32 NFL Teams in 32 Days: Browns Need the Old Deshaun Watson

In two years in Cleveland, he has played in only 12 games, and not performed well on a team with enough talent to contend in the AFC North.
The Browns need Watson and Stefanski to be on the same page in 2024.
The Browns need Watson and Stefanski to be on the same page in 2024. / Phil Masturzo / USA TODAY NETWORK
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The Cleveland Browns could have a Super Bowl-ready roster, but there’s one big if: the play of quarterback Deshaun Watson. 

If Watson re-establishes himself and plays at the level he did with the Houston Texans, the Browns could be dangerous, not only in the AFC North, but the entire conference. Cleveland’s defense is good enough to stop the AFC’s best quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, C.J. Stroud and Joe Burrow. Myles Garrett captured the Defensive Player of the Year award and helped turn the Browns into one of the best defensive units in the league last season. 

Watson’s sensational performances from his Texans days, however, have become a distant memory after back-to-back forgetful seasons in Cleveland. The team is hoping the trade for wide receiver Jerry Jeudy could be the final piece toward Watson finding consistency with the Browns. 

If Watson struggles again, the Browns could still find a way back to the postseason behind their dominant defense, but they won’t have Joe Flacco to lean on after he left in free agency. The Flacco-led Browns went on a tear during the final month of the 2023 season before a flat postseason loss against the Texans.  

Biggest gamble this offseason: Letting Flacco walk in free agency 

It was somewhat surprising that the Browns didn’t push to retain Flacco after he saved their season en route to winning Comeback Player of the Year. It only cost the Indianapolis Colts a one-year, $4.5 million contract to add Flacco as Anthony Richardson’s backup. Perhaps the Browns didn’t want Watson looking over his shoulder, but competition could be what Watson needs to finally regain his top form from his days in Houston. Jameis Winston is a quality backup quarterback, but he’s never had a stretch as good as what Flacco did in five regular-season games to get the Browns into the postseason.

Toughest stretch of the season: Week 15 to 18 

Cleveland Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett
Garrett has 88.5 sacks in seven seasons with the Browns. / Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Browns’ potential playoff hopes could take a hit during the final month of the regular season. They host the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 15 before traveling to face the Cincinnati Bengals the following week. Then, they return home to battle the Miami Dolphins before ending the regular season at the Baltimore Ravens. That’s the downside of playing in the AFC North, as the league prefers to schedule divisional matchups toward the end of the regular season. But the Browns should have a chance in every game as long as the defense plays as well as it did in 2023.  

Breakout player to watch: DT Michael Hall Jr. 

Tabbing a breakout candidate for the Browns was difficult because they have many established players. (Selecting cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. last year turned out to be the right choice.) We’ll go with a rookie here, one that will likely be asked to play many snaps with an aging group of defensive tackles. It could take time for Hall, the team’s 2024 second-round pick, to develop into a reliable rotational player, but he might play a pivotal role down the stretch if the Browns are in the playoff hunt. The Ohio State product will back up veterans Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris. 

Best-case scenario: Browns return to playoffs with help from Watson 

The Browns desperately need Watson to find some kind of rhythm, even if he’s just a game-manager running an efficient offense—something similar to what Baker Mayfield did in 2020 to guide Cleveland to the divisional round. That’s how bad it’s been for Watson since the Browns handed him a five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract in 2022. The Browns have the skill players and offensive line to be a high-scoring offense. 

But it doesn’t bode well that wide receiver Amari Cooper and tight end David Njoku took off once Flacco filled in for Cleveland’s injured quarterbacks. Also, in a perfect world, running back Nick Chubb makes a full recovery from his severe knee injury and returns as one of the team’s top players. The Browns have the roster to contend in the AFC North and in the conference—if Watson finds his footing in Cleveland. 

Worst-case scenario: Watson struggles, team looks for way out 

If Watson doesn’t show positive signs of improvement, the Browns might be forced to bench him or look for a way out after three seasons. It wouldn’t be easy to move his massive contract, and the team firing coach Kevin Stefanski for another coach who could potentially revive Watson’s career doesn’t make sense after the Browns recently signed Stefanski to a multi-year contract extension. 

Stefanski delivered a productive offense with Flacco pushing the ball downfield. For whatever reason, it hasn’t worked out with Watson running Stefanski’s offense. Again, the Browns have the roster and coaches to go far in the postseason. But if the season goes sideways, it might time for the Browns to move on without Watson. 

Head coach-quarterback tandem ranking

No. 21: Stefanski (19) and Watson (23)

Stefanski has proven to be a sharp offensive mind with a quality staff led by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. In four years, Stefanski has led the Browns to a pair of playoff appearances, including a postseason victory for the first time since 1994. However, Watson has been an unmitigated disaster since being acquired from the Texans. In two years, he has played in only 12 games, and not performed well. —Matt Verderame

Fantasy pick: Watson

Watson has started and finished 11 games over the past two seasons, averaging 15.8 fantasy points. It should be noted, however, that he was better last season (17.7 points per game) than in 2022, when he averaged just 14.3 points after an extended absence from the league due to off-field issues. That includes three games where he scored at least 18.9 points. While it was just five games, Watson was still an asset and could be a draft value. —Michael Fabiano

Best bet: Browns over 8.5 wins +135 at DraftKings

If Watson can return to any sort of his former self, the Browns should be able to get to nine wins with their top-tier defense playing a major role. Stefanski was able to win with Flacco in 2023.  Throw in one of the best running backs in the league getting healthy at the right time, and the plus-money payout looks attractive. —Jennifer Piacenti 

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Gilberto Manzano