March 3, 2024

The 2023 NFL offseason has officially started, and the Browns front office is tasked with building a playoff team in Cleveland. In previous articles, I discussed the overall state of the Browns, https://clesportstalk.com/state-of-the-browns-2/, how they can create salary cap space, https://clesportstalk.com/fixing-the-browns-2023-salary-cap/, how to solve their defensive line problems, https://clesportstalk.com/solving-the-browns-defensive-line-problem/, and the state of the AFC North, https://clesportstalk.com/the-state-of-the-afc-north/. However, even after all this analysis, the key to the Browns’ future playoff hopes is quarterback Deshaun Watson. How he plays will be the biggest determining factor. Will he look like the last six games of 2022 or can head coach Kevin Stefanski resurrect the Deshaun Watson of 2018 and 2019? Stefanski was able to turn both Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield into playoff quarterbacks and helped Jacoby Brissett have his best season.

There’s no question that as the quarterback at Clemson, Watson was an elite talent. In his three years there (2014-2016), he threw for 10,168 yards (67.4%), 90 touchdowns and 32 interceptions. In 2016, he helped Clemson beat Alabama in the National Championship game going 36 of 56 for 420 yards and three touchdowns. At the time, Alabama had the number one passing defense in college football. Watson also ran for 43 yards and a touchdown and won the Offensive Game MVP. He was drafted 12th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Houston Texans.

Watson played four years (2017-2020) in Houston. As a starter, he was 31-28 completing 1186 of 1748 passing (68%) for 14,539 yards, 104 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. He rushed for 1,677 yards and 17 touchdowns. In the playoffs, he’s 1-2 completing 80 of 126 passing (63.5%) for 870 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. He rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Watson set NFL rookie records for most passing touchdowns in a game (five), most passing touchdowns in a month (16) and most passing touchdowns in a half (four). His best season with the Texans was in 2020. As a starter, he went 4-12 on a very bad team but went 382 of 544 (70.2%) for 4823 yards, 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a QBR of 112.4. The completions, attempts, percentage, yards, touchdowns and QBR were all career highs. His one weakness because of his mobility, he runs into sacks. In 2018 he had career highs in sacks (62) and loss yardage (384).

The rust from not playing an NFL game in over 700 days was evident in 2022. While he did go 3-3 as a starter, the last game against the Steelers didn’t instill confidence.

It was downright ugly.

Giving Stefanski and Watson an entire offseason together can only help. I expect a totally different offense by the Browns in 2023 to highlight Watson’s strengths with more rollouts and designed running plays. If Watson can regain the magic of 2018 & 2019 the Browns will make the playoffs, if he looks like he did in 2020, Stefanski will lose his job.

 

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