The Deshaun Watson Contract Was Always a Bad Idea. Now It’s Messing Up the QB Market.

The Baltimore Ravens are struggling to re-sign fan-favorite Lamar Jackson partly due to the Cleveland deal for the controversial QB

Deshaun Watson #4 of the Cleveland Browns looks on before the game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on January 1, 2023 in Landover, Maryland.
The butterfly effect of the bad Deshaun Watson contract is being felt most in Baltimore right now
Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

The Deshaun Watson contract keeps going from bad to worse, and not just for the Cleveland Browns, who so far have appeared to really Cleveland Browns-ed themselves again. This time they may have Browns-ed the entire NFL.

In an interview with legendary Browns signal-caller Bernie Kosar, who hosts his own talk show with former teammate Hanford Dixon, Ozzie Newsome, general manager of the Baltimore Ravens, revealed that his team’s owner said the Watson deal “did create some problems.” The conversation revolved around the Ravens’ heavily chronicled struggles to re-sign their former-MVP and fan-favorite quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Referring to Watson’s pact with the Browns within that context, Newsome said, “We have to figure out if that’s the norm or an outlier.”

It’s worth noting that Newsome tried to steer the conversation away from heavy-handed criticism of the Browns. He delivered his remark in a light-hearted manner and took time to say he doesn’t have the energy to worry too much about the reasons behind personnel moves that other organizations make. He has “enough problems” as it is managing his own team’s affairs, he said wryly.

But he was quoting his team’s owner, Steve Bisciotti, who told reporters in March 2022 that he wanted the Ravens to eventually come to a financial agreement with Jackson. “All I know is that his teammates love him and the front office loves him,” Bisciotti added.

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News had broken prior to the Bisciotti interview last year that Jackson wanted to delay contract talks so he could focus on football, a decision Bisciotti respected. One decision Bisciotti did not respect much was Cleveland’s choice to give Watson a fully-guaranteed contract valued at $230 million, after the Browns acquired the controversial quarterback in a trade that same month.

“Damn, I wish they hadn’t guaranteed the whole contract,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti also told reporters at NFL league meetings in March of last year. “I don’t know that he should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.”

Bisciotti may not have been the only NFL owner who felt that way, or was even willing to ensure those challenges were mitigated through nefarious means. In November, the NFL Players’ Association filed a claim against the owners, charging them with collusion. It appeared to the union that owners cooperated in an effort to disrupt the distribution of additional guaranteed contracts like the one Watson signed.

Between March and November 2022, Watson served an 11-game suspension and paid a $5 million fine after settling nearly two-dozen civil suits with women who accused him of sexual misconduct. The penalties against Watson handed down by the NFL were criticized by a number of media outlets and organizations, including the National Organization for Women, which said they were “nowhere near enough.” ESPN reporter Ed Werder tweeted last August when the penalties were announced that Watson’s salary for 2022, which was long-expected to be limited by a suspension as the civil suits loomed, was a little more than $1 million. That meant Watson would only lose $632,500 due to the suspension, while the fine amounted to an additional 2.2% of Watson’s total salary across the contract.

Watson was set to make $46 million in 2023 with the Browns, but the team has since restructured the deal. Still, per The Athletic, he’ll earn $19.1 million this coming season, before his yearly salary skyrockets to $64 million the following three.

The Browns — the AFC’s poster boys of long-standing futility — needed to rework the contract to clear salary cap space. But their deal with Watson, which set an NFL record for guaranteed money, has already looked bad, not just due to its off-the-field, public-relations implications, but on the gridiron as well. Though Watson was behind the eight ball in returning to NFL action after an extended absence to begin with, he did not impress at all last season. On his way to a 3-3 record as a starter, he finished his six games with a paltry 79.1 quarterback rating. For context, Baker Mayfield, who the Browns gave up on for Watson, had a 79 rating last season. He also switched teams twice, unable to hack it even with the Carolina Panthers, who were so desperate for better QB play they turned to former Jets first-round bust Sam Darnold for relief. (In four previous seasons Darnold exceeded a 79.1 rating once — barely; though he did perform well for the Panthers, scoring a 92.6 rating.)

That’s the kind of company Watson is in now when it comes to quarterback comparisons. Prior to his legal issues, though, he was actually more like Lamar Jackson. Even with a poor 2022 under his belt, Watson has played in 10 fewer games than Jackson in the NFL and has thrown 230 more completed passes, 10 more touchdowns and just three more interceptions. Jackson’s quarterback rating? 102.6. Watson’s sits at 103.9.

Whether or not Watson, who’s still only 27 years old (the same age as Patrick Mahomes), can return to form on the field remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Ravens have to figure out how the comparison between him and Jackson should impact their long-term contract talks, lest they want to see Jackson play for the Detroit Lions, who’ve emerged as a betting favorite to land him.

That might ultimately make the most sense in a way. The Lions are basically the Browns of the NFC.

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