Deshaun Watson played basketball in high school before focusing on football at Clemson. The quarterback didn’t leave money on the table in that decision—in fact, a decade later his new contract resembles the kind given in the NBA more than one typically handed out in the NFL.
The Cleveland Browns acquired Watson from the Houston Texans in exchange for five draft picks, including three first rounders. Arguably, the highlight of the blockbuster trade is that the embattled quarterback will head to Cleveland with a new five-year, $230 million guaranteed deal.
That’s the most guaranteed money ever given to an NFL player.
“It’s definitely a watershed moment,” former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins made history when he signed a three-year, $85 million guaranteed contract in 2018. But Watson’s guaranteed money isn’t rivaled in the NFL—the next closest belongs to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers ($150.7 million)—and may only be comparable to contracts in the NBA and MLB, where most deals are guaranteed. If Cousins didn’t start a trend four years ago, Watson certainly will.
“It’s truly stunning,” Tannenbaum added. “I’m sure the Cleveland (Browns) saw this as a unique opportunity that they had to take advantage of, and they jumped the market dramatically to do so.”
Watson didn’t play last season for the Texans and is still facing 22 civil suits alleging sexual assault and misconduct. While a Texas grand jury decided to not indict the 26-year-old on separate criminal charges last week, Watson could still face disciplinary action from the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, for example, served a six-game suspension without pay in 2017 despite never being charged in a domestic violence case.
Former Philadelphia Eagles president and Browns CEO Joe Banner believes what makes this transaction a gamechanger isn’t just the amount of guaranteed money being doled out. It’s also the length of the contract, which is going to a talented yet high-risk player with a background of legal issues.
“How do you tell your [star] quarterback that you can’t give him a fully guaranteed contract if that guy can get it,” Banner said. “It’s not like it’s a short-term deal either, where you can rationalize it. This is a five-year, major commitment.”
Football people believe Watson’s new contract raises the bar for quarterbacks—immediately. While Josh Allen’s seven-month-old $150 million guaranteed contract already seems outdated, young stars on rookie deals like Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are primed to cash in. And that’s just the quarterbacks—it could have ramifications for other positions too.
“If you’re [defensive players] Joey Bosa or Myles Garrett, you’re pretty soon asking for the same thing,” Banner said.
It’s unlikely that NFL owners are thrilled about Watson and his agent, David Mulugheta, shattering a salary ceiling, especially in the shadow of pending litigation. They nonetheless will have to deal with it, at least until March 2030 when the current CBA is set to expire. In hard-cap league, setting aside more than $40 million a year for a starting signal-caller leaves less for everyone else on the roster, so while this may not necessarily be a celebration for the NFL players’ union collectively, it is for top-tier quarterbacks.