Deshaun Watson changed his mind. The Browns have their franchise quarterback, one with some extra heavy baggage.
Despite sexual misconduct allegations made by nearly two dozen women against Watson while he was with Houston, Cleveland will make him its starting QB, the face of its organization and the highest-paid player in the NFL.
Watson has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer last week said he “did not commit any crimes and is not guilty of any offenses."
A Texas grand jury earlier this month declined to indict and criminally charge Watson.
Watson waived his no-trade clause Friday and accepted a trade to the Browns after previously rejecting the team — a stunning reversal that rocked the NFL and changed the trajectory of two organizations.
The Texans announced the agreement with the Browns, one of four teams to actively court Watson this week.
The three-time Pro Bowler, who didn’t play last season, had informed the Browns on Thursday that he wasn’t coming. However, he had a change of heart, called them Friday and said he was ready to start fresh in Cleveland, said a person who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The Browns are paying a hefty price for Watson. They’re sending the Texans first-round draft picks the next three years plus a 2023 third-round pick and 2024 fourth-round pick. Houston is shipping Watson and a 2024 fifth-round pick to Cleveland.
“I felt it was the right move for our organization as we head into the new league year focused on building our roster for the 2022 season,” Texans general manager Nick Caserio said. “Our priority right now is adding talented players to the foundation we have already put in place over the last 15 months and this trade supports that plan.”
The Browns have yet to officially welcome Watson, who posted a photo on Instagram of him wearing a No. 4 Browns jersey and flexing. He wrote: “Cleveland, LETSSSS GOOOO!! #DawgPound Ready To Work!”
He should be happy. Watson’s also receiving a five-year, $230 million guaranteed contract, a record.
Watson will be joining a Cleveland team with plenty of talent, but one that underachieved last season and has been in search of a franchise quarterback for years. He became a target of the Browns after the grand jury declined to indict him on sexual misconduct claims made by 22 women.
Watson is still dealing with civil lawsuits from the women, massage therapists who accused him of assault and harassment. He’s also possibly facing a suspension by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
The trade will not affect the league’s inquiry into Watson.
“Any transaction would have no effect on the NFL’s ongoing and comprehensive investigation of the serious allegations against Deshaun Watson,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an email to AP. “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’s arrival in Cleveland is certain to trigger a backlash by some fans, but the Browns are comfortable with his character after doing their own investigation of Watson before committing to chasing him.
The team will undoubtedly feel some heat and deal with tough questions about why they’re bringing on Watson despite his off-field issues. As part of their presentation to him in Houston earlier this week, the team outlined a plan to help Watson reshape his image.
Cleveland does have some experience in that area after signing running back Kareem Hunt, who was seen on video shoving a woman when he was with Kansas City. Hunt served an eight-game league suspension for his actions in 2019.
The Browns’ public pursuit of Watson angered incumbent starter Baker Mayfield, who requested a trade. Cleveland turned down Mayfield’s demand before learning Watson had agreed to waive his no-trade clause and jump to the AFC North.
Mayfield will likely be dealt in the next few days and there are several teams that may be interested in signing the 26-year-old. He struggled last season after injuring his left shoulder in Week 2, but has shown he’s capable of being a quality starter after leading the Browns to the playoffs in 2020.
Indianapolis, New Orleans and Seattle are among the possible landing spots for Mayfield.
After the Browns were initially rejected by Watson, the team was trying to figure out how to mend a broken relationship with him. That’s no longer necessary as Cleveland’s focus will shift to welcoming Watson.
Watson had also been courted by Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans. Cleveland seemed to have the longest odds to get him, but he was intrigued by their talented roster, which includes star defensive end Myles Garrett and running back Nick Chubb.
It may have also helped Cleveland’s chances of getting Watson when the team signed free agent wide receiver Amari Cooper last week.
Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam have spent the entirety of their tenure trying to find the right quarterback. The team had tried almost every possible avenue, signing veteran free agents and drafting college stars like Johnny Manziel and Mayfield, who was selected first overall in 2018.
The Watson trade smacks of some desperation, considering his legal woes but it does give them an elite player capable of matching up with Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and any of the other top QBs in the AFC.
Watson had originally demanded the Texans trade him after the 2020 season, before the sexual misconduct accusations.
Cleveland had a chance to draft the former Clemson star in 2017, but twice passed on him. They didn’t overlook him this time, and may have finally solved a position that confounded the team since its expansion rebirth in 1999.
Watson had his best season in 2020, leading the league with 4,823 yards passing along with 33 touchdowns.