BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The uncertainty shrouding Deshaun Watson has lifted along with the intense scrutiny about his personal life.
There’s a tightness and velocity to his passes these days, and a noticeable change in his demeanor — on and off the field. There’s an ease about him.
Nearly one year removed from his NFL suspension, Cleveland’s quarterback looks different.
“I feel really good,” Watson said Wednesday after the Browns completed their second minicamp practice. “The biggest thing is the confidence level, knowing who I am, trusting what I do, trusting the work that I put in these past couple years to get back to this position I’m in.
“I’m enjoying myself.”
His confidence is back and football seems fun again for Watson, who was forced to sit out 11 games last season for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy for sexual misconduct after two dozen women accused him of inappropriate behavior during massage therapy sessions.
Now that most of his legal troubles are passed — two civil lawsuits against him remain active — Watson is focused on trying to shake off any lingering rust, get back among the top passers in the AFC and move the Browns into contention.
If the past two days were any indication, Watson is gaining momentum on all those fronts.
The three-time Pro Bowler dazzled during 7-on-7 drills, firing precision passes while spreading the ball around and connecting with some of the new offensive targets the Browns added during the offseason to complement Watson’s varied skillset.
It would be easy to dismiss his accuracy due to the absence of a pass rush and the Browns playing in shorts and not pads, but Watson made throws only a handful of QBs around the league could possibly match.
There is good. And then there is the elite.
“My boy’s slinging that (stuff),” said tight end David Njoku, who was on the end of a Watson laser for a TD during red zone drills. “He looks great. He’s locked in. The energy’s there. Every single ball he’s thrown is precise on the money, so that excites me as well as the rest of the team. We’re all excited.”
Last week, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt said on one of Watson’s throws he “literally got goosebumps.”
That wasn’t the case in 2022.
Watson’s performance in the final six games following his suspension raised some concern the Browns overreached with their $230 million investment in him. He went 3-3, but Watson didn’t make many of the jaw-dropping plays that defined much of his stay with Houston.
A 700-day layoff — he also sat out the 2021 season — between games didn’t help, but Watson’s stats (1,102 yards, 7 TDs and 5 interceptions) were pedestrian and certainly not what the Browns or their fans envisioned.
It wasn’t like riding a bike.
“If you stop doing something for so long, you just naturally lose that confidence because you haven’t been playing at that level,” he said. “So you forget — your body and your muscle memory. You forget how fast and how to do things. So whenever I got back on the field last year, I was building that confidence up, took a break, came back, tried to build it back up.
“But having this offseason and being full throttle definitely have caught back up with me.”
At this point a year ago, Watson was in limbo.
The league’s ruling was still two months away, and it was challenging for the 27-year-old to assume a leadership role without knowing how long he would be away. This year, there are no doubts about his future or his status.
There’s no question: The Browns are Watson’s team.
“He just feels more comfortable calling plays, breaking the huddle, leading,” said two-time All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio. “All those things where you’re around the guys for over a year now, he’s getting more comfortable doing that kind of stuff.”
Watson acknowledged he’s “pretty far ahead of where I was last year.” He hopes the worst is behind him as he tries to straighten out a career gone sideways.
After throwing a deep TD pass last week, Watson celebrated with the bow-and-arrow pose he made famous at Clemson.
The archer. Back on target.
“I’m getting comfortable with the position I’m in,” he said. “Getting comfortable being here in Cleveland and in this organization. Just my personality over time is going to continue to show and people are going to get to know me.”