CLEVELAND -- A year ago, Deshaun Watson took the field for the Browns in the preseason and looked lost, if not downright disinterested. He knew he had a long suspension to serve. And even when he came back from the suspension, he really didn't look like himself, the old self, until essentially the last two games of the 2022 season (and even then, it wasn't really him).
In his first preseason foray against the Commanders from a wet FirstEnergy Stadium on Friday, Watson's box score comes off as basic: 12 yards on 3-of-3 passing with 20 rush yards on three carries.
But it's how he operated that should get you at least intrigued. He operated with comfort. With confidence.
"Way better than last year," Watson admitted about his comfort level in Kevin Stefanski's offense. "There was so much going on last year and just really just trying to play catch-up and get to know everyone and new system and everything. But having a full offseason and being able to lock in with the guys and run the first-team offense all the way through has definitely been a help for myself and the confidence to get ready for this season."
Over his lone drive against the Commanders in his 2023 preseason debut, the Browns went 71 yards on 12 plays. Watson didn't try any downfield shots because he didn't need to. He was on the money on three short throws, including a sidearmer to David Njoku that was close to being a big play if not for a low tackle tripping up the tight end.
It was Watson's willingness to run that felt especially savvy, almost familiar. He evaded pressure on a first-down play to scramble for nine yards, then four plays later he slipped while dropping back and used that as an excuse to take off again, slipping past Commanders tacklers for another eight yards.
"We had, I think, some option routes and I kind of slipped and I just threw off my timing," he explained. "So I didn't want to force the throw. I saw open lane and I just took it, and that's just me filling out the game and my instincts taking over and just really just trying to do whatever I can to keep the chains moving."
"That's how he's been playing his whole life," Stefanski added.
The drive, which ended without points or pass attempts inside the Commanders' 10-yard line, was especially impressive because Watson worked without his top receiver (Amari Cooper), both of his top running backs (Nick Chubb and Jerome Ford) and without his All-Pro guard (Joel Bitonio).
"Once I came off the field, even though we went four and out and they got the ball back, you can feel the energy," Watson said. "Everyone, defense, offense, special teams, everyone was saying, 'Good job,' and they were excited about it. You could see everyone's expression."
It's because the Browns didn't need stats to see what they've hope for: Watson can lead them successfully. He seemed more like the gamer we loved at Clemson and Houston. And in fact, he might very well be the overwhelming focal point of the Browns offense instead of the run-first approach they've had for years.
How Watson looked wasn't the only contextual takeaway the Browns offered. Their first play saw new wide receiver Elijah Moore line up in the backfield and catch an out route for six yards. Coach and playcaller Kevin Stefanski followed that up with a two-tight-end set with six offensive linemen. The play after that? Moore on a run for 18 yards.
"Wanted to get Elijah the ball early, obviously, and do it in a couple different ways," Stefanski said. "It's stuff I see in practice every day."
Moore suffered a rib injury in the game but X-rays were negative and he told Watson after the game he was fine.
We might be on the brink of seeing a newer, flashier Browns offense with the older, better version of Watson. And that would be welcomed in Fantasy circles.
"I'm super excited to get especially (Nick) Chubb and Joel (Bitonio) and Mari (Amari Cooper) back out there and you know, really open up the playbook like we want to," Watson said.
Stefanski's track record as a playcaller has been as thrilling as vanilla low-carb ice cream. In three years with the Browns and two with the Vikings, Stefanski's pass rate never crossed beyond 54% in any season. Not that Watson threw like crazy in his Texans days (one year higher than 57%), but any movement in this direction would take advantage of Cleveland's offensive pieces.
A big jump would be huge, something that's possible if the Browns want to take advantage of their personnel and not lean too heavily on Chubb.
Watson's efficiency as a passer in Houston was terrific, delivering a 67.8% completion rate and a 5.9% TD rate over four seasons. Getting back to those levels would be fantastic, but adding in his rushing prowess would make us jump off the couch and dance.
Watson ran three times on 12 snaps on Friday. In 2022, he ran at least six times in five of six games and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. And in Houston he consistently averaged between five and six rush attempts per game and averaged anywhere from 4.9 to 5.6 yards per tote in his last three seasons there.
That part of his game has not left him, it seems. That adds concrete to his Fantasy floor.
If he's good for around 30 rush yards per game and has an improved receiving corps to go with a more aggressive, pass-friendly offense, then why wouldn't Watson be in contention to put up numbers like he did through the first four years of his career when he annually finished as a top-six Fantasy quarterback?
Why wouldn't he be among this year's best values in Fantasy Football?
On CBS Sports his ADP is at 90th overall, suggesting a Round 8 pick. In high-stakes leagues that number is even higher -- 74th overall.
There are valid reasons why you may not want Watson on your team, but how he performed in six games last season shouldn't be one of them. Gravitating toward him after one drive in a preseason game sounds pretty silly, but if anything, it was a glimpse into the future -- seeing the Browns offense operate differently and seeing Watson play so effortlessly.
Whether you take him between 74th and 90th overall in one-QB leagues or get lucky and land him later, Watson still offers bargain power as long as he's at minimum the ninth quarterback taken in your draft. Getting him then offers Fantasy managers all the things they want from their passer:
Production, upside, and, of course, comfort.