Free Agency Watch: It's a Make-or-Break Season for Baker Mayfield in Cleveland With Browns
Mayfield has a new coach and all the offensive firepower he could ask for in Cleveland
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After tossing three touchdown passes while leading the Cleveland Browns to 28-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons during his rookie season, Baker Mayfield told the assembled reporters at his douche-chill-inducing press conference after the game that he “woke up feeling real dangerous” that morning.
It’s a good thing the 24-year-old quarterback has some experience feeling that way, because his NFL career could be in serious danger depending on how next season goes for him.
Taken No. 1 overall in the 2018 NFL draft by Cleveland, Mayfield led the Browns to their first win in 19 games In his first NFL appearance, snapping a 635-day winless streak. Mayfield went on to have a fairly good rookie campaign, going 6-7 as a starter and throwing 27 touchdowns in his 13 games to set the rookie passing TD record which had previously been held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson.
Then, with expectations for the Browns already sky-high going into Mayfield’s sophomore NFL season, Cleveland made a blockbuster trade to bring superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. to town. In a less-sexy move that should have helped Mayfield nonetheless, the Browns also signed beleaguered star running back Kareem Hunt after he was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs.
With Beckham and Hunt on the roster, the hype surrounding the Browns and Mayfield grew larger than the latter’s ego and had many people picking them as Super Bowl contenders. Then the season began.
The Browns went 2-6 to start the season and Mayfield was awful, throwing more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (seven) and completing fewer than 59 percent of his passes (58.67) while earning a quarterback rating of 71.3.
Though Mayfield was better over the second half of the season, the hole was too deep for the Browns to crawl out of, and the team finished at 6-10, well out of playoff contention. Now, entering his third year in the NFL, Mayfield has a career record of 12-17 and has tossed 49 touchdowns compared to 35 interceptions while completing 61.5 percent of his passes. Whether those numbers improve or decline this season should go a long way in determining Mayfield’s future in the NFL.
Theoretically, they should go up — quite a bit.
Blessed with an offense that already includes Beckham, stud slot receiver Jarvis Landry, bell-cow running back Nick Chubb, playmaking tight end David Njoku, Hunt and a solid offensive line, Mayfield now has a game-breaking tight end to throw the ball to in new acquisition Austin Hooper.
The recipient of a four-year, $42 million contract that makes him the highest-paid tight end in football, Hooper was one of the most consistent producers at the position last season and was targeted at least five times in all 13 of the games he played.
Hooper, who caught at least four passes in all but two of the games he played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2019, posted 75 receptions, 787 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Along with Beckham and Landry, Hooper figures to be a big part of first-year head coach Kevin Stefanski’s passing attack.
The former offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, Stefanski orchestrated one of the NFL’s most effective and balanced offenses in 2019 and should be a huge step up from departed Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens. With Stefanski calling plays on the sideline and Beckham, Landry, Hooper, Chubb and Hunt — all of whom have been Pro Bowlers — on the field, Mayfield is all out of excuses if he doesn’t succeed.
And if he can’t deliver the goods, he may also be out of time, as the Browns also brought in veteran quarterback Case Keenum in free agency. While he’s been a sub-par starter (27-35) during his eight-year NFL career, Keenum did have one brush with greatness when he went 11-3 as the starter for the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 after Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season due to injury. His quarterback coach at the time? Stefanski.
Given Cleveland’s investment in Mayfield, it is in Stefanski’s best interest to do everything he can to get the third-year QB back to playing the way he did while he was a rookie. But if he can’t and Mayfield continues to struggle, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see the Browns turn to Keenum.
And your humble narrator isn’t the only one who feels this way.
Speaking with The Zach Gelb Show on CBS Sports Radio, former Pro Bowl quarterback Jake Delhomme indicated a changing of the guard could be on the way if Cleveland doesn’t get more from Mayfield.
“They need better quarterback play in Cleveland. There’s just no other way of saying it,” Delhomme said. “Don’t be surprised if you see Case Keenum come November if Baker struggles. I don’t think they’ll be afraid in the least bit to put in Case. Baker wasn’t drafted by this regime that has taken over. If he plays well, great, I’m happy for him. But if he struggles, don’t be (surprised if Keenum) takes over. Keenum is a pro who’s going to be preparing and knows this system.”
Sounds like a pretty dangerous situation for Mayfield.
Elsewhere in the NFL during a quiet period for free agents, the Rams agreed to terms with defensive Michael Brockers on a three-year contract that will pay him up to $31.5 million, the Colts signed former Viking cornerback Xavier Rhodes to a one-year contract and the Arizona Cardinals re-signed running back Kenyan Drake to a one-year deal worth $8.483 million.
And in Tampa Bay, head coach Bruce Arians put any speculation that the team might be interested in signing to free agent Antonio Brown to appease Tom Brady to rest. “There’s no room and probably not enough money,” Arians said. “It’s just not going to happen here. It’s not a fit here.”
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