BEREA, Ohio – Deshaun Watson made a strong impression on his new teammates long ago, scrambling for first downs and rifling touchdown passes while becoming an elite quarterback playing in Houston.
Now in Cleveland, the one he makes off the field may matter more.
Acquired from the Texans in a trade last month, Watson is getting to know the Browns better — and vice versa — during the team's voluntary offseason program, which will allow the three-time Pro Bowler to focus on football while legally fighting to clear his name.
The 26-year-old has been accused by 22 women of sexual misconduct or sexual assault in massage therapy sessions Watson set up via social media. And while he's not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, Watson faces 22 civil lawsuits that could impact his availability with the Browns.
There's also possible discipline from the NFL, now conducting its own inquiry to determine if Watson violated the league's personal-conduct policy.
On Wednesday, coach Kevin Stefanski acknowledged Watson's legal schedule could intersect with the team's.
“We will work through those types of things,” Stefanski said. "As you know, there are ongoing proceedings, and we will make sure that we work through those.”
The Browns did not make Watson available to the media Wednesday, leaving Stefanski and three players to address questions about what the QB's arrival means to a team that went all in to add him to its roster.
Stefanski said Watson is fitting in fine.
“He's being embraced by his teammates,’’ Stefanski said. “We’re in Day 2 of the offseason program so I think it’s like any player on your team that’s new, it takes time to develop relationships. Now is that time.”
Stefanski declined to say whether Watson addressed the Browns about his legal issues or if he was encouraged to do so.
“I am not going to get into specifics there, but I would tell you, with all of our new players when you are first around your teammates, there is a process that you go through in getting to understand people, and you can’t do that all at once and have lunch with the entire team type of thing,” Stefanski said.
“I think Deshaun, like all of our new players, understands that you have to spend time at it when you are talking about developing relationships. He has done a nice job of being around the guys.”
Cornerback Denzel Ward, who officially signed his record-setting five-year, $100 million contract extension Tuesday, didn't have any prior relationship with Watson other than playing against him.
“He seems like a great guy,” Ward said.
The Browns' decision to pursue Watson and ultimately give him a fully guaranteed $230 million contract has angered some fans. The optics are certainly questionable given the accusations against Watson, who sat out last season.
While not speaking for all his teammates, Ward said he's confident general manager Andrew Berry and the club's front office did its research before bringing in a player with character questions.
“I trust those guys. I trust what they did," Ward said. "Meeting Deshaun, he seems like a nice guy, and he’s obviously a great talent and I’m looking forward to continuing to build our relationship on and off the field.”
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett will get to know Watson better than most.
Signed as a free agent to be Cleveland's backup, Brissett could be the starter depending on whether Watson gets suspended. It's a familiar role for the veteran, who has made 30 career starts during stints with New England, Indianapolis and Miami.
Like Ward, Brissett had little personal background with Watson. They faced off twice a year in the AFC South, but Brissett said those interactions were limited to a postgame handshake and a few words.
They'll share a room in Cleveland with Josh Dobbs.
Brissett said his early interactions with Watson have been positive.
“The relationship is growing,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re best friends, but I can see why people gravitate to him. He seems like a really good dude. He’s very upbeat, a very joyful guy to be around.”
Along with staying ready, Brissett said he'll also be another level of support for Watson.
“I’ve been around this league to know that players, we deal with real life things, and it goes deeper than football,’’ Brissett said.
Amari Cooper never imagined his trade to Cleveland this winter would be followed by a bigger one.
Just days after the Browns acquired the four-time Pro Bowler from Dallas, Cooper was vacationing in Dubai when word reached him that Watson would be his teammate.
“I was asleep,” Cooper said. “I woke up and saw a whole bunch of text messages and stuff like that. Guys were like, ‘Man, you are lucky.’ It was some of my former teammates, and I was like, ‘What?’ It was cool. I was happy about it.”
Cooper has no doubt he and Watson will connect.
“He’s a great player. I’m a great player,” Cooper said. “We’re going to make it work by any means necessary.”
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