Sports | August 6, 2020 8:19 am

Can Baker Mayfield Prove He's a Franchise QB for the Post-Hype Browns?

The former No. 1 pick enters his third NFL season with a career record of 12-17

Can Baker Mayfield Prove He's a Franchise QB for the Browns?
Baker Mayfield paces the sideline in the fourth quarter of a game. (2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty)
Diamond Images/Getty Images

Over the next six weeks or so, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of finish from worst to first. Today’s team, the Browns.

No. 24: Cleveland Browns
2019 Record: 6-10

Points For: 335 – Points Against: 393
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 8

Picked No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft by the Browns, Baker Mayfield headlined a strong quarterback class that also included Sam Darnold (No. 3, Jets), Josh Allen (No. 7, Bills), Josh Rosen (No. 10, Cardinals), Lamar Jackson (No. 32, Ravens) and Mason Rudolph (No. 76, Steelers).

During his rookie season, Mayfield’s play seemed to justify Cleveland using the top pick to acquire him, as he was able to lead the team to their first win in 19 games in his first NFL appearance to snap a 635-day winless streak en route to going 6-7 as a starter, his 27 touchdown passes in 13 games setting an NFL rookie record in the process.

Hyped to the gills thanks to his rookie campaign and the addition of game-breaking wide receiver Odell Beckham last offseason, Mayfield had a massive sophomore slump, winning won only six games, which was fewer than Darnold (seven), Allen (10) and Jackson (13), and just one more than Rudolph (five). (Rosen went 0-3 in three starts for the Dolphins after he was traded following his lone season in Arizona.)

Now entering his third year in the NFL, Mayfield has a career record of 12-17 and is in dire need of a good season to prove he can be Cleveland’s franchise quarterback moving forward. The organization seems committed to helping him do it: under the direction of first-year general manager Andrew Berry and rookie coach Kevin Stefanski, the Browns have done everything they can this offseason to put Mayfield in position to succeed and possibly get Cleveland into the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

To shore up an offensive line that gave up 40 sacks in 2019, the Browns signed right tackle Jack Conklin away from the Tennessee Titans and drafted University of Alabama offensive lineman Jedrick Wills Jr. with the 10th pick in this year’s draft, ostensibly to play left tackle and protect Mayfield’s blindside.

Then, to add to an offense that already includes Beckham, wide receiver Jarvis Landry, tight end David Njoku and running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the Browns added former Falcon tight end Austin Hooper in free agency. A great red zone threat, Hooper caught six touchdowns from Matt Ryan and was on pace for nearly 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards before getting injured last season.

With an improved offensive line, an additional weapon in an already stocked arsenal, and Berry and Stefanski pushing an analytical approach that will emphasize the run to set up advantageous play-action passing situations, Mayfield, who added four pounds of lean mass and cut his body fat during the offseason, is in prime position to succeed without having to perform like a Pro Bowl quarterback.

“There is no reason that Baker Mayfield in this offense has to go out and do it all on his own,” Marc Sessler of NFL Media said in June. “I keep hearing over and over that it is this make-or-break season where if Baker Mayfield isn’t like a young Joe Montana that he’s out the door. Well, it is also a team still building and in process and we live in an age where a third-year quarterback better be fully developed and Patrick Mahomes-ish or we have issues.”

It may not be entirely fair, especially due to the unique circumstances of the coronavirus-influenced offseason, but if the Browns struggle in 2020 the same way they did in 2019, it will be Mayfield who winds up on the chopping block, as it certainly won’t be star defensive end Myles Garrett, who the Browns signed to a five-year contract extension through 2026 worth $125 million that includes $50 million guaranteed in July.

Mayfield is in a results-driven business and plays for an organization that last won a playoff game in 1994 (when Bill Belichick was coaching) or been a legit Super Bowl contender since the late 1980s. With patience wearing thin as their playoff drought lengthens, the Browns may decide that time has run out on their third-year quarterback if his struggles continue.

With a wealth of talent at his disposal and an offensive system that should take the pressure off, Mayfield’s success or failure this season lies squarely in his 9.25-inch hands.