It used to be, once upon a time, that organizations held onto their franchise quarterbacks for dear life, absent some mitigating circumstance. We are seeing priorities shift in recent years, however, with a number of highly significant trades taking place, or very nearly coming to pass. Another is pending on the horizon—admittedly one with enormous mitigating circumstances—and it could be coming to a division near you.
Yes, we are talking about Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was recently relieved to learn that he would face no criminal charges over plentiful allegations of sexual misconduct with massage therapists. Even though he continues to face 22 civil suits, there are many teams expected to be willing to trade for him.
There was some buzz indicating that the Pittsburgh Steelers were one such team. As of now, I currently do not believe that they have any intentions of making a sincere effort to trade for Watson, in part based on a report from the typically-reliable Aaron Wilson of Pro Football Network, who covered Watson in Houston up until last year—when he was fired for making some poorly-thought-out remarks regarding his accusers.
“The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, contrary to reports, are not and have not been involved in the Watson sweepstakes, according to a source”, he wrote in an article yesterday breaking down the market as he currently understands it. But the Cleveland Browns are very much in the market.
He writes that Cleveland is “incredibly interested” in pursuing Watson, and that they have emerged as a wild card in a race that could include around 10 teams who are seriously pursuing him, including the Seattle Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers are an interesting case that bears similarities to the Browns, because they both have quarterbacks with big cap hits that they would almost certainly have to move in order to acquire Watson. For Carolina, it’s Sam Darnold, who has a fully-guaranteed $18,858,000 salary on the books.
Mayfield has the same exact cap number, as they both reflect the fifth-year option value for quarterbacks in 2022 who have not gone to any Pro Bowls or been named to an All-Pro team. Beginning with their own 2018 class, fifth-year option values become fully guaranteed for injury, skill, and cap when exercised, rather than at the start of the new league year of the fifth year of the contract.
So if indeed the Browns are really pursuing Watson, that means no only that it’s the end of the Mayfield era as a starter in Cleveland, it would mean he’s almost surely out of Cleveland altogether.
The Browns just agreed to acquire former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper via trade, which will become official at the start of the new league year. He comes with a $20,000,000 base salary, which pushes Cleveland over the cap.
In order to trade for Watson, they would have to clear more than $38 million in cap space just to fit him onto their roster before they can restructure his deal. They could clear more than $30 million by trading Mayfield and releasing wide receiver Jarvis Landry.