By Eric D. Williams
FOX Sports NFL Writer
It has been 439 days since Deshaun Watson threw a spiral in a meaningful NFL game.
The Clemson product sat out all last season as the criminal case involving sexual assault and inappropriate behavior allegations worked its way through the legal system.
He was inactive for all 17 games, but the Houston Texans paid him.
Watson achieved some clarity last week when a Texas grand jury in Harris County declined to indict him.
While 22 civil lawsuits against Watson are still pending, it didn’t take long for a handful of teams in need of a quarterback franchise to eagerly line up in pursuit of the 26-year-old signal-caller.
The New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers were among the favorites, with the Cleveland Browns a late entry into the process. Watson met with all four teams.
It had been reported that the Browns were out of the running earlier this week, with Watson reportedly choosing between the Falcons and the Saints. However, the Browns apparently made a hard push and ultimately showed Watson the most money.
According to reports, the Texans traded Watson to the Browns for three first-round picks, a third-rounder and a fourth-round selection. Cleveland receives a fifth-round selection in return. Watson had a no-trade clause in his contract but was willing to waive it for the deal to Cleveland, according to reports.
Watson will reportedly receive a new five-year, $ 230 million deal that’s fully guaranteed, the most money ever guaranteed in an NFL contract.
For the Browns, they move on from polarizing former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield and bring in perhaps the most talented quarterback in that city since Bernie Kosar. Cleveland’s pursuit of Watson did not sit well with Mayfield, who posted a lengthy good-bye letter to fans on social media earlier this week, then asked for a trade through his representation.
The Browns declined Mayfield’s trade request but are now likely to make good on the Oklahoma product’s wishes with Watson in the fold.
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A playoff team in 2020 with uneven play from Mayfield, who played through a shoulder injury last season, the Browns are now one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl for the upcoming season.
The enthusiastic pursuit of Watson is the latest example of talent outweighing any potential baggage or issues players might have outside the white lines. Several QBs remain available on the market in free agency who have won games in the NFL, including former top-five picks in Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Cam Newton.
However, none of those players possess the transcendent talent and ability to lift a franchise from persistent mediocrity to sustainable championship success.
The Browns believe Watson is that guy.
And it’s hard to argue against that when looking at his career stats. The last three seasons he played in the NFL before sitting out last year, Watson threw for 12,840 yards (No. 6 in the league) for 85 touchdowns and just 28 interceptions. He completed 69% of his passes and posted a 104.7 passer rating over that period. He made the Pro Bowl all three of those seasons.
The Browns are getting one of the best passers in the game in the prime of his career. Securing a franchise QB is why Green Bay backed up the Brinks truck to pay Aaron Rodgers and the Denver Broncos traded away multiple first-round picks to secure the services of Russell Wilson.
But Watson will also have to explain and take ownership of the off-field issues in a manner that allows him to move forward and gain the trust of a no-nonsense Browns fan base in Cleveland.
That will take more nuance and precise execution than any complex play coach Kevin Stefanski will require Watson to run next season. Even though he was not criminally charged, Watson will also likely face some type of discipline or suspension from the NFL.
“Any transaction would have no effect on the NFL’s ongoing and comprehensive investigation of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson,” NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told the league’s website. “Nor would it affect his status under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Personal Conduct Policy.
“If the league’s investigation determines that Watson violated the Personal Conduct Policy, discipline may be imposed pursuant to the policy and the CBA.”
Watson is scheduled to play against the Texans when Cleveland travels to Houston for the upcoming season. He got his wish to leave Houston, but now he faces the intensity and immense pressure to bring an NFL championship to Super Bowl-starved Cleveland.
Receiving a bounty of picks in return for Watson, the Texans are now in full rebuild mode under new general manager Nick Caserio and coach Lovie Smith. Winners of the AFC South division four out of five years from 2015 to 2019, the Texans have moved on from Pro Bowl players in JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins and now Watson.
For now, the Texans will ride at quarterback with Davis Mills, who played solid in his rookie season as Houston finished 4-12 under then-coach David Culley, who was fired after one season.
The Texans now have nine picks in the upcoming draft, including two in the first round and five of the first 80 selections. Houston also has four other selections from the Browns, including first-round selections in 2023 and 2024, along with a third-round selection in 2023 and fourth-round pick in 2024.
Much like the Dallas Cowboys trading Herschel Walker for a slew of picks to the Minnesota Vikings during the start of Jimmy Johnson’s head coaching tenure in 1989, this deal could set the foundation for a future playoff run in Houston.
Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @eric_d_williams.
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