While his regular-season debut as a Cleveland Brown will not come until at least October, Deshaun Watson's first game with his new team is now just days away.
The Browns announced Wednesday that Watson will start Friday's preseason opener against the Jaguars in Jacksonville, though it is unclear how much the embattled quarterback will play in his first appearance since being acquired from the Houston Texans in March.
Watson is facing a suspension of at least six games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy but is eligible to play in the preseason. The three-time Pro Bowler had been facing 24 civil lawsuits filed by female message therapists alleging sexual misconduct between 2020 and 2021 during his time with the Texans.
He was not charged by two grand juries and has strenuously denied any wrongdoing. Watson settled 20 of the lawsuits in June, with a further three settlements reported at the start of August ahead of the verdict of his NFL hearing.
The NFL announced last week it will appeal arbiter Judge Sue L. Robinson's ruling in hopes of extending the ban. The league was seeking a minimum one-year suspension as well as a fine of at least $5million.
"We decided it was the right thing to do," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday at the league's owners meetings in Bloomington, Minnesota.
"We've seen the evidence. [Judge Robinson] was very clear about the evidence. She reinforced the evidence, that there was multiple violations here and they were egregious, and it was predatory behavior. Those are things that we always felt were important for us to address in a way that's responsible."
The Browns signed Watson to a five-year, $230m fully guaranteed extension following the trade and structured the deal so he would face lesser financial penalties in the event of a suspension. He is due a base salary of only $690,000 in 2022.
Watson has not appeared in an NFL game of any kind since the 2020 season finale. The Texans held him out of all of their 2021 games while a criminal investigation into the allegations was conducted.
A grand jury ultimately dropped all criminal charges in March, and Watson's attorneys have since settled all but one of the civil cases.
Cleveland coach Kevin Stefanski did not reveal his quarterback plans for the preseason when speaking to reporters Tuesday. The Browns held a closed practice Wednesday and were set to fly to Jacksonville later in the evening.
"We have a framework for how we are going to handle this preseason," Stefanski said Tuesday. "As you know, you always reserve the right to change your mind based on how practice goes and those types of things, but we are pretty confident in the plan we have."
Veteran Jacoby Brissett, who is 14-23 in 37 career starts, will serve as the Browns' quarterback during Watson's suspension. The journeyman started five games for the Miami Dolphins last season and finished the campaign with 1,283 passing yards, five touchdown passes, four interceptions and a 78.1 passer rating.