The Cleveland Browns faced a major decision at the quarterback position at the close of the 2021 regular season.
And while the final chapter is still far from being written, it appears from purely a football perspective that the team made the right call in acquiring Deshaun Watson.
Cleveland general manager Andrew Berry had several options on the table as he looked at the quarterback position heading into the offseason and as the season has played out it becomes clear he chose the best available option.
One option was to stay the course and bring Baker Mayfield back for another season. Cleveland was already on the hook for Mayfield’s salary after picking up his fifth-year option, so it was tempting to keep him around.
But Mayfield was facing surgery on his non-throwing shoulder and you never know how a player will respond to an injury, especially in their first year after surgery. His mechanics (and possibly his confidence) were as broken as his shoulder. He was also vehemently hated by a portion of the fanbase in a way that is rarely seen in these parts. Combine all that and there was simply no way the Browns could have moved forward with Mayfield for a fifth season.
Mayfield was eventually traded to the Carolina Panthers but his play did not improve and he ultimately asked for his release. He is now playing out the season with the Rams and while some of the joy has returned to his game, at this point it appears that Mayfield’s NFL career will likely be as a backup that bounces from team to team.
With Mayfield not a realistic option, Berry turned his attention to the trade market. But in addition to Watson, there were some other big-name quarterbacks that were available and the Browns dodged a bullet on each of them.
The Atlanta Falcons were ready to move on from 14-year veteran Matt Ryan - why else would they be one of several teams actively pursuing Watson? - and once they missed ended up trading Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts. Ryan has been bad with the Colts, throwing for 14 touchdowns against 13 interceptions, and has been benched twice. The Colts will certainly release him after the season to save $17.2 million in cap space, but Ryan will still cost $18 million against Indianapolis’ salary cap in 2023.
"That's not what he wanted to cook," - Patrick Starr, on Russell Wilson's pick.— Spencer Soicher KRDO (@spencersoicher) December 25, 2022
Let's ride, Patrick. That one went hard.
The Browns could have also gone all-in on Russell Wilson, who ultimately landed with the Denver Broncos after the Broncos sent a package of players and five draft picks, including two first-rounders and a pair of second-rounders, to the Seattle Seahawks. They then signed Wilson to a contract extension that essentially keeps Wilson in Denver through 2025 as they owe him $104 million during that time period through a variety of guarantees.
In return, the Broncos have been one of the worst team’s in the league, averaging a league-low 15.4 points per game while Wilson has just 12 touchdown passes, been sacked a league-high 49 times, and after the firing of head coach Nathaniel Hackett has the team scrambling to find a way to “fix” a 34-year old quarterback that might be at the beginning of a downward career slide.
Hunter Renfrow is WIDE OPEN … And Dereck Carr throws a game sealing interception. pic.twitter.com/RizHcITuJj— Fratletes Podcast (@FratletesPod) December 25, 2022
It may not have seemed so at the time, but it became clear this week that the Las Vegas Raiders would have entertained a trade offer for Derek Carr, who was benched on Wednesday for the final two games of the season and has left the team so he is not a distraction, which possibly makes it even more of a distraction.
Carr’s play has been spotty this season but he is still the same quarterback he has been his entire career, which is good enough to be mostly competitive but not good enough to make a true difference. Or, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell put it this week:
Carr, a solid quarterback on a deal just below the top of the market, costs more like the stars and plays more like the rookies. He has a higher floor than most other passers, but that’s not an exciting combination. Alongside quarterbacks such as Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Tannehill, his stability seems tantalizing to some teams and uninteresting to others.
If the Browns had swung a deal for Carr they would have basically been in the same position they were with Mayfield, good enough to win their share of games but not good enough to truly make a deep playoff run.
That brings us back to Watson, who is better than Mayfield and Carr, and younger than Wilson and Ryan, which is why Berry and the Browns made the right choice when it came to addressing the quarterback position.
It may not look or feel like the right choice at the moment as Watson hasn’t had a breakthrough game in the four starts he has made so far for the Browns. But the talent is there and after another offseason of work and a full training camp, there is every reason to believe he will be back on form and providing the Browns with a return on their investment starting in Week 1 of the 2023 season.
Admittedly that is not much consolation for a fanbase that has grown frustrated wondering if the Browns will ever figure it out, but given how the past year has played out it remains clear that Cleveland made the right call in acquiring Watson.