The Cleveland Browns did not empty their draft coffers and revolutionise NFL contract negotiations just to leave their season in the hands of Jacoby Brissett.
But that Plan C still remains their most likely quarterback scenario as a cloud of unresolved controversy hangs over Deshaun Watson and the Browns with NFL training camps set to open this week. About 17 months after the first of what is now 24 lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct by Watson, it remains unknown if and for how long the three-time Pro Bowler will be suspended under the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
Until then, it’s business as unusual when the Browns huddle up for the first time Wednesday.
Watson was cleared of criminal charges and subsequently settled 20 of 24 civil suits, but the decision on his football availability lies with independent arbitrator Sue L. Robinson, who presided over a three-day hearing that wrapped June 30. The former federal judge asked both the NFL and Watson’s defence to submit post-trial briefs by July 11, but clarity remains elusive two weeks later.
The Browns surely weren’t expecting Watson to be suspended for the entire 2022 season — reportedly the penalty sought by the league — when they traded six draft picks and fully guaranteed Watson’s new $230 million ($A332m) contract extension. Even for a franchise best known over the past 23 years for a revolving door of quarterbacks — 32 different starters since its 1999 reincarnation — that would qualify as malpractice.
It looked for a while as if the Browns’ best option to avoid a wasted season was to mend fences with displaced starter Baker Mayfield by convincing him it was in his best interest to be their mercenary fill-in starter, playing to drive up his own free-agent price during Watson’s presumed suspension. But that option was canned on July 6, when the Browns ate $10 million ($A14m) of Mayfield’s contract to trade him to the Panthers for a conditional fifth-round draft pick.
Remember, in 2017 the Browns passed with picks No. 1 and No. 4 on drafting Watson and his then-spotless image as a once-homeless kid made good. Instead they waited to draft Mayfield at No. 1 in 2018 — a decision they reversed within four years at a hefty cost and regardless of red flags.
Because the NFL cannot count on the Browns to bench but continue paying Watson while he remains eligible — as the compliant Texans did last season — the penalty likely will be announced during training camp. Perhaps then Watson will share his own account of what happened as he promised (after the investigation was over) during his first post-trade news conference, though it is more likely he will try to evasively spin his future forward.
Thrust into the middle of all of this is recent third-stringer Brissett, who could somehow find a stranger way to become a starting quarterback than when he … went from third-stringer to starter for the Patriots following Tom Brady’s suspension and Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury in 2016 … and when he went from backup to surprise 15-game starter for the Colts when Andrew Luck abruptly retired in late August 2019.
As the scrutiny mounts, the Browns will have about six weeks to get ready for their Week 1 opponent: the Panthers, potentially led by Mayfield.
Here are nine other training camp storylines to watch:
QUARTERBACK BATTLE IN CAROLINA
A byproduct of Watson landing with the Browns was Mayfield landing with the Panthers, who now will conduct the NFL’s most interesting preseason quarterback battle between the No. 1 (Mayfield) and No. 3 (Sam Darnold) overall picks in the 2018 draft. Mayfield’s career record is 29-30 and Darnold’s is 17-32.
Between acquiring those two and rookie Matt Corral, the Panthers spent picks in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds of drafts from 2021-24. The future of hot-seat head coach Matt Rhule could be directly tied to picking the right starter in camp and having that quarterback show hope for the future.
Kyler Murray finally got the new contract he wanted from the Cardinals. How does that impact what the Ravens will be willing to give Lamar Jackson a new contract that he doesn’t seem ready to accept. The Ravens actually traded receiver Marquise Brown — to Jackson’s dismay — to the Cardinals, where he is reunited with his college teammate Murray.
Two star quarterbacks left extra vulnerable to injury as runners, two very different situations. Murray’s contract did not include the Watson-type guaranteed money. Does that mean the Murray contract shows the Watson deal to be an outlier? Murray skipped some voluntary workouts and Jackson skipped all before they both showed up for mandatory OTAs. Holdouts are a thing of the past because of unforgivable $50,000 ($72,000) per day fines, but is Jackson willing to bite his tongue?
TOM BRADY IN, BRUCE ARIANS OUT
If you haven’t appreciated Brady’s greatness because of the assumption he will play forever, the G.O.A.T’s 40-day mini-retirement should be a wake-up call. Brady’s return was followed by Arians’ sudden retirement — handing head-coach duties to deputy Todd Bowles and igniting speculation Brady forced out the critical Arians.
Now that it’s clear any season can be Brady’s last, is he hunting for a John Elway- and Peyton Manning-like retirement on top with one more Super Bowl ring? Can Brady make Bowles — who went 26-40 and managed conservatively as Jets head coach — look like a genius? Or will this pairing flop and make Brady regret not knowing a good thing when he had it?
Setting aside the Browns’ uncertainty and Panthers’ competition, the Colts (Matt Ryan), Broncos (Russell Wilson), Commanders (Carson Wentz), Falcons (Marcus Mariota) and Seahawks (TBD) have new veteran starting quarterbacks.
Wilson’s arrival created both Super Bowl aspirations and the all-time best quarterback division. Wilson, the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Raiders’ Derek Carr and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert represent the AFC West with 17 Pro Bowl selections in 25 combined seasons.
Ryan and Wentz are at the helm of playoff-caliber teams. Second chances for Mariota and either Drew Lock or Geno Smith in Seattle.
ARROW POINTING UP IN NEW YORK?
As Yankees and Mets fans dream of a Subway Series, Giants and Jets fans dream of .500 records because their teams are tied for the NFL’s worst record (22-59) over the past five seasons.
The Jets’ playoff drought (since 2010) is five years longer than any other team’s. The Giants have one winning season since 2013.
But the Jets kept their coaching staff and quarterback intact, then loaded up in free agency and with three first-round draft picks to signal the end of a long rebuild.
The Giants did their most thorough housecleaning in four decades, addressed long overdue needs on the offensive line and pass rush with their two top-10 picks, and finally seem to have a plan not held together by tape and gum.
It defies logic a bit. Even with more NFL-ready receivers than ever coming out of college, teams still are trading for then handing out huge extensions to pass-catchers like the Eagles’ A.J. Brown (four years, $100 million), Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill (four years, $120 million) and Raiders’ Davante Adams (five years, $141. million).
The Browns traded for the final three years and $60 million of Amari Cooper’s contract. Hill and Adams are considered the best of that group — and maybe the best two in the NFL. But they were playing with Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, respectively. Does the quarterback make the receiver or the receiver make the quarterback?
History suggests it’s the former — just look at the career of Odell Beckham Jr., who remains an injured but enticing free agent — unless Hill and Adams are the exceptions who lift their new quarterbacks to another level.
NOW PLAYING FOR THE 49ERS?
After falling one win shy of making a second Super Bowl appearance in three years in January, the 49ers are the NFL’s biggest wild card.
How does the game of chicken between receiver Deebo Samuel and the 49ers end? With an extension? With a trade? With a pulled-back trade request?
Jimmy Garoppolo is out at quarterback, but that brings more doubts. Trey Lance is the quarterback, and the 49ers could take a few steps back or take off like the 2018 Chiefs, depending on Lance’s readiness. One (discouraging) hint as to the organisation’s true feelings on Lance is that Garoppolo wasn’t sent packing at the start of the offseason.
The NFC West could be the first division to ever send all its teams to the playoffs.
The Steelers have gone 18 straight seasons without a losing record, three shy of the Cowboys’ record (1966-85). That time frame also is known as the Ben Roethlisberger Era, when he started 247 of 289 regular-season games.
To keep that streak alive in Roethlisberger’s retirement, the Steelers need the winner of a quarterback competition to thrive — whether that’s rookie Kenny Pickett or Mitch Trubisky, whose numbers with the Bears are better than he gets credit for.
The hard part? The AFC North is a where teams are pulled to the middle and any could finish first and any could finish last, maybe with only two wins separating top to bottom for the second straight year.
One year ago, Trevor Lawrence was the can’t-miss rookie quarterback. Then came the total dysfunction of the Urban Meyer era, which left Lawrence poorly developed.The hiring of Doug Pederson to replace Meyer as head coach and a $300-plus million free-agent spending spree changed the narrative. How quickly can the Jaguars surge up the AFC South if Lawrence is the real deal? Another No. 1 overall draft pick — potential-over-production defensive lineman Travon Walker — begins his rookie season, too.
This article first appeared on The New York Postand was reproduced with permission.