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Cleveland Browns’ new Deshaun Watson contract breaks 1 major NFL contract norm

Jason Burgos

The Deshaun Watson contract put together by his representatives and the Cleveland Browns is a deal that is far different than most major NFL pacts, and it may end up giving many other franchises future contract negotiation headaches.

The Browns getting involved in the hunt for the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback was an unexpected development last week. Teams like the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers being in high pursuit of the embattled 26-year-old made sense since they desperately needed an upgrade at the position.

However, for better or worse, the Browns already had a solid starting QB option in Baker Mayfield that they invested a lot and a top overall draft in. Nevertheless, the team made the bold choice to go after a talented signal-caller who may miss quite a few games next season because of an ongoing legal battle with over 20 women who have accused him of sexual assault.

The unwritten guarantee rules of long-term NFL deals

deshaun watson contract, deshaun watson
Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The team’s decision to go after Watson and open the door for in-house drama with Mayfield should not make it too surprising then, that the franchise gave their new big-ticket acquisition a long-term contract that was just as bold.

Long-term NFL deals are far different than those in other top leagues like the NBA and MLB. In other leagues, players expect to make the majority, if not all, of the money they signed up for. However, in the NFL the money agreed over the first few seasons is often all they will ever get. Outside of franchise quarterbacks and elite pass rushers, most players often become cap casualties when the money left on their deal is no longer guaranteed.

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Contracts for major free agents are usually guaranteed for the first three seasons. One perfect example is the six-year, $120 million deal the Buffalo Bills gave to two-time Super Bowl champ Von Miller earlier this month. On the surface, it is a massive amount for a 33-year-old. However, when you look into the details, only $52.5 million over the first three seasons is guaranteed for the former Denver Broncos star.

The new Deshaun Watson contract is a major break from NFL contract norms

Yet, the Cleveland Browns bypassed the league norms of guarantees with Watson. For the new five-year, $230 million deal they gave him, all of it is guaranteed. It is a shocking move but one the team had to make to land a player they felt could revitalize their franchise.

  • Deshaun Watson stats (2020): 4,823 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, 7 interceptions

On Wednesday, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk gave even more details on this monster of a deal. This included the close to $170 million the team will need to put into escrow by next March, and how the contract will be a major headache for other teams when they have to negotiate new deals with other franchise QBs.

“As it relates to Watson’s contract, it means that the Browns will be required, per a source with knowledge of the formula and policy, to place $169 million into escrow as of March 31, 2023. As the source explained it, the league takes a snapshot of all fully guaranteed salaries on January 31 of each year. Any fully guaranteed payments not made by March 31 must be placed in escrow, up to 75 percent of the total contract value. Also, each team has a $15 million annual allowance. Under the terms of Watson’s current deal, it works out to be a major chunk of cash that [Browns owner Jimmy Haslam] must set aside next year.

“The willingness of the Browns to fully guarantee five years of income for Watson puts other teams who will be signing franchise quarterbacks to long-term deals in a position to be pressured to do the same. Now that one team has done it, others will be expected to do it, too.”

Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio on the Deshaun Watson contract

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Watson is now the second-highest paid QB in the league with a $46 million annual salary. That is only second to four-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers and the $50 million he is expected to make in 2022.