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NFL Draft

Browns Can Win With Baker Mayfield… For Now

  • The Draft Network
  • October 5, 2021
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Coming off of a spectacular 2020 run, the Cleveland Browns are 3-1 through four games. The defense looks improved, Odell Beckham Jr. is healthy, and Nick Chubb is as dominant as ever. Throw in the fact that the one loss was a narrow defeat to the defending AFC champions, and things should definitely be looking up.

In many ways, they are. Those who thought last year was a ‘fluke’ have faded into the background—this is a playoff team with Super Bowl potential. But Baker Mayfield is showing that this team, as good as it is, may need a 2018 Rams or 2019 49ers type performance in order to reach the grand stage. It’s not just his poor performance on Sunday that emphasizes this belief. It’s the fact that through four years he’s shown he’s a wildly inconsistent, volatile passer who needs to be schemed for and sheltered by his play-caller.

In many ways, that’s not a knock. If you look around the league, there are probably only 12-ish quarterbacks who currently don’t fit this mold. Albeit different styles of passers, guys like Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, and to the lower end of the spectrum, Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo, are all players who fit this description.

Getting a top-tier quarterback is very, very hard, and as Cleveland can attest to, that guy might not come around for a long, long time. It’s why the team has put their belief in Mayfield, stacked the roster around him, and is all but assured to pay him big money. After not having a semi-competent passer for more than two decades, they are going to have to throw the bag at him and I would probably do the same.

And for now, that’s more than okay, but when his next contract comes, major problems are pretty much assured to come with it. This is a player who benefits greatly from his own rookie deal, playing with other major talents on rookie deals and having high-priced vets all around the roster. Once he’s getting paid $40 million, he won’t have the same luxuries and that’s where things get dicey.

As it is, Mayfield is already inconsistent in a perfect setting. Strip those top-tier conditions, and even with a great play-caller, we’re looking at a Goff-type situation. He’s more mobile than Goff, has a little bit more pizazz, and has the luxury of being the quarterback of a team that hasn’t seen a decent signal-caller since before I was born, but the situations feel eerily similar going into each to their respective second contracts: Both first overall picks, both guys who thrive off of play-action in run-heavy schemes, both talented throwers who love finding tight windows on breaking routes to the middle of the field. Yes, Mayfield has much quicker feet and is a lot better under pressure and against the blitz—Goff’s notorious kryptonite—but he’s also wildly erratic with his accuracy to the sidelines and throws every ball like a heat-seeking missile.

More development may come. It’s only his fourth year and progression isn’t always linear. But I’d tend to believe this high-highs-and-low-lows quarterback that is currently in front of us is probably going to be Mayfield’s maxed-out product, especially with the comfy conditions he’s being dealt.

As Mayfield stans will attest to, there was definitely a stretch last year where he was borderline elite—plenty of solid NFL passers can string together those types of performances, and he was no exception. But one-quarter of the way through the 2021 season, we’ve got a pretty clear indication of who he is, and the stats back it up.

Throwing together a great Week 1, a decent Week 2, a lackluster Week 3, and a horrible Week 4 (notice the inconsistencies), Mayfield is 21st in the league in EPA/Play, 18th in CMP%, 15th in CPOE, and 24th in passer rating. His one redeeming stat is that he’s near the top in the league in air yards, but that becomes far less impressive when you see his aDOT on incomplete passes is far above league average, whereas his aDOT on completed passes is right about average. Essentially, Cleveland has done a great job scheming deep shots—shoutout to Kevin Stefanski—but Mayfield has just been hitting them at an average rate.

And that’s exactly what Mayfield is: average. It’s respectable for a QB-starved franchise like Cleveland, but when the next contract comes, decisions will have to be made. Nearly handing games away to the Minnesota Vikings and not being able to hit your wide-open star wide receiver can’t be ignored, even when you have the best run game in the league and an abundance of riches on defense.

So where do you go from here?

Riding with Mayfield on his rookie deal is still a great option—and like I said at the top, there’s a (small) chance Cleveland can produce a Super Bowl run similar to the 2018 Rams or 2019 49ers this season. The conditions would need to be perfect and it probably won’t ever be replicated once Mayfield is paid, but it’s possible.

That being said, the best move for the future would probably be to see if they could package him and picks for an upgrade this offseason (think Goff-Stafford swap). It’s extremely wishful thinking, especially when guys like Stafford aren't available every offseason, but for a Browns team that is analytically savvy and not afraid to go against the grain, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Straight up letting Mayfield walk and drafting a guy to try and replicate him after the team hasn’t seen a competent passer in decades would be a PR nightmare (especially considering this quarterback class), but the trade route will at least need to be considered.

Ultimately, Cleveland's roster is great. Their coach is great. Their GM is great. Mayfield is 'meh'.   That’s fine, for now...

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