26. He's an elite player, and his talent had to have superseded all of his baggage in the eyes of the Haslams. 

Whichever team lands Watson is expected to send as many as three first-round draft selections and more to the Houston Texans for the QB.

The Browns are believed to have offered a trade package along those lines.

Each of the four teams that visited with Watson in the buildup to his decision had to present a trade proposal to the Texans to get a meeting with the quarterback, ESPN reported.

Watson met with the Saints and Panthers on Monday, the Browns on Tuesday and the Atlanta Falcons on Wednesday. He also met with the Saints for a second time Wednesday night, per reports. Those are the only four teams known to have met with him. The owners, general manager and head coach of each team attended its meeting with Watson, according to ProFootballTalk.com.

The Browns finished last season with a disappointing record of 8-9, but Watson undoubtedly took note of their strong roster. They boast a stellar offensive line, an elite running back stable and a promising defense. Plus, they acquired four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper on Saturday in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys.

Still, the Browns struck out.

The Browns had been conducting due diligence on Watson for a while. The Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Commanders also did their homework on Watson, but those teams ultimately bowed out of the pursuit for a trade, USA Today reported.

Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) warms up before a game during a game against the Cleveland Browns at NRG Stadium.

Cleveland Browns, Baker Mayfield could be breaking up this offseason

Browns general manager Andrew Berry said Jan. 11 and March 1 he “fully” expected Mayfield to be the team's starting quarterback in 2022 and echoed the sentiment in a meeting with Mayfield's agent at the NFL scouting combine. However, everyone who's familiar with the cold, hard business of professional football knows plans can change.

Even though Watson isn't joining the Browns, the Mayfield era in Cleveland could be coming to an end this offseason.

The Browns view Mayfield as their starter moving forward, a person familiar with the team's plans confirmed to the USA TODAY Network, but it remains to be seen whether the franchise will continue to pursue upgrades or whether Mayfield would be willing to return. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the fluidity of the situation.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Mayfield wrote what read like a goodbye letter to Cleveland fans and posted it on social media Tuesday night as Browns brass flew back from its meeting with Watson in Houston.

Mayfield had not requested a trade as of Wednesday night, a league source said. However, Mayfield will likely want out of Cleveland. He is due $18.858 million guaranteed this year in the final season of his contract with the Browns.

Mayfield could become just the third quarterback in the NFL common era (since 1967) to become a top selection and last four or fewer seasons with his first team, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The players on the list are JaMarcus Russell (Oakland Raiders 2007-09) and Jeff George (Indianapolis Colts 1990-93).

Texans QB Deshaun Watson (4) and San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo speak after a 2018 preseason game.

Browns showed they're desperate for an improvement at quarterback

On the field, Watson would have been a clear-cut upgrade over Mayfield.

Watson made three consecutive Pro Bowls from 2018-2020 before sitting out last season amid his legal troubles and a refusal to play for the Texans.

Watson had requested a trade from Houston in January 2021, almost two months before the allegations of lewd behavior became public knowledge. Coming off a record of 4-12 in the 2020 season, Watson had grown frustrated with Texans brass, per reports, partly because he didn't feel he had been properly involved when it hired GM Nick Caserio.

In September 2020, Watson signed a four-year, $156 million extension, meaning his contract runs through the 2025 season. He's scheduled to make $35 million next season and $37 million in 2023.

In four NFL regular seasons, Watson has completed 67.8% of his passes for 14,539 yards and 104 touchdowns with 39 interceptions for a rating of 104.5 to go along with 307 carries for 1,677 yards (5.5 average) and 17 touchdowns. He has taken 174 sacks.

His record as a starter is 28-25 in the regular season and 1-2 in the playoffs. He has orchestrated 10 game-winning drives by pro-football-reference.com's count.

Watson had his best statistical production in 2020, when he went 382-of-544 passing (70.2%) for a league-high 4,823 yards and 33 touchdowns with seven interceptions for a career-high rating of 112.4.

The Browns opted to forgo selecting Watson twice in the 2017 draft when they picked defensive end Myles Garrett first overall and again when they traded the 12th overall selection to the Texans in a move down the board. The Texans then turned the card in for Watson, a native of Gainesville, Georgia, who won a national championship with Clemson in his final collegiate season.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6), right, talks with head coach Kevin Stefanski on the sideline in the first half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Baker Mayfield's relationship with the Browns was shaky even before they courted Deshaun Watson

Former Browns head of football operations Sashi Brown was in charge of roster decisions in 2017. The next year, former Browns GM John Dorsey drafted Mayfield. Berry served as a Browns vice president of player personnel during both of those drafts and ultimately became GM in January 2020.

As an NFL starter, Mayfield has a record of 30-31, including 1-1 in the playoffs. He has completed 61.6% of his passes for 14,125 yards and 92 touchdowns with 56 interceptions for a rating of 87.8.

He caught fire in the second half of the 2020 season, his first with coach Kevin Stefanski, helping the Browns go 11-5, reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and earn their first postseason win since Jan. 1, 1995, with a 48-37 wild-card triumph in Pittsburgh.

But Mayfield struggled mightily last season while playing through a completely torn labrum he suffered in his left, non-throwing shoulder in a Week 2 win over the Texans. He had shoulder surgery Jan. 19.

Mayfield finished the season 253-of-418 passing (60.5%) for 3,010 yards and 17 touchdowns with 13 interceptions for a rating of 83.1 in 14 games, going 6-8 as a starter. He rushed 37 times for 134 yards (3.6 average) and a touchdown. He took 43 sacks.

A failure to meet lofty expectations was amplified when Mayfield publicly criticized Stefanski's play calling twice last season.

Mayfield and Stefanski had what the coach characterized as a productive exit meeting days before the Jan. 9 regular-season finale, and they appeared capable of moving forward together with a positive working relationship.

But the Browns courting Watson may have been the final straw in their rocky partnership with Mayfield.