BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Watson readily admits that he's not the same quarterback he was three years ago with Houston.
He's no longer the elite QB who made dazzling plays with his arm and feet or the one who threw for nearly 5,000 yards, led the NFL in passing and single-handedly made the Texans a dangerous opponent.
Watson believes he's raised his game. Never better.
“I’m not the same guy,” Watson said Wednesday as he prepares for his first full season with the Cleveland Browns. ”I feel like I’ve improved. I’ve evolved to a new level. And I’m ready to be able to show that.”
Watson's claim that he's a superior version of himself in 2020 rocked Browns linebacker and co-captain Anthony Walker Jr.
“That’s scary,” Walker said. “That’s scary because in 2020, he almost beat us twice by himself when I was in Indy. So to see him have that confidence that he’ll be even better, it’s huge for us. I expect it. I hope it happens.”
Words can become actions starting Sunday against Cincinnati for Watson, who was banned from attending the season opener in 2022 after the league suspended him 11 games for violating its personal conduct policy.
Watson was punished after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual assault or harassment during massage therapy sessions. The ban followed Watson sitting out the entire 2021 season after he demanded to be traded.
His ballyhooed return last year — Watson's debut with the Browns was his first game in 700 days — was underwhelming. He went 3-3 in six starts, and his performances raised more eyebrows about Cleveland's $230 million investment than expectations.
He completed a career-low 58.2% percent of his passes and those highlight-reel plays that were once routine while making three Pro Bowls with the Texans became rare.
Watson seems tired of the comparisons.
“Last year was a tricky time where I was learning everything,” he said. “But I don’t want to just get caught up in hey, Houston this. Houston that. I had a lot of fun, a lot of success in Houston, but I want to have that success and start something new in Cleveland.”
Before Wednesday's practice, Watson spoke with the same confidence that has been on display all summer. He's understandably more comfortable with his teammates, coaches and even media members in his second season with Cleveland.
There's still a spotlight on him, but it's not as searing as it was a year ago.
That's not to say there isn't pressure on Watson, but he seems to be embracing it rather than letting it swallow him.
Walker knows Watson as well as anyone. He had to prepare to play him twice every season while in the AFC South, and during training camp and the preseason, Walker has watched Watson regain his swagger.
Unlike a year ago, Watson is with the Browns from the start — on and off the field.
"It’s huge,” Walker said. "Just his personality, his leadership has been on full display this whole offseason, all training camp. A lot of guys in the offense are just comfortable with him and he’s running the show.
“So just to have that guy, the franchise quarterback leading the show right from the beginning is huge for us.”
While working his way back from a season-ending quad injury, Walker has faced Watson nearly every day in practice and watched him continue to knock off any lingering rust.
He now sees someone very familiar.
"I told him he looks like his old self, the guy that I had to play twice a year in Indy,” Walker said. “Back to just controlling the whole game and not afraid to make a play. I think that’s huge for us. That’s huge for our offense.”
Watson was recently voted a captain by his teammates, another sign of change in Year 2 with the Browns. Everything is different for him, really, and this week Watson will be fully immersed in the AFC North in a matchup with Cincinnati star QB Joe Burrow.
It's one of the many reasons Cleveland traded for Watson, to have a franchise QB who can play on the same level as Burrow and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson.
Watson was that guy in Houston.
He wants to be more in Cleveland.
"I know I can be,” he said.
NOTES: Pro Bowl CB Denzel Ward practiced on a limited basis for the first time since suffering a concussion on Aug. 26 in the preseason finale at Kansas City. While Ward remains in concussion protocol, his return to the field is a positive step toward facing the Bengals. ... WR Marquise Goodwin (illness) and S Juan Thornhill (calf) were also limited. ... Pro Bowl OG Joel Bitonio and WR Amari Cooper were given rest days.
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Tom Withers, The Associated Press