Deshaun Watson suspended 11 games; What now for the Cleveland Browns at quarterback?

BEREA, Ohio — The Cleveland Browns have already made two of the NFL’s biggest quarterback trades this offseason.

Now that Deshaun Watson is suspended for 11 games, would the Browns consider another big quarterback deal?

On Thursday, the NFL and NFLPA reached an agreement on discipline for Watson, which includes a $5 million fine and a mandatory behavioral expert evaluation that includes direction to follow her proposed treatment program. The settlement took the decision out of the hands of Peter C. Harvey, who oversaw the NFL’s appeal.

Disciplinary Officer Sue L. Robinson initially imposed a six-game suspension on Watson on August 1 after she determined that he had committed sexual assault during massage sessions, among other violations.

The NFL argued the penalty was not enough for what Robinson called “predatory” and “egregious” behavior and appealed the decision. Commissioner Roger Goodell appointed Harvey, a former New Jersey Attorney General, to rule on the appeal. Ultimately, the league and the NFLPA reached an agreement.

Now that Watson’s suspension is official, sources say Cleveland faces a quarterback dilemma with only two real options.

Moving forward with backup Jacoby Brissett? Or go bold and get San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the best passer on the trading block?

The case for Brissett

Earlier this off-season, the Browns signed Brissett to play should Watson be suspended. That being said, according to multiple team sources, they were originally scheduled for a suspension of around six games, which is basically the length of the first penalty.

When Robinson’s six-game rule was announced, multiple team sources conveyed belief that the Browns could win 4-2 against a manageable schedule with Brissett at quarterback, which would keep Cleveland in the AFC playoff picture ahead of Watson’s Week 7 return.

Brissett, 29, has plenty of experience as a backup for big-name quarterbacks.

A rookie for the New England Patriots in 2016, he filled in after Tom Brady was suspended for Deflategate and Garoppolo sustained a shoulder injury. Then, just before the start of the 2019 season, Brissett became the starter for the Indianapolis Colts following the surprise retirement of Andrew Luck. Last year, Brissett replaced injured starter Tua Tagovailoa in Week 2 for the Miami Dolphins.

“Since I’ve been in this league, it’s the next man,” Brissett said at training camp. “So obviously this experience not only helps with gaming, but also with understanding – you have to be ready when your number is called.”

Despite being a backup for much of his career, Brissett has 37 starts with a 14-23 record.

Is he good enough to prevent this season from being a losing one ahead of Watson’s return in week 13? Especially in an AFC with Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson?

Up to this point, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski says he’s been “very impressed” with Brissett.

“Very comfortable with him,” said Stefanski. “I think he has a very good understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively.”

The case for Garoppolo

Despite Stefanski’s public vote of confidence, sources have suggested the Browns would be kicking the hoops over the viability of a Garoppolo trade after Watson’s suspension was extended.

The question now is whether the Browns are trading for Garoppolo.

The Browns have the ceiling — nearly $49 million — to make that happen. And since Garoppolo’s trading options are seemingly barren, they have the leverage to reconfigure his $24.2 million base salary to mitigate the cap hit. The 49ers, who already handed offense to Trey Lance, probably wouldn’t want a high draft pick in compensation.

Garoppolo, who underwent offseason surgery on his right — throwing — shoulder, has started passing again on his own while the 49ers train.

But will the Browns ultimately see Garoppolo as a worthwhile upgrade over Brissett? The answer to that might be complicated.

Garoppolo is 33-14 as a starter, which Elias says makes him one of only nine quarterbacks since 1950 to have a .700 win ratio in at least 30 starts. But in those starts, Garoppolo has averaged 1.5 touchdown passes per game, with more games with zero touchdown throws (eight) than games with three touchdown throws (six).

Still, Garoppolo has had an excellent season in San Francisco in many ways. He averaged 7.7 yards per dropback, which led the NFL. Only Burrow averaged more passing yards per attempt (8.6) than Garoppolo.

Garoppolo was fabulous in a Week 18 comeback win in overtime against eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams that propelled the 49ers into the playoffs. But he also later threw a game-ending interception in the NFC Championship Game during a loss to the Rams.

While the 30-year-old Garoppolo has playoff experience that Brissett lacks, highlighted by being the 49ers quarterback to the Super Bowl in the 2019 season, he wasn’t high on Cleveland’s list of quarterback options as the offseason began. According to multiple sources, when the Browns thought they weren’t going to get Watson and had burned the bridge with reigning starter Baker Mayfield in the pursuit of Watson, they targeted Matt Ryan (although Garoppolo’s shoulder injury obviously didn’t help his Cleveland persistence, did it elsewhere).

Ultimately, Watson waived his no-trade clause for Cleveland, and the Browns went all-in.

And that’s despite the backlash they received for believing his talent was what they needed to have any hope of a Super Bowl competition. They moved on from 2018 No. 1 overall Mayfield and dumped him at Carolina for the same reason.

The Browns have a roster centered around the quarterback that’s Super Bowl caliber. But with Watson out for 11 games, Cleveland’s 2022 aspirations could falter.

Garoppolo may not be elite. But he’s won before with quality rosters around him.

On the other hand, the Browns say they like what they saw from Brissett during training camp.

But on Thursday, when asked directly if Brissett would definitely start the 11 games Watson will miss, general manager Andrew Berry said only that the team has “a lot of faith” in Brissett.

Cleveland has another big quarterback decision to make. The answer will surely determine if his season stays afloat. Deshaun Watson suspended 11 games; What now for the Cleveland Browns at quarterback?

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