Does reality television get any better than the National Football League?
First rule of the offseason, never count out the Cleveland Browns – a team that hasn’t appeared in the Super Bowl but typically causes numerous February-to-August headlines, never more so than Friday afternoon when the club shockingly acquired quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans.
This latest stunner dropped just as it appeared Watson, whose no-trade clause with Houston enabled him to essentially pick his next employer from a group of suitors, had narrowed his finalists to the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. (The Browns had been informed they were out of the running for Watson’s services Thursday morning.)
But now? The league’s power balance shifts on its axis yet again. Your Watson winners and losers:
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Deshaun Watson: After sitting out the 2021 season, fully compensated to stay home amid a sordid mess of his own making, the three-time Pro Bowler will (eventually) resume his career with a star-crossed organization seemingly just a better quarterback away from serious Lombardi Trophy contention. Watson, 26, also flushes a four-year, $156 million contract extension he signed in 2020 – it was scheduled to take effect this season – and replaces it with a five-year, $230 million pact that is fully guaranteed, eclipsing the days-old standard ($151 million) set by Aaron Rodgers. Wow.
Lamar Jackson: The Baltimore Ravens superstar and league’s 2019 MVP looks increasingly brilliant serving as his own agent now that Watson has reset the quarterback pay scale in such a significant way. Jackson has been eligible for an extension since the end of the 2020 season, but by biding his time he’s poised to rake in a lot more dough than 2018 draftmate Josh Allen (six-year extension for $258 million with $150 million guaranteed) did with Buffalo just months ago.
Browns: Depending how many games Watson plays in 2022, they could be right back among the AFC’s playoff quarterfinalists, as they were two years ago. And finally – just maybe – they have the guy at the controls who can take them where Brian Sipe, Bernie Kosar, Tim Couch, Baker Mayfield and so many others couldn’t.
Texans: They emerge from football limbo armed with the ability to quickly recover from an 8-25 record over the past two seasons. GM Nick Caserio picks up the three first-round draft picks he sought plus a third- and fourth-rounder, currency he badly needs to revitalize what is arguably the league’s worst roster. The franchise also gets a natural pause to evaluate a years-long teaching moment given Watson expressed his desire to leave long before the numerous claims against him emerged – that on the heels of public divorces from WR DeAndre Hopkins and DE J.J. Watt, who was a community pillar in Houston. Not only do the Texans need to reload, they need to re-evaluate how they do business.
Texans fans: You’ll get your pound of flesh, Watson and the Browns scheduled to play at NRG Stadium in 2022 … assuming Watson is eligible. But we’d expect the league’s schedule makers to slot this game later in the calendar.
Baker Mayfield: Once the Browns’ dalliance with Watson emerged, he quickly signaled his desire for a trade. Mayfield will surely get it now, even if the dollars and cents need sorting out given Cleveland owes him nearly $19 million fully guaranteed in 2022. The Saints, Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts – Mayfield’s preferred destination, per NFL Network – loom as potential landing spots.
Case Keenum: Cleveland’s journeyman QB2, who went 2-0 in place of injured Mayfield last season, will probably get a showcase opportunity assuming Watson isn’t available to start the season. Play well, and Keenum, 34, could cash in a year from now, perhaps as the league’s best-compensated backup.
Amari Cooper’s fantasy stock: Welcome to Cleveland. The Browns’ new WR1 might just post his first 100-catch, 1,200-yard campaign now that the new guy will be taking over the league’s 27th-ranked passing offense.
Aaron Rodgers: (And Tom Brady. And Matthew Stafford.) They all pretty much have a cakewalk to the 2022 NFC divisional playoff round as the competition level in the AFC gets increasingly stiff.
Aaron Rodgers: Your contract stinks. Hire Watson’s rep, David Mulugheta.
Nick Chubb’s fantasy stock: The three-time Pro Bowler, who’s averaged 1,200+ yards and nine TDs on the ground during his four-year career is almost surely going to sacrifice numbers to the multi-talented Watson. In football reality, Chubb shouldn’t mind more load management.
Baker Mayfield: Wallowing in your feelings doesn’t send a great message when other teams are evaluating you as a replacement option.
Jimmy Garoppolo: One fewer potential opportunity to fill as the (lame duck?) San Francisco 49ers quarterback continues to rehab his surgically repaired throwing shoulder in hopes of finding a new starting gig.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The ink isn’t dry on Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement paperwork, but they’re now mired in an AFC North featuring three superstar quarterbacks in Watson, Jackson and Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow. Suddenly seems the blood is seeping through Pittsburgh’s Mitchell Trubisky Band-Aid. With the draft just six weeks away, your (final consequential?) move, Kevin Colbert.
NFC South: Just when it seemed the Falcons, Saints or Carolina Panthers, who also took a shot at obtaining Watson, were poised to mount a challenge to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers … welp. You wonder if all four of these teams will be in pursuit of a new QB1 a year from now. In the meantime, they’re all on Cleveland’s regular-season schedule for 2022.
Matt Ryan: He was in the same boat as Mayfield, watching his club essentially bidding to replace the 2016 MVP after 14 faithful seasons. Of course Ryan, 36, is in a much different stage of his career than Mayfield, which partially explains why he’s (publicly) handled this sideshow more professionally. Ryan also realizes he’s likely going to be with the Falcons for another year given they’d take a $40.5 million cap hit to trade him. Make the most of it, Matty Ice.
Browns: The Watson acquisition won’t be universally embraced by their fan base, and not due to any lack of prodigious talent this team could have – should have – drafted in 2017. But you can’t simply dismiss the allegations he brings with him to the shores of Lake Erie, and it’s completely understandable if a large swath of supporters eschew brown-and-orange No. 4 jerseys. Let’s just hope Watson and the team don’t go into a damage-control mode but instead lean into meaningful discussions and actions given the cloud that follows, regardless of how Watson’s remaining legal issues resolve.
Deshaun Watson: Shame it came to this. While it would be so typical to label Watson a franchise savior, awfully bitter aftertaste on that front given it’s only been a week since a Harris County, Texas, grand jury decided he wouldn’t be indicted despite accusations of sexual misconduct by two dozen women during massage appointments. Watson still faces 22 civil lawsuits and could well incur a suspension from the league even though he was mothballed – again, with pay – in 2021. Watson once had a sterling off-field reputation and seemed on course to follow Watt as a Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winner in Houston, with the chance to become the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl for that city. After emerging from the courtroom last week, Watson said, “Going to keep fighting to rebuild my name and rebuild my appearance in the community. We’re going to continue on the legal side off the field handle what we need to handle, but also ready to get back on the field.” He’ll be throwing NFL passes again soon enough, but seemingly better odds he brings a title to Cleveland than restoring his name. Here’s hoping he can at least make meaningful amends.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.