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Deshaun Watson, roster building and the salary cap

Cleveland has $230M in guaranteed money committed to their quarterback, but that should not hamper GM Andrew Berry’s efforts in building out a talented roster.

Cleveland Browns v Washington Commanders Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Cleveland Browns went “all in” as the saying goes in the spring of 2022 by trading for quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Not only did the team give up three first-round draft picks to the Houston Texans to acquire Watson, they then handed the quarterback a five-year, $230 million contract that is fully guaranteed.

There are legitimate on-field risks associated with a contract like that, such as what happens if Watson suffers a major injury? Or what if, after a 700-day layoff, he never returns to being the same player who averaged 4,288 passing yards, 33 combined passing and rushing touchdowns, and completed 68.7 percent of his pass attempts with the Texans from 2018 to 2020.

There are also concerns about the impact Watson’s contract has on the salary cap and general manager Andrew Berry’s ability to build a competitive roster around Watson. That was mitigated last season when Watson’s cap number was only a bit more than $9.3 million, thanks to Berry structuring the contract the way that every NFL team does to push the bulk of the money into the later years.

That changes this year as Watson’s cap number increases to $19 million before accelerating to $63.9 million in each of the final three years, according to Over The Cap.

Even with the salary cap increasing, those are some pretty big numbers, which can lead to fears that the Browns will be rolling out a roster of Watson and 52 rejects all playing at the league minimum.

But those fears, while understandable, are not necessarily rooted in reality.

Berry has been able to comfortably add wide receiver Amari Cooper, defensive linemen Za’Darius Smith and Dalvin Tomlinson, and safeties Juan Thornhill and Rodney McLeod to a roster that already features one of the league’s best offensive lines, one of the best defensive ends in Myles Garrett, the league’s best running back in Nick Chubb, and a talented cornerback room headed by Denzel Ward.

That is a pretty decent roster, as former quarterback Ryan Leaf pointed out last week on his podcast The Straight Line:

Admittedly, not all of those players were acquired in the aftermath of the Watson trade, but the on-paper strength of Cleveland’s roster heading into the 2023 season illustrates that a proper roster can be built around the team’s high-priced quarterback.

But what about the next three years and those $63 million cap charges?

Turns out that may not matter very much, either, at least according to Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Brandt, who cleared up a few myths last week about how teams approach the salary cap.

According to Brandt, the only number that matters is the actual cash a team pays a player:

In analyzing a player contract or a team payroll, many fans (and even media) focus on cap impacts. I am here to tell you to stop doing that. What matters is the cash, not the cap. Cash is real money in and real money out. Cap is simply bookkeeping. Even dead money—leftover nonroster charges for players no longer with the team—is merely unamortized proration clogging up the pipes of the overall cap. It is not cash.

And once a player’s cap number increases, there is a simple mechanism available for teams to make the numbers more manageable to help keep a strong roster around them - they just restructure the contract:

If top players, especially quarterbacks, want to facilitate the signing of other important players on the team—we can debate whether that is their role, but even if we allow for it—there is a way they can easily do that, and hundreds of players have. They can simply do a cap restructure of their contracts: converting their large salaries into signing bonuses, thereby pushing out cap charges into the future years through proration. These are cap restructures done by every team in the NFL. The player receives the exact same money he was scheduled to receive, sometimes even with better cash flow and an earlier payment schedule.

While Brandt’s article was not specifically about Watson, the points he highlights are applicable to the situation in Cleveland, and Berry is certainly more than capable of working the various puzzle pieces of the salary cap to make things work.

As we pointed out earlier, there are legitimate concerns about Watson’s guaranteed money, but those are almost exclusively related to his on-field performance. But it is clear that the contract will not hamper Berry’s efforts to continue to put together the best roster he can, so fans should be able to rest easy knowing that the club won’t lose any of its best players simply because of Watson’s pull on the salary cap.