Don Wright/Associated Press
Baker Mayfield needs a hug.
Back in April 2018, he was on top of the world after the Cleveland Browns made him the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Fast forward to January 10, 2021, and he was the king of C-Town after leading the Browns to their first postseason victory since the team’s return to the NFL in 1999.
Fast forward just over a year though, and it’s a much different story. After an injury-plagued season in which the Browns failed to make the playoffs, they quietly went about pursuing an upgrade at the position. The team found one (they hope) in Deshaun Watson, leaving Mayfield as a quarterback without a team. The player feels “disrespected.” The trade market for Mayfield’s services has been nonexistent. As things stand now, his future is as murky as murky gets.
The thing is though, it really shouldn’t be this way. Given all the talk about what an uninspiring class of rookie quarterbacks is entering the NFL this year, demand for Mayfield’s services should be higher. For all his faults, the 27-year-old has shown he can lead a team to the postseason. Win in the playoffs.
And when the dust finally settles, it may just be that the team who believes all Mayfield needs is a change of scenery and a second chance winds up making one of the biggest impact moves of the 2022 offseason.
Per ESPN’s Jake Trotter, while appearing on the YNK Podcast, Mayfield didn’t hold back when asked if he felt disrespected by Cleveland’s pursuit (and eventual acquisition) of Watson.
“One hundred percent,” Mayfield said. “I was told one thing and they completely did another.”
He also made a point of mentioning the fact that he played for four head coaches in four seasons and said that he’s looking for “stabilization” in a new team.
Don Wright/Associated Press
“I know what I need to do for me to be the best version of me and be able to lead an organization,” Mayfield said. “I’m in a good place right now.”
One thing is for sure: Nothing about Mayfield’s 2021 season was stable†
After giving the defending AFC champion Kansas City Chiefs all they could handle in a Week 1 loss, Mayfield suffered a shoulder injury the following week against the Houston Texans. Eschewing season-ending surgery, he decided to play through the injury.
The results weren’t good.
Mayfield just threw 17 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions and finished the season 28th in QBR. To add insult to literal injury, Cleveland also missed the playoffs.
Mayfield admitted that as the season wore on, his injury affected him both physically and mentally.
“I was trying to be tough and fight through it, but then physically I wasn’t as capable of doing what I would normally [do]† When I wasn’t performing on the field, that’s when it really started to go downhill. Because I can tough it out, I don’t care, I’m not going to complain about it, like everybody is banged up. But then when it started hindering my play and going downhill, that’s when I was like, oh s–t. That’s when I started losing my own self-confidence and losing myself. This past year was rough. It was. It was rough on me, my family. It sucked because I knew what I could be doing, but I physically wasn’t in a state to do it.”
Per Jenna Lemoncelli of the New York PostMayfield also allowed that negativity from Cleveland’s fanbase affected his play.
“I would love to show up to somebody’s cubicle and just boo the s–t out of them and watch them crumble,” he said.
And here’s where we get to one of the knocks on Mayfield—that he’s immature.
Before Watson had even arrived in Cleveland, Mayfield posted a long “goodbye” message on Twitter.
It’s not the first time he has taken to social media to address grievances, both real and perceived. And the issues with player and team reached a boiling point when ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported (via Brian Wacker of the New York Post) that Mayfield’s attitude had so alienated the team that there was no going back.
“They’re breaking up, regardless of whether or not Deshaun Watson ends up in Cleveland,” Mortensen said. “The one thing that I was told is that it’s just not a match emotionally, whereas Baker Mayfield’s passion and emotional leadership were embraced in Oklahoma and even in the beginning with the Browns, things have changed and they want what they consider an adult at the position.”
However, it’s not like Mayfield was a pariah in the locker room. At least one teammate defended him, albeit anonymously.
Aditi Kinkhabwala †AKinkhabwala
Just spoke to one of Deshaun Watson’s new #Browns teammates. Went out of his way to call Baker Mayfield a “true warrior and fierce competitor” and talked about how cutthroat the scrutiny at QB can be. That said, he said: “Sometimes you’re a Matthew Stafford away from a Lombardi.”
There’s also the matter of Mayfield’s 2019 season, which was…not good. That year, he failed to complete 60 percent of his passes, tossed a staggering 21 interceptions and posted a passer rating of just 78.8.
It was bad. But it was also the season that will forever be known as “The Freddie Kitchens Fiasco.” The entire offense was trash. The play calling was ludicrously bad.
Mayfield doesn’t get mulligans for his two bad seasons. But each carries a caveat. Something of an explanation.
Then there are his 2018 and 2020 seasons. As a rookie, he completed 63.8 percent of his passes and tossed 27 touchdown passes against 14 interceptions. In 2020, it was a 62.8 percent completion rate, 26 scores and just eight picks.
The Browns, long an NFL laughingstock, were 17-12 over those two years with Mayfield at the helm. He went 29-30 as a starter overall.
Mayfield is not Tom Brady, or even Josh Allen, and he may well never be. He sometimes makes bad reads with the ball, and his competitive fire can lead him to try to extend plays rather than just tossing the rock out of bounds.
But let’s be crystal-clear here: If Mayfield were entering the NFL in 2022 even with those knocks, he would be the no-doubt No. 1 prospect at his position. And it wouldn’t be close.
Liberty’s Malik Willis has potential galore but is very much a project. Kenny Pickett’s hand size is a concern, and the Pitt signal-caller checks down too much. Cincinnati’s Desmond Knight is inconsistent with his accuracy. North Carolina’s Sam Howell has an elongated throwing motion and needs experience in a pro-style offense.
None of them have a Heisman Trophy. Or four years as an NFL starter. Or a playoff win on their resume. What’s better: the odds that Mayfield recaptures past form in a new home (his shoulder injury was the non-throwing arm) or that one of those unproven rookies become a star?
It’s a rhetorical question.
Yes, Mayfield carries a fully guaranteed salary of almost $19 million in 2022, and his contract expires in 2023. But the Browns are over the proverbial barrel. If they cut Mayfield, they eat the entire salary. As such, the team is going to pick up part of that salary. The trade compensation required to snag Mayfield is dropping by the day. By April 28, a Day 3 pick will more likely than not be all it takes. Cleveland just wants to ride him.
It’s a buyer’s market. He’s a relative bargain. If he bombs, it costs you nothing. If he doesn’t, you either ink a short-term below-market deal or tag him.
There are multiple teams picking in the top 10 who have a need under center. Two aren’t especially likely suitors. The Carolina Panthers already have a lame duck from the 2018 class in Sam Darnold, while the Falcons just signed Marcus Mariota as a temporary solution under center. Even the Seattle Seahawks ostensibly have a starting quarterback in 2022 at Drew Lock.
(Cue 12s making faces like they just bit into a lemon.)
Ron Schwane/Associated Press
At least one of those teams is going to draft a quarterback though. Maybe two. But let’s assume (for argument’s sake) that Carolina does at No. 6. That could mean a player like Mississippi State offensive tackle Charles Cross or Oregon edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux could be available to the Falcons at No. 8. If Atlanta also takes a quarterback, even more options become available to the Seahawks at No. 9. Or those teams could trade back and stockpile picks. All have multiple needs.
A messy 2021 season and even messier divorce from the Browns have soured many fans and pundits on Baker Mayfield. And maybe he will never be more than the above-average starter he showed he could be in 2018 and 2020.
But there are zero assurances that any of this year’s rookies can even be that. And in terms of draft capital, Mayfield costs a fraction of what those unproven youngsters will.
His trade market should be better than it is. And the odds are pretty good it actually is.
We just don’t know about it yet.