CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cleveland Browns shifted some of the money they owe Deshaun Watson and started spending it on players to help him — and their sketchy defense.
The Browns restructured the quarterback’s record-setting $230 million contract to create salary-cap space early on Monday ahead of NFL free agency, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press.
Then, coming off a disappointing 7-10 season, Cleveland began addressing needs by agreeing to three-year contracts with center Ethan Pocic and defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, said the person who has direct knowledge of the team’s plans.
Late Monday night, the Browns reached agreement with defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson on a four-year, $57 million contract after missing out on tackles Javon Hargrave and Dre’Mont Jones, who were targets but signed elsewhere.
Tomlinson should improve Cleveland’s shoddy run defense, which was a major problem in 2022 and led to coordinator Joe Woods being fired.
Tomlinson spent the past two seasons with Minnesota after being drafted by the New York Giants in 2017.
Primarily a run stopper, he had 42 tackles in 13 games and 2 1/2 sacks.
As for Watson, the Browns always have had the ability to convert his base salary ($46 million in 2023) to a signing bonus and created $36 million of room, according to the person who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team is not publicly disclosing any information.
Teams are permitted to reach agreements with free agents for two days before signings can become official starting on Wednesday.
The Browns began patching up a defensive line with numerous holes by agreeing with pass rushing end Okoronkwo on a three-year contract.
Okoronkwo’s deal is worth $19 million and includes $12.5 million guaranteed, according to NFL Network.
Cleveland needed another end to pair with All-Pro Myles Garrett.
Jadeveon Clowney filled that role the past two seasons, but the Browns have no desire to bring him back after a down season which ended with him criticizing the team and being sent home before the finale in Pittsburgh.
The 6-foot-1, 253-pound Okoronkwo spent three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams before going to Houston.
The 27-year-old had a career-best five sacks for the Texans last season.
Another priority was re-signing center Ethan Pocic, and the Browns locked the 27-year-old up by agreeing to bring him back on a three-year deal.
Pocic had a strong 2022 season with the Browns, who were in a bind at center after they released veteran J.C. Tretter, and projected starter Nick Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury in the exhibition opener.
Pocic stepped in and anchored Cleveland’s solid line, which includes All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio and steady right tackle Jack Conklin, who signed a four-year, $60 million extension in December.
Watson’s restructuring was expected because it was the easiest way for the Browns to clear space after being roughly $14 million over the salary cap.
General manager Andrew Berry recently said the restructuring of Watson’s deal was “on the table.”
Berry had previously reworked kick returner Jakeem Grant Sr.’s contract and the Browns are releasing safety John Johnson III, who was entering the final season of a three-year, $33.75 million deal.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Watson initially rejected a trade from Houston to Cleveland a year ago — but changed his mind after the Browns offered him a five-year, $230 million contract that was fully guaranteed.
The team was criticized for the deal given that Watson had been accused of sexual misconduct and harassment by 23 women in Texas.
He has since settled 23 civil lawsuits brought by the women, who worked as massage therapists and said the QB acted inappropriately during therapy sessions.
Watson was suspended 11 games last season by the NFL for violating its personal conduct policy.
He played in six games for Cleveland, posting a 3-3 record while looking rusty following a nearly two-year layoff.