Baker Mayfield should be pissed
None of this is a surprise. The Browns should've seen this coming. Now, is there time to salvage the relationship? Also, inside: Why the Bills needed to sign Von Miller.
(Note: Deshaun Watson was, in fact, traded to the Browns later Friday. How about that?)
Like most parents, I hope most all social media apps effectively blow to smithereens by the time my kids are teenagers. This dopamine is essentially crack for our brains and society at large because Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, none of it represents real life. Our species is losing something incredibly valuable — authentic interpersonal relationships. At alarming rates, humans relentlessly seek the faux validation of others one tweet, one pic, one video clip at a time and it’s all poison.
God help us. Please.
But, hey, there is one cool thing about something so unbelievably destructive. We know what so many pro athletes are thinking in real time. A week like this takes things to a whole new level. Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts tweets and deletes “it’s about to get scary in Atlanta” in the thick of his team’s pursuit of Deshaun Watson. Players openly recruit free agents to play in their cities. And Baker Mayfield takes to Instagram to pen what reads like a goodbye letter to Cleveland when his employer met with Watson.
This prompted a Browns source to tell ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that they’re seeking an “adult” at the quarterback position.
Which appeared to be the final straw for Mayfield. He is now demanding a trade.
And Von Miller signed with the Buffalo Bills. And Davante Adams was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders. And Allen Robinson is off to the Los Angeles Rams. And… is anybody out there even watching March Madness? A few, I guess. The rest of us are glued to drama that has reached NBA heights. We’ll dig into everything over the course of this offseason — we’ve got quite a few Packers fans wondering what in the hell’s going on — but, for today, let’s stick with the quarterback we wrote about just one week ago. This is such a fascinating impasse that shines a light on a gray area that keeps so many coaches and GMs up at night.
Quarterbacks can get anyone in a building hired or fired. They affect everything. They cover up incompetence elsewhere. Watson was available so the Browns met with Watson. Innocent enough, right? The last time we saw Watson play, he was dancing through defenses at will. He was a top 3 talent. With jobs on the line, of course, teams are going to line up to woo an MVP-caliber player. That sort of player is going to keep you and everyone else employed. Not only that. You’ll probably get a promotion elsewhere, too. That’s why everyone in Green Bay has always been A-OK putting up with anything Aaron Rodgers does the other six days of the week. Everyone benefits because he’s so supremely talented.
And yet, this can also backfire, as the Browns are now seeing. Operating this way is fine if your quarterback happens to be Sam Darnold (who owns a 76.9 career passer rating) or Matt Ryan (who has two winning seasons the last nine years) or, like the Saints, you don’t even have a quarterback.
The Browns are a more complicated case because Mayfield, a former No. 1 pick, has not been a total bust. He threw more touchdowns as a rookie than anyone ever… under the guidance of Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens. He led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win in 2020… with Odell Beckham Jr. sidelined. No doubt, he was able to work off a Nick Chubb-, Kareem Hunt-powered run game in throwing for 3,563 yards with 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. But context matters in Cleveland. For a franchise forever tortured at the position, this 2020 season was an unequivocal breakthrough.
The question, as we examined last week, was how much the injuries were to blame for Mayfield’s struggles in 2021.
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All along, this didn’t need to be too complicated. His fifth-year option costs Cleveland only $18.8 million this season. That makes Mayfield the 16th-highest paid quarterback this season, per Spotrac. I didn’t get the sense that Mayfield’s camp was in a rush to push for long-term security this offseason. He seemed fine entering 2022 on the final year of his rookie deal because he was eager to see what moves Cleveland was going to make himself — just as the Browns needed to see Mayfield stay healthy and perform. Things started promising. The Browns acquired wide receiver Amari Cooper. This draft is loaded at receiver, too. But then the Browns hurled themselves into the Watson sweepstakes, meeting with the quarterback the same day he had a deposition for two of his 22 civil suits.
If this was binary equation — if this league was only comprised of QBs like Mahomes and Allen and Watson on one side with Darnold and Ryan on the other — then, OK, fine. But it’s not binary. For starters, it’s strange to say you’re seeking an “adult” at quarterback in one breath while pursuing a quarterback accused of such vile behavior the next. Especially when the quarterback being publicly shamed, Mayfield, played with a torn labrum all season. He could’ve, probably should’ve shut it down. And he didn’t. So, at some point, this became personal to Mayfield. Frankly, that shouldn’t be a surprise because Mayfield is a quarterback who takes everything personal.
That’s been part of his appeal back to his Oklahoma days — his edge. Of course, this is going to piss him off.
This was all so avoidable, too. We’ll see if the Browns are capable of mending this relationship.
Way back in mid-November — at the height of Mayfield’s struggles — former Browns fullback Leroy Hoard hopped on the Go Long Podcast for an hour and, today, sounds like Nostradamus. Even in the heat of the moment, Hoard thought big picture.
“I know a lot of Browns people feel Baker’s not the guy,” Hoard said, “and that we can do better. If that’s the way you feel, you’ve got two or three more years. Look at the reality of it. Stop making it like you have to make a decision right now — you don’t! The quarterback draft class is hot garbage. There isn’t somebody that’s going to all of a sudden be a free agent that’s better than Baker.”
When names like Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers are brought up, Hoard leaned back in disbelief.
“And they’re going to come to Cleveland,” he said, mockingly.
“Hey, man. You’re taking a whole lot of liberties there. You’re making the assumption that guy wants to come here.”
One logical needle to thread was to copy what the Tennessee Titans did after four years of No. 2 overall pick Marcus Mariota. Like Mayfield, there were moments of promise in Mariota. He threw for 26 scores with only nine picks in 2016 and led Tennessee to a playoff win in 2017. After a so-so 2018 season under a new regime — GM Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Vrabel — Mariota suddenly had company in the quarterback room. The team signed Ryan Tannehill to a one-year, $2 million contract, Mariota started 2-4 and the Titans benched him for Tannehill. It hasn’t been perfect but, for three straight seasons, the Titans have fielded a team capable of winning it all.
This could’ve been a way to give Mayfield a month or two while, still, having a Plan B in place if your worst suspicions prove true.
Hoard wasn’t thrilled with this idea, of course.
“If you’ve got that person on the side, you’re thinking about him. You’re thinking, ‘If it goes wrong, you go to him.’ So, are you really showing your undivided support if you’ve got that side guy?”
In truth, the Cleveland Browns and Baker Mayfield — at least in 2022 — have always been best together.
Both parties are imperfect. Both parties need each other.
This can still work because we’ve seen it work.
Don’t point the finger solely at management, either. GM Andrew Berry is taking the bullets right now when there’s a reasonable chance ownership is to blame. Jimmy and Dee Haslam haven’t exactly been models of consistency since purchasing the team in 2012. The same owner who pressured ex-GM Ray Farmer to draft Johnny Manziel has undoubtedly had a say in matters behind the scenes. We explored this aspect with former personnel man Jim Monos on the podcast this week. As Monos notes — bare minimum — anything remotely controversial must be approved by ownership. Haslam’s shaky track record sure gives us every reason to be skeptical. One exec who worked in the Browns building wasn’t shy in criticizing the Haslams and says both are “deeply involved” in personnel.
Browns fans have endured all sorts of pain since the team’s rebirth in 1999. They endured a 17-year playoff drought, made it with Mayfield in 2020 and, now, Mayfield wants nothing to do with them. Of course, it was only one year ago that Aaron Rodgers made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the Packers.
It’s a long offseason. Cooler heads can prevail. There’s still a good chance the Browns and Mayfield both give love a chance.
When they do, we’ll probably hear about it on Instagram.
The Bills stay active
First, a quote from general manager Brandon Beane after he was hired by the Buffalo Bills in 2017:
“I’m going to build through the draft, first and foremost,” he said five years ago. “You have to draft well and sign those guys. If you draft well, you sign them. You’re not going to see big splashes of free agency. Free agency sets you up for your draft.”
“You don’t want to go into the draft needing a cornerback — needing an offensive tackle. If me and my staff do our job, we’ll look at where we have some holes after the season, we’ll plug a few holes, and then we’ll be able to draft for need when April comes.”
Sometimes, however, plans need to change. Only the Kansas City Chiefs had more money allocated to the defensive line into the 2021 season and this is also a front office that drafted DT Ed Oliver (ninth overall), DE A.J. Epenesa (54th overall), DE Greg Rousseau (30th overall) and DE Carlos Basham (61st overall) the last three years. , After Patrick Mahomes torched Buffalo in the 2020 AFC Championship, we advocated the Bills go big-game hunting at pass rusher. Leonard Floyd, Matt Judon, Bud Dupree, Yannick Ngakoue and J.J. Watt were all available in free agency.
Instead, the Bills turned to the draft. Perhaps Rousseau and/or Basham pan out but they’re still raw. In 2021, Mahomes torched Buffalo again.
That’s why you need to give Beane and the Bills credit for refusing to stay stubborn. There’s a championship window open in Western New York — go for it, pay up, relentlessly chase the Lombardi trophy. Von Miller has played 161 games over 10 seasons. That’s quite a bit of mileage. Unlike Chandler Jones, who uses his freakish length and power to get to the quarterback, Miller relies on agility. There’s risk in that agility fading fast with age. A dislocated peroneal tendon suffered in practice ended Miller’s 2020 season. In other words, the tendon flipped over the ankle bone.
But this is a risk the Bills needed to take.
Off that injury, Miller proved he can be the player that gets Buffalo over the hump. He makes huge plays in huge moments which is precisely what this defense needs. His pass rush win rate (41.5 percent) through the Rams’ four playoff wins was the highest by a player in a single postseason since ESPN began using the metric in 2017. He had 18 pressures in all. The six-year, $120 million deal includes $51.5 million guaranteed. Even with a potential out after three seasons, that’s a lot of money.
Given what this team sorely needed, that’s the cost of doing business.
Good on Beane to adjust.
It takes time to excel at wide receiver in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense. Reps upon reps upon countless reps. He and Jordy Nelson eventually developed a telepathic connection in which they could see the same vulnerability in a defense at the line of scrimmage and no audible, no signal was needed. They simply reacted. And, of course, Davante Adams took this concept to a new level. He leaves Green Bay with 669 career receptions, 8,121 yards and 73 touchdowns. Expect the Packers to scramble and sign a big name or two but it won’t be the same. This offense is different, a true blend of both Matt LaFleur’s playbook and Rodgers’ on-the-fly adjustments. One player worth the money now? Marquez Valdes-Scantling. He’s been around four years now, and has a shot to keep up with Rodgers in this offense.
Adams’ reps told NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that the Packers offered more money than the Raiders but that playing for the Raiders was a “lifelong dream.” Team sources pushed the same messaging to local media. Obviously the insinuation is that Rodgers’ new contract isn’t the reason the Packers couldn’t keep Adams. Hm. I don’t know. It’s quite difficult to believe the quarterback’s contract didn’t affect the wide receiver’s contract. Given how these teams have operated in recent years, there’s a good chance that the Raiders’ offer includes guaranteed money beyond the first year of the deal, while the Packers’ offer did not. Money always matters in March.
Derek Carr has been one of the most underrated quarterbacks for a while. Reunited with Adams, he has a chance to catapult into the upper-echelon. This isn’t bad timing, either. Carr is slated to become a free agent again in 2023. Remember when he signed a deal in 2017 to become the richest quarterback in the NFL? At $25 million per year, he’s now currently 14th. (Side note: One source once told me the Browns would’ve considered drafting Carr in 2014 if Haslam didn’t pressure them to take Johnny Football.)
In Commanders Country, head coach Ron Rivera insisted he did his research on Carson Wentz. Sources in Indianapolis were less than kind on Wentz’s way out, of course. We’ll all spend hours talking about Wentz — and rightfully so — but it’s the defense that needs help in Washington. A unit expected to be strong in 2021 was dreadful.
Casey Hayward was very, very good last season in Las Vegas. Getting him on a two-year, $11 million deal — even at 33 years of age — is a steal for the Falcons. As a corner who’s always relied on his brains over athleticism, Hayward can keep playing for a while. He had 46 tackles, nine passes defensed and a pick last season as one of PFF’s highest-graded cornerbacks.
If the Browns do give in and trade Baker Mayfield, keep an eye on the Seattle Seahawks. GM John Schneider comes from the same personnel tree as those who drafted Mayfield in Cleveland.
Earlier this week, we wrote why the Jacksonville Jaguars needed to spend this spring. They spent $259.5 million in all on seven players, including $155.25 million guaranteed. GM Trent Baalke said it’s his hope that the Jags don’t make this a habit. After greatly improving the overall talent level this spring, the next step is leaning on the draft. “We hope to get this organization to the point where we're not relying on free agency as much,” Baalke said, via the AP. “We're relying on our drafts and giving second contracts to those guys.” If Trevor Lawrence takes a massive step forward, this is realistic, too.