The Cleveland Browns have clarity on what their quarterback situation will look like for the 2022 season.
Deshaun Watson will be suspended for the first 11 games of the regular season and fined $5 million for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy after the league and NFL Players Association agreed to a settlement.
The settlement increases Watson's original discipline of a six-game ban with no fine that was handed down former federal judge Sue L. Robinson. The league appealed that decision on Aug. 3, as allowed by the collective bargaining agreement.
Thursday's announcement means Jacoby Brissett will likely be Cleveland's starting quarterback through Week 12. However, there has been speculation the team could attempt to acquire Jimmy Garoppolo from the San Francisco 49ers.
Appearing on KNBR's Tolbert & Copes show on Tuesday, Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com noted the Browns "would at least have to consider" Garoppolo if Watson's suspension reached double-digit games.
Cabot did add she believes Cleveland's coaching staff is "really committed to Jacoby Brissett."
Until something happens to indicate otherwise, let's assume Brissett will be leading the Browns offense. The 29-year-old has been a capable backup who has previously performed adequately when he's been called upon to start.
The most comparable situation to this for Brissett was in 2019 when he played for the Indianapolis Colts. Brissett was thrust into a starting role that year when Andrew Luck surprisingly announced his retirement two weeks before the start of the regular season.
Brissett, who only attempted 15 passes during that preseason, led Indianapolis to a respectable 7-8 record in 15 starts, throwing for 2,942 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus ranked Brissett 29th out of 32 starting quarterbacks during the 2019 season, ahead of only Case Keenum, Mason Rudolph and Kyle Allen.
One key difference looking ahead to 2022 is the strength of the division in which Brissett will be playing. In 2019, the Houston Texans won the AFC South with a 10-6 record, despite having a negative point differential. The Tennessee Titans made the playoffs as a wild-card team with a 9-7 mark.
The AFC North currently boasts the reigning conference champions (Cincinnati Bengals), the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race after 11 games before injuries derailed their 2021 season.
The Steelers made the playoffs last season despite Ben Roethlisberger being the worst starting quarterback in the NFL, per Kevin Cole of Pro Football Focus.
One potential issue for Brissett is that the Browns aren't loaded with playmakers on the outside. The No. 2 receiver behind Amari Cooper is Donovan Peoples-Jones. Anthony Schwartz and David Bell also figure to be in the mix as the third option.
Given Brissett's limitations in the passing game, expect head coach Kevin Stefanski to rely heavily on Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the ground.
The defense does have the playmakers in the secondary to slow down explosive offenses. Denzel Ward and John Johnson III are well-established stars at cornerback and safety, respectively. Greg Newsome II ranked third on the team with nine pass breakups in just 12 games as a rookie in 2021. Grant Delpit played his way into the starting lineup down the stretch and finished with 31 combined tackles over his final four games.
Cleveland's schedule does favor the team getting off to a good start. Its first four games are at the Carolina Panthers, home against the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers, and a road contest with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers, Jets and Falcons combined to go 16-35 in 2021. New York might have to start Joe Flacco, depending on how Zach Wilson's recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery goes.
Jeff Howe and Joseph Person of The Athletic reported on Tuesday that Baker Mayfield is expected to be named Carolina's starting quarterback. The former No. 1 overall pick by the Browns will certainly be motivated to send a message to his previous team, especially given how contentious the split between the two was during the offseason.
Things do get more difficult from there, as the Browns have a four game stretch against the Los Angeles Chargers, New England Patriots, Ravens and Bengals leading into their bye in Week 9.
The Patriots are probably the worst team in that group, but Bill Belichick has proven throughout his tenure as head coach that it's a mistake to underestimate what he can do.
Coming out of the bye, Cleveland's final three games before Watson returns are back-to-back road games against the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills and a home contest with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Given how difficult things appear starting in Week 5, it's imperative that Brissett and the Browns take advantage of the soft schedule by winning at least three of their first four games.
An optimistic outlook for Cleveland in 11 games with Brissett starting at quarterback would be 5-6.