INDIANAPOLIS — Go ahead and count NBC Sports NFL analyst Chris Simms as a big believer in Deshaun Watson and the Browns offense in 2023.
"I think Deshaun Watson is going to be right back near the top quarterbacks in football conversation this year," Simms said to Nathan Zegura at the NFL combine.
Simms believes the Browns are poised for a huge year offensively in Year 2 with Watson, who should benefit greatly from having a full offseason to work with head coach Kevin Stefanski as they look to expand the playbook to best fit his strengths.
Watson, a three-time Pro Bowler before he was traded to the Browns last offseason, has a lot of them, and they began to show toward the end of his six-game stretch last season after he returned from a 700-day gap between NFL starts and 11-game suspension due to violating the league's personal conduct policy.
As the game reps accrued, Watson's throws began to look more sharp. He appeared more comfortable in the pocket, too, and began to place passes in better spots to his receivers. Sure, it wasn't always perfect — it was never expected to be after so much time passed between his starts — but the progress was still evident.
"There's no way he was going to be like, 'Hey, it's like riding a bike, and I'm going to be the same guy I was before,'" Simms said. "There's nothing you can do to get used to playing in the NFL.
"It's different when there's 80,000 fans yelling at you and there's guys standing across from you who can actually rip your head off now. It's like, 'Woah, this a different game now than it was in practice.'"
Head Coach Kevin Stefanski speaks to the media during his press conference at the 2023 NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 1, 2023.
When Watson did look comfortable, the results were excellent. The best performance that showcased that was in Week 17 against the Commanders, when Watson orchestrated three consecutive touchdown drives in the second half via his arm.
There were also glimpses of his arm strength, including a crisp 28-yard throw he completed to WR Amari Cooper's back shoulder in the third quarter of their Week 15 win against the Ravens, or any of his seven touchdown passes. He also had a 12-yard rushing touchdown in Week 16 against the Saints and a few other long runs made possible by his nimbleness and speed.
"He's a special player," Simms said. "He really is. I think to me, it's more the comfort of how he looked in the pocket, the way the ball started to come off his hand. First game or two, it was a little wobbly. I'd say you're not sure of yourself. Your body's not in the right position because you're thinking a lot. You're like, 'What's this play? I'm still getting used to this offense or how to read this.'
But I think (the improvement looked like), one, the quality of the football, two, the comfort from him and three, we started to see, 'Oh, he's feeling comfortable there, he took five steps, one hitch and boom.' It wasn't like, 'Oh, I'm not sure if he's open, let me pat (the ball) one more time.' There was none of that going on. It started to look more like the natural Deshaun Watson play."
Stefanski knows what the Browns have in Watson — a QB with a toolbox that allows him to make throws to any spot on the field and extend plays with his legs. He's in a rare breed of QBs with those skills, and Simms is confident that Stefanski will be able to further mold the playbook to bring out the best of Watson.
"There's no 'what ifs' or 'we've got to worry about this' or plan B or whatever," Simms said. "It's a blank canvas. They know what he's capable of, and they're going to see as it goes on here, they're going to go, 'Oh crap, he's capable of more.' He's just hitting his groove here. That's where it's going to get exciting because they're going to be able to tinker with him like you've heard of (Chiefs head coach) Andy Reid and (Chiefs quarterback Patrick) Mahomes, where they start to go, 'Well damn, I've never had a guy who can make this throw, but he can, so let's try this play or tinker with this on the fourth day of OTAs. I've never done it, but let's just try it because he can do it, and maybe we can figure out some things off of it.
"I think that's where it can get exciting for the Browns. There's a lot to be excited for."
Simms did note, however, that the offense would benefit by adding a speedy receiver. The Browns lacked that last year and mainly turned to Cooper, who is one of the top route-runners in the league but is not considered one of the fastest, and Donovan Peoples-Jones, who primarily excelled at catching passes in traffic.
A speed threat, however, could be the key to unlocking the potential of not only Watson, but every other offensive playmaker.
"They change the way teams play against you," Simms said. "The screen game, even the short pass game, becomes more dangerous for teams because this guy can catch a slant and go 70 yards. Or they can run the post route, the corner and safety are scared to death, and now here's Amari Cooper running wide open over the middle of the field."
A stud quarterback is needed to make those plays work, and Simms believes the Browns have one in Watson — and that the offense could become one of the league's best next season.
"I'm a believer in the offense," he said. "I've seen plenty. The offense is good. It has answers for everything. Now they get the talent around this guy and get this guy grooving, you'll be one of the better offenses in football."