Thu Dec 8 5:56pm ET
By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson signs autographs before of an NFL football game between the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans in Houston, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022,. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson takes a selfie with fans before of an NFL football game between the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans in Houston, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022,. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs through the Texans' defense during the second half of an NFL football game between the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans in Houston, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson signals to fans before an NFL football game between the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans in Houston, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022,. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson warms up before of an NFL football game between the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans in Houston, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022,. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
BEREA, Ohio (AP) Deshaun Watson felt the crowd's anger while juggling his own nerves and emotions in a return that was rustier than expected last week.
''It was a lot,'' he said. ''I'm human.''
After a dismal debut for the Browns against Houston in his first game since serving an 11-game NFL suspension over allegations of sexual misconduct levied by two dozen women, Watson expects to play much better on Sunday at Cincinnati.
Cleveland's counting on it.
''I don't know when it's going to come back,'' Watson said Thursday before practice. ''I don't know if it was going to be last week, this week. My job is to just keep getting better and when it clicks, it clicks, and everyone will feel that.''
His first outing couldn't have gone much worse. Watson wasn't himself. He wasn't even close.
Facing his former team and some Texans fans who have abandoned him, Watson had one of the worst games of his pro career. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 131 yards, threw an interception in the end zone and finished with a 53.4 passer rating - his lowest in 53 starts.
Watson blamed some of his inaccuracy - he grounded a few passes into the turf - on poor mechanics and intends to use the days leading up to the Browns (5-7) facing the Bengals (8-4) on getting back to fundamentals.
Foot work. Shoulder level. Conditioning. All of it needs attention. And then there's the mental game.
Watson acknowledged that in addition to his 700-day layoff between games, the hype surrounding his return to Houston contributed to him playing so poorly. The intense buildup was followed by boos and cheers in a charged atmosphere inside NRG Stadium.
It was more than he imagined.
''The last week, it was a lot,'' he said. ''The anticipation to be back on the field. The anticipation of going back to my former team, playing against former teammates and being in front of a crowd that used to cheer for me at the time. ... I'm glad that's out the way, I'm glad we got the win. I'm just trying to look forward to this week.
''It's going to be a hostile environment in Cincinnati. It's going to be fun and we just got to go out there and just make sure we execute the game plan.''
Watson was suspended after he was accused of sexual assault and harassment during massage therapy sessions. He wasn't charged criminally by two grand juries and Watson settled 23 civil lawsuits, with two still active.
Last week, before and after his first game since Jan. 3, 2021, Watson, who had to undergo mandatory therapy during his suspension, declined to answer any non-football questions.
This week, he'll be facing a Bengals team playing as well as any in the league. They beat Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs for the third straight time last week and are looking to avenge an embarrassing 32-13 loss to the Browns on Halloween.
Cleveland's playoff hopes are thin, but a win over the defending AFC champion Bengals could provide a major lift and keep the possibility of putting together a winning streak to make the postseason alive.
It all hinges on how Watson plays.
And while it may be unrealistic to expect Watson to play like a three-time Pro Bowler right away, Browns wide receiver Amari Cooper doesn't think his teammate is being asked to do anything he can't handle.
''He's a professional quarterback who's played at the highest level,'' Cooper said. ''It's just rhythm and timing, and once it comes, it's gonna be there. ''
The Browns bailed Watson out last week by scoring two defensive touchdowns and returning a punt for a score against the hapless, one-win Texans. That was a gift. Cincinnati won't be as giving.
It's imperative for Watson to work out any kinks with coach Kevin Stefanski's play-calling and troubleshoot issues with his receivers long before taking the field. The Browns had counted on his reps from training camp and practices over the past few weeks to carry over into games.
That didn't happen in his first game with Cleveland and it could take several more weeks before it does - if it does.
The Browns invested $230 million in Watson to be their franchise quarterback, and they may be facing the possibility he may not look like one until next season.
Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt's said his confidence in Watson is rooted in the QB's resume.
''We have seen it prior,'' he said. ''His past history would say that he's lot of those things that you didn't see. He is those things. Those will come back as we get more reps and more game experience with him.
''It was kind of what we expected with some rust there, and that is real. Again, just the work he has put in this week to improve those areas has already shown up.''
NOTES: Pro Bowl CB Denzel Ward returned to practice after missing Wednesday with an illness. ... Cooper (hip) was limited while TE Pharaoh Brown (illness) and DE Chase Winovich (knee) sat out.
Interview with TFC Winner
The Denver Broncos are allowing Ejiro Evero out of his contract, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. In simpler terms, the two sides are parting ways. On one hand, this move comes as a surprise considering the Broncos want to form a mega-staff under Sean Payton and Evero, who received several head coaching interviews, is viewed as a defensive mastermind. On the other hand, Evero was a member of Nathaniel Hackett's coaching staff and turned down Denver's interim head coaching job after Hackett was fired. As a result, it became clear that Evero did not see himself remaining with the Broncos long-term. Rapoport notes that the Vikings, who have a vacancy at defensive coordinator, are viewed as a possible landing spot for Evero. The same goes for the Panthers, who interviewed Evero for their head coaching job before hiring Frank Reich.
The Dallas Cowboys have hired Brian Schottenheimer as their offensive coordinator, according to Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News. The team needed to fill the vacancy after firing Kellen Moore. Schottenheimer most recently served as a Cowboys consultant in 2022 but does have experience as an offensive coordinator, filling that same role for the Seahawks from 2018 to 2020. Interestingly, although Schottenheimer will be in charge of the offense, head coach Mike McCarthy intends to call plays next season.
Las Vegas Raiders impending free agent running back Josh Jacobs "wants to be back but won't settle," according to Tashan Reed of The Athletic. There is mutual interest in keeping Jacobs in Las Vegas long-term, but the reigning rushing champion won't come cheap. Jacobs timed everything just right, compiling impressive stats in a contract year. The 24-year-old ultimately finished 2022 with 1,653 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns, all of which are career-highs. Jacobs' outlook for next season is contingent on where he signs, but if he does return to Vegas, we can consider him a strong RB1 option heading into fantasy football drafts.
Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero has been a hot commodity in this year's coaching carousel, interviewing for head-coach openings with the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Houston Texans. Now that the Panthers have hired Frank Reich, they have requested to interview Evero again, but this time for the team's vacant defensive coordinator position. The Minnesota Vikings would also like to interview Evero for their defensive coordinator job, but Denver has not yet granted either team permission. The 42-year-old Evero remains firmly in the mix as a candidate for Arizona and Indianapolis, but because he is still under contract with the Broncos, it seems that the organization would be reluctant to let him go should he not be hired elsewhere as a head coach.
University of Texas running back Bijan Robinson is widely considered to be the best prospect at his position in the 2023 NFL Draft class. Although a running back has not been selected higher than pick 24 since Saquon Barkley in 2018, ESPN's Mel Kiper stated that he believes Robinson will be drafted in the first round. Kiper went on to describe Robinson as "top-10 caliber" in this year's draft. The 21-year-old possesses an elite three-down skillset, posting 3,410 rushing yards, 60 receptions, 805 receiving yards, and 41 total touchdowns in his three collegiate seasons. Robinson figures to make an immediate impact on any team willing to spend up to get him on April 27th.
Dynasty | Zach Wilson will likely remain with the Jets organization in hopes that he can develop in a backup role Dynasty Analysis: The article plainly points out that the Jets have exactly two choices: 1) Release him or, 2) Keep him; Wilson has no trade value. With a very palatable $3.8M expense for 2023, there's little reason for the team to move on and Wilson, for his part, appears determine to get better. There's a big difference between NFL reality and fantasy reality. A veteran backup would also exceed the cost of Wilson. He's been so bad under-center and without blue skies on the horizon, he's a difficult hold in dynasty. Amazingly, Wilson still possesses a QB25 ranking but is in steep decline and he'll likely fall as the quarterback situation in New York becomes more clear. At this juncture, Zach Wilson is a fading dynasty asset and, arguably, may only be a roster candidate in deeper dynasty leagues.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith is fresh off a career-best season and is now in pursuit of a long-term contract as a pending free agent. It has been reported for a few weeks that the Seahawks are expected to bring the 32-year-old back, and the two sides have begun negotiations since falling to the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. "It's looking very good," Smith said of his contract discussions with Seattle on Pro Bowl Live on SiriusXM NFL Radio. Smith also stated that he has a great relationship with the organization and loves the city. Assuming talks continue trending in a positive direction, a deal is likely to get done before March 15th, when free agency officially begins.
The Baltimore Ravens interviewed Georgia offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Todd Monken for a second time on Friday for their offensive coordinator opening, according to sources. Monken is one of a handful of candidates that have received a second interview with the Ravens, and he also interviewed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' open offensive coordinator position. Other candidates that the Ravens have been considering include Eric Bieniemy, Dave Canales, Doug Nussmeier, Zac Robinson, Justin Outten, Chad O'Shea, James Urban and George Godsey. Monkey previously served as an offensive coordinator for the Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns. Baltimore's next OC will get to work with one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in Lamar Jackson.
The Denver Broncos officially signed new head coach Sean Payton to a five-year deal on Friday, tying him to the team through the 2027 season, according to sources. In order to pry Payton away from the New Orleans Saints, who he was still under contract with, the Broncos had to fork over a 2023 first-rounder and a 2024 second-rounder to the Saints. Denver fired first-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett midway through the 2022 season after a disappointing start that saw quarterback Russell Wilson have the worst season of his career. While the Broncos still have some interesting weapons on offense and a solid unit on defense, Payton will have plenty of work to do to get Wilson back on track in 2023 and beyond.
The Athletic's Matt Barrows writes that he'd be very surprised if the San Francisco 49ers trade wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk this offseason. The Niners are light on receivers, and Danny Gray didn't light up the stat sheet in 2022. If the team picks up Aiyuk's fifth-year option in May, he'll be under contract for two more years. Barrows thinks the 49ers will hold tight in 2023 and start considering a contract extension in 2024. The 24-year-old posted career-highs in catches (78), targets (114), receiving yards (1,015) and touchdowns (eight) in 17 regular season starts in his third NFL season while working with quarterbacks Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy. With more stability under center potentially in 2023, Aiyuk could be just as good, if not better, for fantasy managers.
The Las Vegas Raiders have already granted quarterback Derek Carr permission to speak with other teams interested in trading for him that have also agreed to compensation with the Raiders, according to sources. It's the same arrangement the Houston Texans had with quarterback Deshaun Watson last offseason before he was dealt to the Cleveland Browns. Carr said on Thursday at the Pro Bowl that he wouldn't be extending the Feb. 15 deadline for $40.4 million in guarantees, so the Raiders would have to outright release him if they can't find a trade partner by that date. Either way, the 31-year-old veteran will draw plenty of interest from a handful of teams seeking upgrades under center heading into 2023. Carr's fantasy value next season will all depend on where he winds up.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (ankle, leg) said that he wouldn't be focusing on his throwing mechanics early in the offseason. "I feel like I'm in a really good spot," Lance said. He plans to remain in Santa Clara, Calif., for around the next three weeks to finish up his rehab before working on some other things. "I feel like I've got a much better plan this offseason. I said the same things last year. But even more (this year). As the years go on they get better just in knowing what they want from me and where I feel I'm at my best." Jimmy Garoppolo is a free agent and won't be returning, and Brock Purdy (elbow) may not be full go by training camp after tearing his UCL in the NFC Championship game. Lance, who is the former first-rounder, feels like the early favorite this offseason to open 2023 as San Fran's starting QB, if he's healthy.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman (pelvis) didn't practice all week and is listed as doubtful to play in the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 12, against the Philadelphia Eagles. Hardman really wants to play in the big game and has been seeking second opinions after aggravating a core injury in the AFC Championship win over the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. The AFC Championship contest was Hardman's first game action since initially suffering a core injury in Week 9. All signs are pointing toward him missing the big game next Sunday, but that could change if he's able to return to practice at some point next week. The Chiefs are banged up at the position with JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) also questionable to play against the Eagles.
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox (toe) was held out of practice on Friday as a precaution, and the expectation is that he will be ready to play in Super Bowl LVII against the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday, according to a league source. Maddox was seen with a walking boot on his left foot after missing more than a month late in the year with a toe injury. The 26-year-old played only 19 defensive snaps in the NFC Championship win over the San Francisco 49ers last weekend, but it sounds as though he'll be available to play in the big game. Still, even if Maddox is active for the Eagles secondary, Josiah Scott could see more slot duties if Maddox isn't 100 percent.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) and Kadarius Toney (ankle, hamstring) both missed practice all week and are listed as questionable for the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 12. Smith-Schuster and Toney were both forced out of the AFC Championship early with injuries, but the Chiefs remain optimistic that they will both be available for the Super Bowl after another week to rest up. Mecole Hardman (pelvis) also missed practice all week and is doubtful to play in the big game, so if Smith-Schuster and/or Toney are limited or out for the Super Bowl, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, rookie Skyy Moore and Justin Watson would be asked to step up in the passing game.
Dynasty | According to The Athletic, the belief is that the Rams would like to "build off" what Cam Akers was able to accomplish late in the 2022 season Dynasty Analysis: It's music to the ears of dynasty coaches rostering Akers. Following a tumultuous year in which the back appeared to be on the way out, he returned to the team, the Rams summarily released Darrell Henderson, and Akers performed as most fantasy players expected he would to start the season. The 23-year-old runner scored six touchdowns over his final six games and finished the season with three 100-yard performances, while also chipping in with six receptions. Listed as DLF's RB31, it's obvious dynasty coaches remain stung by the mid-season drama, but enterprising coaches who took advantage of plummeting risk-on opportunity may be rewarded with a young upside runner who could turn in RB1 production in 2023. The fact remains that Sean McVay remains one of the NFL's most mercurial coaches and when it comes to running backs, any back in the team's room is risk-on.
Dynasty | Aaron Rodgers is still in play for the Raiders Dynasty Analysis: The story reads more as possibility than probability while connecting the dots should Rodgers choose to depart Green Bay. The belief is the Raiders, instead, will select a rookie thrower in the first two rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft to be groomed behind a short-term veteran starter. The cost to acquire Rodgers, now 39, will be sky high and the team may wish to simply do a full reboot at the position. Rodgers, DLF's QB14 has yet to indicate whether he plans on staying, going or retiring.
New York Giants defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale is considered a a front-runner for the Indianapolis Colts' head-coaching job, according to a source. The Colts are considering a rare third round of interviews with a select few finalist following an extensive second round of interviews that includes nine candidates. The Colts fired Frank Reich in the middle of the 2022 season, and interim head coach Jeff Saturday remains in play for the full-time job despite going 1-7 down the stretch. If the Giants lose Martindale, they could take a look at Lou Anarumo, Steve Wilks, Sean Desai or Jerome Henderson for their defensive coordinator position.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said earlier this week that the team will be starting over at kicker in 2023, meaning they will move on from kicker Brett Maher. The 33-year-old will become a free agent next month, but the Cowboys won't be re-signing him after he famously missed six of his final seven extra-point attempts in the team's final three games. It was a tough way to close out his season after he made 29 of his 32 field-goal tries during the regular season, which was timed for third in the NFL. Maher should get another shot with another team in 2023, but it won't guarantee that he'll be fantasy relevant like he was with the Cowboys before he got the yips to close out the year.
Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Demarcus Robinson (hernia) underwent sports-hernia surgery earlier this week, he announced on his official Instagram page. Robinson will become an unrestricted free agent next month, but the injury shouldn't limit him much, if at all, for offseason workouts. The 28-year-old was needed to step up for the Ravens in 2022 due to a season-ending injury to No. 1 receiver Rashod Bateman (foot). In 17 regular season games for Baltimore, Robinson recorded a career-high 48 receptions on a career-high 75 targets for 458 yards and two touchdowns. He became fantasy relevant for managers hurting at the receiver position, but Robinson will be more of a long shot for more playing time in 2023, depending on where he lands in free agency.