Browns officials met with Watson on Tuesday in Houston and attempted to persuade the quarterback to waive his no-trade clause to play for them. But Watson instead eliminated the Browns from contention, leaving the New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons as the remaining known contenders for Watson.
Watson did not play last season after an offseason request to be traded and the emergence of 22 lawsuits against him alleging sexual assault and inappropriate conduct during massage sessions. But a Texas grand jury declined to indict Watson on criminal charges this past Friday, signaling the end of criminal proceedings related to him in Harris County and kick-starting trade talks between the Texans and interested teams.
The Saints made multiple moves earlier Thursday to absorb Watson's $35 million salary in a potential trade, a source told ESPN's Field Yates, restructuring the contracts of quarterback Taysom Hill, defensive backs Bradley Roby and Malcolm Jenkins, and linebacker Demario Davis to leave the team with $29.9 million in cap space.
Watson's decision puts the Browns in a complicated predicament with incumbent quarterback Baker Mayfield. As Cleveland officials were flying back from the Watson meeting Tuesday night, Mayfield posted a statement on social media thanking the city of Cleveland and its fans "who truly embraced who I am."
"With many uncertainties, here is where my head and heart is," Mayfield wrote as an introduction to his message, which he addressed to Cleveland and posted to Instagram and Twitter.
The Browns will now have to decide whether they will attempt to reconcile with Mayfield or trade the 2018 No. 1 pick and try to acquire another quarterback. A team source said the Browns' preference would be to still move forward with Mayfield.
A source told ESPN that Mayfield and his camp learned about Cleveland's meeting with Watson over social media. Browns general manager Andrew Berry, however, had privately informed Mayfield's camp earlier in the offseason that the team might pursue a top-flight quarterback if one became available, according to multiple sources.
Both Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski had repeatedly declared this offseason that Mayfield would remain Cleveland's starting quarterback, up through last month's scouting combine.
Before meeting with the Browns on Tuesday, Watson answered questions on two of the 22 lawsuits filed against him during ongoing depositions, the plaintiffs' attorney, Tony Buzbee, told KHOU 11. Watson had invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when sitting for two sessions of depositions that began Friday.
Mayfield has endured a tumultuous tenure in Cleveland, where he played under four head coaches through his first three seasons in the league. But the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner led Cleveland to its first playoff victory in 26 years during the 2020 season and finished in the top 10 in the league in QBR.
Mayfield suffered a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder in Week 2 of this past season and struggled the rest of the way, finishing 27th in QBR as the Browns missed the playoffs and finished with a disappointing 8-9 record.
Mayfield, who underwent surgery to repair the labrum Jan. 19 and is expected to be fully cleared well before training camp, is entering the final year of his rookie deal, which will pay him $19 million in 2022.