Andrew Berry and the Cleveland Browns made a big gamble by signing Deshaun Watson in the 2022 NFL offseason, and they knew it. The first wrinkle was his impending suspension, and they accounted for that with some creative accounting that gave a fairly unique structure to his contract.
But now that Watson has had his first full offseason in Cleveland and we've seen eight starts from him, fans are starting to worry. It's not time to fully hit the panic button just yet, but you can't fault fans in Cleveland for worrying about their future at quarterback. Especially when they've had so much turnover throughout the years.
So that has a lot of people worrying, when could the Browns feasibly move on from Deshaun Watson if they needed to?
Deshaun Watson Contract: Do the Browns Have an Out?
One thing is abundantly clear from the structure of Watson's contract — the Browns aren't going to be able to cut him. He's either getting traded or he's staying in Cleveland right through the end of the 2026 season.
Just check out the “dead money” the Browns would incur if they cut Watson in any of the following seasons:
2023: $220.1 million
2024: $200.9 million
2025: $136.9 million
2026: $72.9 million
This would be money that Watson counts against the cap even though he's not on the roster. It would either all come in the year he was released if it was a pre-June 1 cut, or would be split up between that season and the following if it was designated a post-June 1 cut. But either way, you just can't carry that much dead money and still try to field a functional roster. It just doesn't work.
Watson can't be cut.
But can he be traded? That one's a firm "maybe."
The dead money is too high for a trade right now. If we traded him this season, that's over $60 million in dead money for 2024.
A pre-June 1 trade next offseason would be $62.9 million in dead money. Again, no can do. Post-June 1 in 2024 is when a trade starts to become less absurd, as it would generate $17.8 million in dead money for 2024 then $44.9 million in 2025. Still tough to swallow, but not totally impossible.
A post-June 1 trade in the 2025 offseason is where I’d firmly put this in the “it could happen I guess” camp — $17.8 million in 2025 and $27.0 million in 2026 is a lot to swallow, but it’s not necessarily going to totally sink your franchise, especially if you’re tanking at that point.
And finally, a post-June 1 trade on the final year of his deal is pretty manageable, with $18.0 million in dead money for 2026 and just $9.0 for 2027.
There's a big caveat to all those trade options though.
If Watson is playing poorly enough that we want to trade him, who the heck would want to take on his ridiculous contract? In that situation the Browns would probably need to give up serious draft capital just for the priveledge of dumping his contract on someone else. And without a starting QB, there would be no real need to free up space with that salary dump. Maybe we see Dorian Thompson-Robinson develop into a guy that can carry the franchise, but otherwise even a Watson trade is prettty far-fetched.
Andrew Berry has made some great moves as the Browns GM, but fans in Cleveland aren't going to be singing his praises for long if Watson proves to be a full-on bust and we end up saddled with his massive contract for years to come.
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