Deshaun Watson has been cleared to return to the Cleveland Browns. Now what?

Deshaun Watson is back. As much as the NFL’s suspension terms allow him to be.

The Cleveland Browns quarterback has officially reached the first stage of his tiered reinstatement process during his 11-game sexual misconduct suspension, receiving clearance by the NFL to return to the team’s practice facility Monday. As part of the terms of his suspension, which also included a $5 million fine, he can now begin his reintegration back into the locker room and team structure. However, there is a long list of stipulations that Watson must follow, including taking part in only conditioning, weight lifting, team meetings, rehabilitation and other functions that do not include practice or play.

As it stands, if Watson meets all of his parameters for reinstatement, he can return to practice Nov. 14. After that, Watson would be allowed to practice with the Browns and be eligible to return to play Dec. 4 against the Houston Texans. However, the next two steps — returning to practice and returning to play — will also require Watson to continue meeting mandatory counseling and mental health evaluations before moving forward.

How the Browns ultimately handle his step-by-step reintegration internally will be largely private, but he’s expected to take part in offensive installations and the general flow of what each game week will be like when he returns to play. He’s also expected to meet at some point with head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry, as well as some level of media availability before taking over the starting job from Jacoby Brissett.

The coaching staff and members of the front office were barred from having contact with Watson during his suspension, creating an uncommon void between a star player and his new franchise that has lasted nearly six months. Stefanski told reporters last week that he hasn’t spoken to Watson since he left the team on Aug. 30.

Deshaun Watson is eligible to return to the Cleveland Browns’ facility on Monday. Here’s what’s next in his path back during suspension. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Watson’s initial role will also be to support Brissett the way a backup typically would in terms of classroom preparations, although it’s unclear how that will work without Watson being out on the field taking reps with Brissett. A source with the team previously told Yahoo Sports that Watson would return to the franchise as the starter “instantly” once his eligibility had been returned, regardless of how Brissett fared or what Cleveland’s record was by December. But the details of how that process would work in terms of installing him as the leader or centerpiece would be organic and similar to adding any other “new” player.

As Stefanski put it in August, the team will be creating the map for Watson’s return as he progresses.

“It’s an unprecedented situation, so it’s hard to say what it’s going to look like,” Stefanski said about the plans for Watson’s integration back into the team. “I don’t want to compare it to losing a player to COVID, but it’s somewhat like that experience in terms of the absence. You don’t have a player in the building and you move on without him, then when he returns you go through that process. This is obviously different, but we’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it.”

One particular aspect the Browns will have to start preparing for is a return of an immense preseason spotlight that largely vanished when Watson went out the door. It’s a microscope that will continuously revisit the reasons behind his suspension, the sexual assault and sexual misconduct civil lawsuits that he settled, and the one lawsuit that remains.

All of that left a residue on the team even after Watson left to serve his 11th game penalty, but it has rarely been addressed or been part of the national spotlight as the regular season kicked off. The Browns anticipate that will change starting Monday and again become a more consistent presence in media coverage as Watson’s return draws closer.

It will all likely culminate in a Week 13 return against Watson’s former team, the Texans … in Houston. That will likely feature unparalleled intensity in media coverage and from an opposing fan base. Meanwhile, Watson has largely stayed out of the public spotlight during his suspension. He, however, popped up on TMZ on Saturday, which reported that he was spending his last weekend in Los Angeles before returning to Cleveland on Monday.

One thing is certainly clear: Despite being 2-3 through the first five games of the season and wasting opportunities to turn losses into wins, the franchise is hoping (and planning) to be in contention when Watson returns. That much was evident when the Browns made the decision to acquire linebacker Deion Jones from the Atlanta Falcons heading into Week 6, helping to soothe the loss of linebacker and defensive captain Anthony Walker to a season-ending knee injury in September. The Browns are expected to send a late-round draft pick to the Falcons for Jones, who will come off injured reserve in the coming weeks.

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