Baker Mayfield has had a rough start to his third NFL season after being selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft. If the Browns quarterback continues his poor play post-sophomore slump, Cleveland might be prompted to look for his replacement in 2021.
There’s no doubt that the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson — the league’s reigning MVP — has been the best first-round QB from 2018 and is in line for a mega second contract in the stratosphere of the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson.
Beyond Jackson (No. 32 overall), the Bills’ Josh Allen (No. 7 overall) is well positioned to remain his team’s franchise quarterback. Josh Rosen (No. 10 overall) is already on his third team, the Buccaneers, trying to hang to his NFL career.
That leaves Mayfield and Sam Darnold (No. 3) in the same boat somewhere in between. Each has shown flashes of promise through multiple offenses, but neither has solidified his long-term status.
With Mahomes and Watson, their teams had easy decisions to lock those quarterbacks into their futures. Given those quarterbacks went in the first round only a year earlier than Mayfield, the clock is ticking on Cleveland making the call on him.
Baker Mayfield contract details
Mayfield signed a four-year, all-guaranteed rookie deal in 2018 for $32.862 million. That averages to $8.17 million annually. He has earned about $24.3 million of it so far going into this season.
With each year, his cap hit has steadily grown. For 2020, Mayfield is costing the team $9 million. Next year that number goes a up a little more to $10.569 million.
The Browns had to be committed to Mayfield for a third year despite his major struggles last season. Had they cut him this year, it would have cost them $19.312 million in dead money with $10.3 million in extra cap burden.
The club has the fifth-year option on Mayfield for 2022, but there’s a way to get out of his contract before then. With his 2021 cap hit set at $10.569 million, the dead money drops to $10.399 million, setting up $170,000 in cap relief.
The Browns did splurge in free agency this offseason, adding right tackle Jack Conkin and tight end Austin Hooper. They also gave new contracts to defensive end Myles Garrett, the first overall pick in 2017, and running back Kareem Hunt.
They still project be around $30 million under the cap next year and are bound to consider some veteran cuts to free up more space. So should the Browns feel they have seen enough of Mayfield to think he’s not the answer, it is possible for them to move on from as early as next year.
What does Baker Mayfield need to do to earn his next contract with the Browns?
Mayfield needs to prove he can build on his impressive rookie season and not continue to regress. Mayfield’s opening performance against Baltimore didn’t inspire, as he had some of the same issues of 2019.
He struggled with his reads and accuracy. He once again felt unsettled in the pocket, expecting pressure, instead of trusting his improved pass protection. Despite the Browns running the ball effectively with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Mayfield continued to hurt himself by not helping himself well with play-action.
Mayfield did look sleeker and stronger after his playing shape let him down last season. He also felt comfortable again operating the short-to-intermediate passing game, channeling his rookie success.
Under new coach Kevin Stefanski, Mayfield was adjusting to developments in the offense made to lift him. At the same time, he showed some of the bad habits he developed last season under his former offensive-minded head coach, Freddie Kitchens.
Mayfield is the definition of a young QB caught in the crossroads. If he can raise his passing efficiency back up into the 90s to lead the Browns to more than six victories, that would show real growth and improvement, putting him back on the trajectory to see a second deal. If he keeps taking sacks he shouldn’t and make some unforced errors, the Browns will have an ample sample size to know that 2019 was the norm and 2018 was the fluke, not the other way around.
What are the Browns’ options to replace Baker Mayfield in 2021?
If Mayfield keeps on playing poorly to the point Cleveland would want to move on, that also will mean the team is headed to another high draft pick. as high as the top 10 again.
At least three QBs will go in the first round in 2021 — Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. Depending on the needs of who’s picking ahead of them, however, Lawrence, Fields and Lance all might be gone if the Browns aren’t bad enough with Mayfield. But there is bound to another QB jump into the first-round mix, such as Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy or Miami’s D’Eriq King.
Dak Prescott is the headliner pending free agent for now, but he’s not leaving the Cowboys. For a bridge, the Browns could look at one of two Colts, Philp Rivers or Jacoby Brissett, vs. considering former Brown Tyrod Taylor or well-traveled Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The Bears also haven’t committed to Mitchell Trubisky. There could be some mild interest in the 2017 first-round mate of Watson and Mahomes because of him growing up near Cleveland. There’s also Mayfield’s backup, Case Keenum, who’s signed through 2022. On the same level, there is the Browns’ former Bengals rival, Andy Dalton, currently Prescott’s backup.
The two wlld cards to watch with the Browns are two other No. 1 overall QBs, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. Between the draft and free agency, there would be several options with upside for either the short or long-term to succeed Mayfleld if needed.
Mayfield will never be confused with Johnny Manziel in Browns QB draft lore because Manziel had off-field issues that kept him from even getting into Year 3 with the team. But unless he turns thing around fast, Cleveland can quickly file Mayfield under Tim Couch, Brady Quinn and Brandon Weeden and once again start over at the game’s most important position.