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Deshaun Watson receives six-game suspension: What are the fantasy ramifications?

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We finally have a decision on Deshaun Watson’s discipline. Former Judge Sue Robinson, the independent arbiter jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA, ruled that Watson violated the league’s personal conduct policy and recommended he be suspended for six games.

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson suspended six games in 2022

Deshaun Watson #4 of the Cleveland Browns
Deshaun Watson will miss six games in 2022. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

After a now multi-year saga, 20-plus lawsuits and the layers of awful allegations against Watson, there were times this offseason where it appeared “an unprecedented” punishment might be in store for the Browns quarterback. At least, that’s what the league wanted. Ultimately, based on the evidence presented to her — the NFL brought five cases — Judge Sue Robinson ruled for a six-game ban.

The league’s prior wishes remind us that we’re both in uncharted disciplinary waters when it comes to a third-party officer being involved, and that this might not be over. This Watson decision is the first to come out of the disciplinary process collectively bargained under the current CBA.

Judge Robinson’s role is a new one. What remains the same is that if he so chooses, Rodger Goodell and the NFL can appeal the Judge’s ruling and ultimately bring the final say back into their house.

The NFLPA issued a statement Sunday night that they wouldn’t appeal Judge Robinson’s decision. The NFL might not feel inclined to agree with that call.

If the NFL does decide to appeal, they could tack more discipline onto Watson’s six-game suspension in an attempt to make a statement. Then there’s the very likely chance Watson and the NFLPA, who both argued for zero games, would respond with a lawsuit.

While we await the NFL’s decision on an appeal, let’s work under the premise of a six-game suspension for Deshaun Watson.

Fantasy fallout of the Watson decision

Six games might feel light in the face of a full season but it's an eternity in fantasy football. It’s more complicated to project the Browns’ skill-position players now than it would have been if Watson was just gone for the entire year. Especially since the player in question is a quarterback, as they have the most consequential trickledown effect of any position.

For starters, Watson remains undraftable in standard one-quarterback leagues. Burning a bench spot for nearly half of the fantasy regular season is tough to justify in any situation. Doing it for a quarterback in that format ranges somewhere between wasteful and foolish.

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Maybe Watson gives you difference-making efficiency from the quarterback spot when he returns in Week 7 but that is an unknown. He’ll be working into a new offense that’s run-heavy and light on pass-catching talent. I wouldn’t rank him as a top-five fantasy quarterback if he were set to play the whole season. So he’s not a player worth burning a roster spot on for six-plus games. You should let someone else carry that weight and miss out on the chance to claim valuable additions on the waiver wire early in the season.

Nick Chubb is the primary Browns player we care about in fantasy football. He’s one of the best pure rushers in the NFL but carries some ceiling questions in general because of his lack of involvement in the passing game. For that reason, I’ll always struggle to push him inside the top-eight at the position.

In order for Chubb to hit his peak outcomes, you need him to be deadly efficient and score touchdowns at a high rate. I don’t need to tell you that playing a majority of the games with a quarterback like Watson and not Jacoby Brissett, helps in that endeavor. Don’t kid yourself about any “they’ll rely on the run game more” with Watson out. You’d much rather your backs be tied to good quarterbacks. Period.

The Browns also have two capable backs on the roster behind Chubb in Kareem Hunt and D’Ernest Johnson, for now. It sounds like the Browns want to get one of those contracts off the books and would prefer to do so via trade. If Hunt leaves, that would help Chubb’s floor projections in the weeks without Watson because he would likely walk into a bigger passing-down role.

Chubb should now settle into the second tier of fantasy backs alongside names like Leonard Fournette, Joe Mixon and D’Andre Swift, and be a comfortable second-round pick. I’m not at all interested in aggressively drafting either Hunt or Johnson outside of the late rounds as injury-based upside fliers.

From a pass-catching perspective, there’s not a lot of juice in Cleveland. The main player of consequence is Amari Cooper, who arrived to the team following a trade from Dallas.

Amari Cooper #2 of the Cleveland Browns
Amari Cooper's outlook is further muddled. (Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images)

I’m not the biggest fan of Cooper’s game. He’s an overrated route-runner and not a true No. 1 receiver but does have some clear strengths. He’s an excellent vertical separator and can find good creases in defenses while running after the catch. His strength on nine, post and corner routes should be a really nice fit when cutting loose on downfield play-action shots in Cleveland’s offense.

Given the lack of proven players around him in the passing game, Cooper easily projects for a 22- to 24-percent target share in this offense. Getting Watson on the delivering end of that projection for the majority of the season is a big upgrade over a full year with Brissett. Cooper is a volatile player no matter the circumstances, so having a steady presence at quarterback helps.

If he was paired with Watson for the entire season, Cooper would be a mid- to low-end WR2. Given that he’ll still be without a legitimate starting-level passer for the start of the season, I can’t justify ranking him that high. He’ll likely slide somewhere in the WR24-25 range in draft rankings.

[2022 Fantasy Draft Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

You’ll have to weigh Cooper’s resume and volume projection along with the Watson absence against popular breakout players like Darnell Mooney, Gabriel Davis and the potential star second-year receivers like Rashod Bateman, Elijah Moore and Amon-Ra St. Brown. Receiver is so appealing in that range of drafts that Cooper is going to be a difficult player to assess.

David Njoku is the second biggest name on this pass-catching depth chart. The young tight end received a big contract from the Browns this offseason despite a middling production profile at this point. That, along with the release of Austin Hooper, signals a big role boost for Njoku this year.

This one is simple. Given the murky nature of the tight end position from TE10-15, I’m going to move Njoku right into that TE10 spot and at the top of the following tier behind guys like Dawson Knox and T.J. Hockenson. Njoku might give you volatile, near-replacement-level production for the six weeks Watson is out but you’ll be living with that no matter what if you wait that late to take a tight end. At least Njoku offers the upside to leap into that next tier of tight ends once Watson is on the field.

Those are the Browns players you can realistically draft in a typical redraft league. However, I will recommend taking a flier on Donovan Peoples-Jones late in best ball drafts and keeping him on waiver-wire speed dial in redraft leagues. With rookie David Bell starting camp on the PUP list, he looks like he’s locked into Cleveland’s No. 2 receiver spot barring a free agent Will Fuller/Watson reunion. DPJ has averaged 18.8 yards per catch in his career and Watson has never been shy about uncorking the deep ball.

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