By TOM WITHERS AP Sports Writer
BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Watson still has so much to prove — on and off the field.
While he tries to repair an image marred by sexual misconduct allegations, Watson is attempting to move back among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, a status he once held but has since relinquished.
Watson must convince critics, and to a lesser degree himself, that he’s still one of the game’s best players behind center. While playing for Houston, he had a place in the league’s upper echelon of QBs, mentioned in the same breath with Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen.
With Cleveland, Watson’s stock has plummeted.
He accepts that.
“I missed two years of football, so I shouldn’t be in those rankings, to be honest,” Watson said Wednesday before the Browns’ practice was moved indoors because of thunderstorms. “If you’re asking me, I haven’t played ball. I haven’t played enough football the last few years to even be up there.
“So I got to go out there and prove and show what I got to do to get back in those conversations.”
As he prepares for his first full season with Browns, Watson is being scrutinized as much for his football skills as his behavior beyond the sideline.
He played in just six games last season following an 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after more than two dozen women accused him of sexual assault and harassment during massage therapy sessions when he played for the Texans.
When he returned, Watson didn’t play up to his standards, raising questions about his game and whether the Browns made a colossal mistake by trading three first-round draft picks and signing him to a $230 million contact.
Watson was understandably rusty after sitting out the entire 2021 season following a trade demand and then being punished for alleged inappropriate behavior.
The league’s passing leader in 2020, Watson made throws that weren’t as crisp or accurate. He was hesitant in the pocket, and while he did have a few spectacular moments, there weren’t nearly as many as expected.
He’s aiming to change that this season. Watson has spoken this summer about this being a new start for him, a fresh slate.
He knows there will always be detractors, but he’s not trying to live up to anyone’s expectations other than his own. In the AFC North, he’ll always be compared to Burrow in Cincinnati and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, but Watson said he’s not motivated by trying to match them throw for throw.
“I’m self-driven,” he said. “I want to be the best I can be for Deshaun Watson. I can’t get caught up in the other guys and seeing what they’re doing and all of them are elite. If you’re a starting quarterback in this league, you’re pretty elite.
“This is a hard business. This is a hard job to have and it’s only 32 spots. I feel like everyone’s elite and I got to be self-driven to be the best Deshaun Watson I can be for this team and for myself.”
Watson will get his most extensive playing time of the exhibition season on Saturday when the Browns travel to Kansas City to take on the Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
Coach Kevin Stefanski will play the majority of his starters, and Watson is excited to get in some quality work ahead of the Sept. 10 opener against Cincinnati.
It’s a chance for the Browns to see how they measure up against the league’s best team. And for Watson, it’s a chance to match up while renewing his friendship with Mahomes, whom he has known for years.
Watson quickly mentioned Mahomes’ playmaking ability, leadership and work ethic when asked about what impresses him most about the two-time Super Bowl winner. And as far as Watson is concerned, there isn’t much Mahomes doesn’t do well.
“He just makes everyone else around him better,” he said. “So he’s definitely the standard for the NFL.”
Watson then pointed out they were both drafted in 2017: he at No. 10 and Mahomes at 12.
Right now, they’re not in the same class.
NOTES: Starting safety Grant Delpit injured his right arm during an inadvertent collision with wide receiver Jalen Wayne. Delpit remained in a sitting position for a few minutes before walking off with a medical trainer. A team spokesman said Delpit is day to day. The Browns are counting on Delpit, a second-round pick in 2020, to have a big season. He missed his rookie year with a ruptured Achilles tendon.