The Browns needed salary cap space before the start of free agency this week. Deshaun Watson’s huge contract gave them the opportunity to create it.
The Browns, as expected, restructured the contract of Watson to free up salary cap space for 2023, a league source confirmed to The Chronicle-Telegram on Monday.
By shifting most of the quarterback’s $46 million salary to a bonus — minus the $1.165 million league minimum — the Browns cleared about $36 million in salary cap space.
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They entered the offseason over the cap but gained room — estimated at $21.9 million — to make a splash in free agency. It began at noon with a two-day negotiating period and will continue Wednesday when the league year starts and contracts can be signed.
Watson was offered a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract last March before he agreed to be traded to Cleveland from the Texans. His cap hit for 2023 was scheduled to be almost $55 million and drops to $19.1 million.
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A voidable year in 2027 was added to spread out the bonus on the cap, according to spotrac.com. The Browns could restructure again next year, with Watson’s cap number increased to $64 million in each of the next three seasons.
General manager Andrew Berry always knew this move was possible, if not likely, and never deviated from his stance he would have enough flexibility to be active in acquiring talent this offseason.
“It could be on the table, but there’s a lot of flexibility in terms of what we can do from a cap perspective,” Berry said Feb. 28 at the scouting combine when asked about restructuring Watson’s contract.
The restructuring doesn’t change the total amount or true length of Watson’s contract.
The Browns entered the offseason about $14 million over the salary cap despite carrying over a league-high $27.6 million from last season.
Berry began the process of making room last month by trimming nearly $2 million off the cap with a reworking of kick returner Jakeem Grant Sr.’s deal. The next step was deciding to cut safety John Johnson III before the final year of a three-year, $33.75 million deal. By releasing him with a post-June 1 designation, the Browns will save $9.75 million in cap space.
But the accounting move with Watson was always going to be the game-changer. His cap hit last year was only $9.4 million because nearly all of the $46 million he was due was paid as a signing bonus.
Watson was suspended for the first 11 games last season after agreeing to a settlement with the NFL after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. The Browns went 3-3 with him as the starter, and he struggled after going 700 days between regular-season games.
The Browns expect him to be much improved in 2023 and will use the salary cap space to try to build a more complete roster around him.