Cleveland Browns 2024 NFL offseason primer: Deshaun Watson is the huge question

Cleveland Browns' 2023 season: 11-6, lost in wild card

Overview: Despite a revolving door of quarterbacks, Cleveland and NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski managed to keep the offense on track enough to take advantage of the No. 2-ranked defense by DVOA. The result was an impressive season and a playoff berth, thanks largely to a late-season surge led by quarterback Joe Flacco, who was a midseason signing due to the team's string of injuries at the position. The offense mostly struggled under starter Deshaun Watson and fill-ins Dorian Thompson-Robinson and P.J. Walker before finding some footing under Flacco. But the team didn't have enough firepower to stay with the Houston Texans in a lopsided wild-card playoff loss.

Cleveland is in a fascinating spot right now because if Watson can just start living up to his contract, the team has real Super Bowl potential. Even though it lost in the first round of the playoffs, the Browns return a defense with a ton of talent and will have a chance to retool the offense.

Key free agents

EDGE Za'Darius SmithQB Joe FlaccoRB Kareem HuntDL Maurice Hurst

Who's in/out: It will be hard for the Browns to bring back productive players like Za'Darius Smith with their current cap space situation, especially with several defensive linemen set to hit free agency. That list also includes Hurst. They don't have too many key guys ready to hit the open market, but seeing what happens with Smith and Joe Flacco will be intriguing. Would Cleveland be interested in bringing back a 39-year-old backup QB after his strong late-season performance?

Key free agent needs

Wide receiverOffensive tackleDefensive line

Why the holes? If there's one area of the Browns roster that can use some work, it's the edges of their offense. They need a player to complement Amari Cooper and they need help at offensive tackle as well as both starters are coming off knee surgery.

Do they have the money?: The Browns are projected to be $20.6 million over the 2024 cap figure, according to Spotrac. General manager Andrew Berry has his work cut out for him to get under that mark, and that will likely involved restructuring players with large cap hits, including Cooper, Watson, Denzel Ward and Myles Garrett.

Potential notable cuts

RB Nick ChubbWR Amari CooperTE Jordan Akins

Why they might be gone: Simply put, the Browns need cap space. Nick Chubb is a strong candidate to be cut considering it would free up $11.8 million in cap space and he's coming off of a debilitating knee injury. Cooper is an interesting, though unlikely, name to watch as well. He's still very good, but if the Browns want to make a cut without restructuring so many deals, Cooper would free up $12.4 million with a cut. Akins's release could net a $2 million savings.

Draft picks

2nd round: No. 54 overall3rd round: No. 85 overall5th round5th round6th round6th round7th round

Good draft fit

Georgia WR Ladd McConkey

Why him? Cleveland still doesn't have a first-round pick this year due to the Watson trade, but if they're looking for a dynamic option to add to their offense, Georgia wide receiver Ladd McConkey may be able to provide some depth there.

What can move the fantasy football needle this offseason?

Would it be asking too much to simply want Deshaun Watson to perform at the level of 39-year-old Joe Flacco? With Joe at the controls, Cleveland's offense was humming and David Njoku played the best football of his career. Amari Cooper was thriving, too. Watson of course is coming off a dreadful partial season that looked, at least statistically, exactly like his dreadful 2022. There are a variety of questions attached to the Browns offense, but all of them seem insignificant compared to the Watson situation. He needs to be less terrible, soon. That $230 million is spent and Houston has a firm no-return policy. The needle can't move for Cleveland until Watson levels up. — Andy Behrens