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Why the Cleveland Browns’ Deshaun Watson trade should go down as the worst trade in NFL history

The Cleveland Browns have lived in quarterback purgatory for decades. It’s why the franchise chose to trade for Deshaun Watson amid more than two dozen accusations of sexual misconduct. Less than two years later, the Browns’ quarterback woes continue.

Since the 1999 NFL season, the Browns have had 36 different players start at quarterback in a regular-season game. While the level of performance has varied, Derek Anderson (2007) was the only one to receive a Pro Bowl selection since 1987.

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  • Cleveland Browns received: Deshaun Watson, 2024 fifth-round pick
  • Houston Texans received: 2022-’24 first-round picks (13th overall, 12th overall, TBD), 2023 third-round pick, 2024 fourth-round pick

Watson, a three-time Pro Bowl selection with the Houston Texans, was supposed to fix all that and turn Cleveland into a Super Bowl contender. Instead, the Browns may now be responsible for the worst trade in NFL history and the ramifications will last for years to come.

Deshaun Watson’s on-field performance speaks for itself

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Jacksonville Jaguars
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Cleveland had a good quarterback situation in 2022. While Watson served his suspension, Jacoby Brissett performed like an above-average starting quarterback. Meanwhile, backup Joshua Dobbs has since proven to be an effective fill-in starter.

QBQB RatingYPATD % – INT %Completion %Pass YPG
Jacoby Brissett88.97.13.3 % – 1.6%64%163
Joshua Dobbs81.55.93.3% – 1.9%62.4%194.4
Deshaun Watson82.56.54.2% – 2.6%59.9%182.2
NFL passing statistics from Week 1 of the 2022 season to Week 10 of the 2023 NFL season

Related: NFL QB rankings

At a minimum, Watson has been outperformed by Brissett and his numbers are on par with Dobbs’ starts with the Tennessee Titans and Arizona Cardinals. We can also compare Watson’s numbers to some other mid-tier quarterbacks who are viewed as fringe starters.

  • Deshaun Watson stats (last 11 starts): 7-4 record, 59.9% completion rate, 2,004 passing yards, 13-8 TD-INT, 6.5 yards per attempt, 82.5 QB rating, 33 sacks taken
  • Desmond Ridder stats (last 10 starts): 6-4 record, 65.9% completion rate, 2,094 passing yards, 8-6 TD-INT, 7.1 yards per attempt, 87.0 QB rating, 28 sacks taken
  • Baker Mayfield stats (last 11 starts): 4-7 record, 65% completion rate, 2,374 passing yards, 14-5 TD-INT, 6.8 yards per attempt, 92 QB rating, 21 sacks taken

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Explanations can be made for why Watson is struggling. He went 700 days without playing in a regular-season game, receiving limited practice reps across 1.5 seasons when he was either suspended or not allowed to play for Houston. It’s why the 2023 season was supposed to be the year when it all came together.

Of course, Watson’s shoulder injury could be attributed to some of his woes this season. Originally suffered in Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans, the 28-year-old has already missed multiple games this season because of damage to his subscapularis muscle, which impacted the velocity, accuracy and mechanics of his throws.

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Cleveland handled the injury bizarrely, twice clearing Watson to play only for its star quarterback to sit out with reports from Watson’s camp shedding more light on the specific nature of the injury. Yet, the excuse of injury-caused struggles wasn’t afforded to Mayfield by the same Browns organization in 2021.

Of course, Watson’s shoulder injury could also be attributed to how he’s played the game. In Houston, the Texans’ organization had long-term concerns about Watson’s ability to hold up because he held onto the football too long, taking 155 sacks (2018-’20).

  • Deshaun Watson sack rate (2019-’20): 8.2 percent, 3 sacks per game average
  • Deshaun Watson sack rate (2022-’23): 10.4 percent, 3.2 sacks per game average

Nothing has changed in Cleveland. At the very least, the time away from football has seemed to make Watson’s decision-making versus pressure worse and his responsibility for the pressures allowed hasn’t improved.

  • Deshaun Watson PFF stats (2020): 2.99 average seconds to throw, 22.9 percent of dropbacks QB responsible for some pressure, 87.7 QB rating vs pressure, 10-5 TD-INT vs pressure (17 games)
  • Deshaun Watson PFF stats (2023): 3.16 average seconds to throw, 17.9 percent of dropbacks QB responsible for some pressure, 40.3 QB rating vs pressure, 0-1 TD-INT in four games

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While time to recover might’ve healed Watson’s shoulder injury and will lead to him making more accurate throws, spending even more time away from the field won’t improve how he responds to pressure. Plus, the constant duress and hits he experiences lead to even greater long-term injury risks.

Cleveland can’t escape the Deshaun Watson contract

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Fittingly, the biggest reason why this is the worst trade in NFL history is because of what made it happen. A single decision made by owner Jimmy Haslam is the primary reason why the Browns are stuck in a self-created impossible situation they can’t escape from.

On March 17, 2022, Jake Trotter of ESPN reported the Browns were out of the running for Watson. Cleveland’s dream of having a star quarterback under center was dead and there was still a decision to be made on Baker Mayfield. At this point, the Browns could’ve moved on from Watson and prioritized other options.

Instead, Cleveland did the unthinkable. The Browns offered Watson a fully guaranteed contract, offering him more guaranteed money than any player in NFL history. No other NFL team was willing to match it. So, Watson changed his mind about playing for the Browns and a deal was made. The NFL executives who ripped Cleveland for making the deal have been proven right.

YearSalaryCap HitPre-June 1 releasePost-June 1 release
2023$1.08 million$19.057 millionN/AN/A
2024$46 million$63.977 million$200 million dead cap$155.977 million dead cap
2025$46 million$63.977 million$136.938 million dead cap$105.977 million dead cap
2026$46 million$63.977 million$72.961 million dead cap$63.977 million dead cap
Deshaun Watson contract details via Spotrac

Cleveland didn’t do itself any favors long-term by restructuring Watson’s contract in March of this year. While it provided the Browns’ front office with short-term cap flexibility, it also meant there would be an even heftier price to pay in the years to come. Here’s why that matters.

According to OverTheCap.com, the Browns are projected to only have $6.079 million of cap space in 2024. For context, Cleveland would have the eighth-lowest cap space next spring. Just as concerning, the Browns are one of only three NFL teams projected to have less than $50 million of cap space in 2025. Now, let’s look at their key players who will need to be paid market value in the years to come.

Cleveland Browns free agents 2024

  • Harrison Bryant, TE
  • Shelby Harris, DT
  • Jordan Elliott, DT
  • Maurice Hurst, DT
  • Jacob Phillips, LB
  • Anthony Walker, LB
  • Sione Takitaki, LB
  • Grant Delpit, S

Cleveland Browns free agents 2025

  • Amari Cooper, WR
  • Nick Chubb, RB
  • Elijah Moore, WR
  • Jedrick Wills, OT
  • Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB
  • Greg Newsome, CB
  • Dustin Hopkins, K
  • Jordan Akins, TE

The Browns have constructed one of the best rosters in the NFL and there’s a strong argument to be made that their defense will never be better than it is right now. Getting Nick Chubb back in 2024 will help this offense, but that still leaves Chubb, Elijah Moore and Amari Cooper among the club’s top free agents in 2025. In short, Cleveland has a short window before things could get much worse because of Watson’s deal.

The elephant in the room and the worst trade in NFL history

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A few months ago, some thought the Denver Broncos’ trade for Russell Wilson would go down as the worst trade in NFL history. Like Watson, the Broncos signed Wilson to one of the largest contracts in professional sports and saddled themselves with long-term cap woes. Yet, Wilson is clean off the field and is playing well this year with Sean Payton.

The other trades deemed to be some of the worst in modern history also don’t look as bad. The Indianapolis Colts gave up a first-round pick for Carson Wentz, but they flipped him for a Day 2 pick a year later and avoided long-term financial consequences. The Chicago Bears trading up for Mitchell Trubisky and the New Orleans Saints sacrificing their 1999 and 2000 draft classes for Ricky Williams cost their roster dearly, but Williams didn’t have Watson’s off-field accusations nor did Williams’ contract set the Saints back for years.

Cleveland can’t escape Watson’s contract, no NFL team would be willing to trade for him. The cap hits and guaranteed money itself are two of the biggest reasons, but the original reason Watson was traded by Houston also stands in the way.

Watson faced 26 accusations of sexual misconduct, harassment and assault with the NFL finding the evidence and allegations credible enough to effectively suspend him for 1.5 seasons by keeping him on the Exempt List in 2021 and then suspending him for 11 games in 2022.

The Browns knew the suspension was coming and despite public statements suggesting they thoroughly investigated the claims made against Watson, the accusers’ attorney said Cleveland didn’t speak to him before the trade and the franchise reportedly didn’t reach out to his accusers.

Cleveland had multiple opportunities to avoid making the worst trade in NFL history. Instead, the franchise’s desperation led to reckless decision-making and a deeply flawed process that will likely waste one of the best rosters in the NFL. Unfortunately for the fans, it might only get worse in the years to come.

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