What does $70 million get you in the NFL?
For the Browns, a mess at quarterback.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam has the most expensive quarterback room in the NFL. Deshaun Watson is down for $46 million. Baker Mayfield has $18.8 million fully guaranteed. And Jacoby Brissett will make up to $6 million.
Yet, of the three, only Brissett is guaranteed to be in a Browns uniform this year.
Mayfield and the Browns are headed toward a divorce, though no team wants Mayfield at his salary. The Browns may have to pay some or most of that $18.8 million to facilitate a trade.
And now Haslam and Browns fans nervously await the decision from arbitrator Sue Robinson in Watson’s disciplinary hearing.
Watson was sued last year by 24 massage therapists accusing him of sexual harassment and assault. Twenty of the lawsuits have been settled, but four remain. A decision from Robinson on any punishment for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy should come within a few weeks.
Watson eventually will suit up for the Browns, who traded for him in March and signed him to a five-year, $240 million deal that is fully guaranteed. But they may not see him until 2023, as the NFL is seeking a suspension of at least a year.
If Ben Roethlisberger got four games and Ezekiel Elliott six for their transgressions, Watson should expect at least six games. But a year-long suspension is very much in play.
That would leave the Browns in quite a pickle — one that is solely a product of Haslam’s greed, impatience, and self-indulgence.
The Browns already had a decent enough option in Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick from 2018. He had a rough 2021 season, and his attitude clearly wore thin inside the Browns facility, but he did lead them to the playoffs two years ago. They also guaranteed his $18.8 million this year with his fifth-year option.
But Haslam got impatient and wanted more. The Browns have made the playoffs just once in Haslam’s nine full seasons, have cycled through 15 starting quarterbacks (including three first-round picks), and their .328 win percentage ranks 31st out of 32 teams.
So Haslam authorized the trade for Watson in March, even though the cost was staggering. Star quarterbacks who are 26 years old don’t come available often.
The Browns traded three first-round picks, plus more, to the Texans. Haslam then gave Watson the most secure contract in NFL history: a five-year, $230 million deal, with every penny fully guaranteed.
Haslam made the moves knowing full well that Watson could face a suspension. The contract explicitly allows Watson to keep his money as long as any suspension is “solely in connection with matters disclosed to Club in writing.”
That’s not all. To sweeten the deal, Haslam crafted the contract so as to minimize the financial damage of any suspension to Watson.
Between 2023-26, Watson has the same $46 million guaranteed salary. But in 2022, he receives a $44.965 million signing bonus, and his base salary is the minimum $1.035 million.
If Watson is suspended, he keeps the signing bonus, and only his base salary is affected — $57,500 for each week he is suspended.
Read that again.
Haslam would still have to pay $45 million to a quarterback who would be suspended for an entire year for sexual assault.
Watson will still get $15 million on July 31, $15 million on Jan. 31, and the final $14.965 million next March 31. It’s all protected by his contract.
It makes you want to take a shower.
It also handcuffs the Browns, who traded for Amari Cooper and signed defensive end Jadeveon Clowney this year and clearly view themselves as Super Bowl contenders despite last year’s 8-9 record.
That’s $45 million for a QB to sit at home, 16 percent of the Browns’ payroll, vanished into thin air.
Watson would count for only $8.993 million on the salary cap in ‘22. But with $45 million in actual cash paid out to Watson, Haslam might not be willing to spend more on another short-term QB.
There should be no sympathy for Haslam; this mess is completely his to own. But Browns fans deserve a hug, because their options at quarterback this year are, in order: Salvageable, Bad, Worse, More Worse, and Doomed to Fail:
Salvageable: Brissett for 6-8 games, Watson for the rest.
Brissett, 29, has started 37 games in his career and played well in stretches for the Colts. The Browns signed him to a one-year deal worth up to $6 million for just this situation. He theoretically could keep the Browns afloat until Watson returns.
Bad: Trading for Jimmy Garoppolo.
If Watson is out for the entire year, Garoppolo, who will be traded by the 49ers once he is fully healed from shoulder surgery, is the one quarterback who can keep the Browns’ Super Bowl hopes alive. He’d be a solid one-year stopgap.
But Garoppolo has had trouble staying healthy. And he won’t be cheap. He is under contract for one more season at $25 million. Does Haslam really want to spend $25 million on top of the $52 million he’s paying Watson and Brissett, plus whatever he will have to pay Mayfield?
Worse: Trading for Drew Lock or Sam Darnold.
Lock, already traded from Denver to Seattle this offseason, at least is cheap, with a salary of $1.45 million. A depth chart of Lock and Brissett can get a team through a 17-game season, but the Browns wouldn’t be contenders.
Darnold, the only other starting-caliber QB available, brings nothing to the table. He’s 17-32 as a starter, was benched last year in Carolina, and has the same albatross of a contract ($18.8 million) as Mayfield.
More worse: Going with Brissett as the starter.
Brissett is a great backup, but he’s just 14-23 as a starter, with a 60.2 completion percentage. The only other QB on the roster is Josh Dobbs, who has thrown 17 passes in five seasons. The Browns essentially would be conceding the season if they roll with Brissett and Dobbs.
Doomed to fail: Going with Mayfield as the starter.
In theory, Mayfield looks like a good fallback. The Browns could even offer him a raise to help smooth things over.
But they would be begging for trouble by keeping Mayfield on the roster. Once they traded for Watson, they nuked their relationship with Mayfield.
The emotions are too raw for Mayfield to come back.
“It’s been pretty obvious the mutual decision on both sides is to move on,” Mayfield said. “We’re ready to move on, I think, on both sides.”
Haslam thought he outsmarted the rest of the NFL when he traded for Watson and gave him the massive contract. But now he has a massively expensive quarterback who might not play at all in 2022. He has another expensive one whose contract is a roadblock for a trade.
And $70 million later, his quarterback situation is still a mess.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.