Baker Mayfield: Now is the time for Browns to sign a new deal

Last year, Baker Mayfield and his agents were not interested in talking contract unless it was for MVP-class numbers. What about now? 

Last offseason, there was a huge clamor from the fan base to sign Baker Mayfield at any price, with the Cleveland Browns and Mayfield being so far apart that no negotiations ever took place. The Browns were forced to pick up Mayfield’s fifth-year option, with no long-term deal.

This season there’s an equally huge clamor to get rid of Mayfield at any cost. Is there a middle ground somewhere that would allow a fair long-term contract to be signed that would keep the quarterback in Cleveland without mortgaging the future of the franchise forever?

Mayfield recently blew up at Mary Kay Cabot for trying to infer his thought process. Baker is probably justified to the extent that the journalists should make it clear what is based on conversations with Mayfield and what is simply conjecture.

However, it does not take a mind reader to know that if there is no long-term deal, the Browns need a new quarterback. Mayfield cannot have it both ways. He cannot pledge undying loyalty to the city, its fans, and the ball club and yet not have a long-term deal. It doesn’t matter how good he is. If he cannot be signed, he has to be replaced. Just ask any sports owner about that (except Dan Gilbert of the Cavaliers, that is).

If Baker Mayfield does want to stay in Cleveland, he and his representatives (Tom and Jack Mills of Shark Sports Management), absolutely, positively have to deal with a general manager in Andrew Berry who will not overpay. If not, someone credible will be brought in via the draft or, more likely, via free agency. Free agency seems more likely because there are more credible candidates this year, and the draft class, despite perpetual over-optimism by general managers as well as fans, is always a crapshoot at best.

However, Plan A is to get a deal done at fair value, not fairy tale value, which was last year’s plan.

Let’s wind the clock back to last year’s offseason. Mayfield had a great second half in 2020. The Browns had made the playoffs, beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh 48-37, and if the officials had called a helmet-to-helmet foul against the Chiefs, the Browns would have beat Kansas City also. It looked like Mayfield would lead the Browns to the playoffs every year from then on.

So darn Berry and the cheapskate owners! It seemed so obvious that Dee and Jimmy Haslam needed to open the vault and produce a contract for Baker comparable to what Josh Allen got, namely an extension for six years and $258 million, right? However, general manager Andrew Berry’s recommendation was that the Browns should not overpay and put the kibosh on that. The Browns love Baker, but let’s be real.

This amateur analyst got out his pocket calculator and estimated that Mayfield was probably not a top-three NFL quarterback, but arguably fit somewhere between 10th and 17th, and given the tight budgets associated with Covid, would probably be worth about four years at $135 to $140 million. This provoked minor outrage from the DPD fan base, who generally believed that this was way too low. But it might also have been rather close to what the Browns would actually have paid.

Mayfield and Shark Sports were apparently not interested in a middle-of-the-pack contract (which would have been about the same average salary as the deals for Aaron Rodgers and Jared Goff, by the way, and considerably more than Tom Brady’s annual take-home). Mayfield, who is super confident in his ability to make good on one-in-a-million shots, figured he would have a monster season in 2021 and would earn the monster contract he wanted, just like his friendly rivals Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.

If worse were to come to worse, almost every other NFL team would be willing to pay. That’s the mindset of an MVP.

However, that’s not the mindset of a general manager. So instead, the Browns exercised Mayfield’s fifth-year option, and both parties decided to wait until this offseason to negotiate. This is a lose-lose situation that is the first step to a divorce. Remember the sports equation: No long-term deal = replace.

Mayfield’s plan made sense to him because he’s a two-time walk-on who is accustomed to making good on one-in-a-million shots, but the agent is supposed to know better. That’s too much risk for an athlete to assume. One injury and he could lose easily north of $100 million.

Shark Sports should never have allowed its client to take the field without a contract offer. It was a terrible decision, as was made abundantly clear when Mayfield tore up his left shoulder in game two versus Houston and was forced to wear a body brace thereafter. He was never the same for the rest of the season. That is just a fact, Jack, and the stats bear this out.

He had a terrible year in which he was about the 30th best quarterback in the NFL according to most rating systems, but in reality, it could have been worse. This injury was not believed to be career-threatening but had it been the right shoulder, this would be an entirely different story.

This year’s fan buzz is that Mayfield must be traded or cut at all costs. It’s hard to gauge how prevalent this view is, but some of the loudest fans seem to feel that way, at least. However, in business terms, valuing an asset at zero dollars is just as ridiculous as the unlimited value, sign-at-all-costs valuation. We’re just going to ignore both extremes and go with the assumption that a real asset has real value.

Last season, Mayfield was valued at between the 10th and 17th-best quarterback in the NFL. What has changed in one year?

First of all, even though there’s no question that his bad year was caused by his injury, it’s certainly true that he didn’t have the monster year he and Shark Sports were hoping he would have.

This smart-Aleck attitude that their client is impervious to injury and certain to win the MVP award has been shattered. It’s time to come back to reality. They should have gotten the deal done last season, but since they did not, they are going to have to negotiate from the standpoint of a down year instead of an upbeat one.

Their client promised he could carry out the entire playbook with no dropoff due to this fix-it-all shoulder brace, and he did not deliver. No Super Bowl, no MVP, and instead he was the 30th best quarterback in the NFL. That’s the present reality. We are not in a Marvel Comics movie and cannot dial-up some alternate reality.

By the way, if Shark Sports claims that they couldn’t get an offer from the Browns, that’s not true. Their very real offer was $18.9 million per season in the form of a fifth-year option. That’s the floor. It’s perfectly legitimate to state your client will walk without a pay raise, but don’t say that the Browns are not willing to pay, because they did. $18.9 million dollars is not zero.

In terms of cap charge, it is more money than Josh Allen is getting in 2022. Likewise, any free agent signee will have lower 2022 salary cap charges due to the first-year discount. Obviously, a one-year deal has no way to defer money, so everything is upfront. It’s bad for the team and bad for the player unless both are actually hoping to pursue other opportunities in the future.

The big bucks are going to be paid in 2023 and beyond. But for 2022, the Browns will get a discount if they sign a long-term deal.

Moreover, the shoulder injury really does physically diminish Mayfield’s value. It was not a freak injury in the sense that a 240-pound quarterback would probably make the tackle on an interception without getting hurt. Mayfield has a history of over-aggressive play, sometimes refusing to slide and taking the hit in order to get extra yards while scrambling.

Many times you cheer his play and then add, “Now don’t do it again!” Those high-risk plays diminish his value at the negotiating table.

Andrew Berry has got to get with the coaching staff and agree on whether they are going to use Mayfield on trick plays. Everyone gets amped up when he catches touchdown passes from Jarvis Landry and other gadget plays, but these plays may not be smart if they sideline him for the season.

They are going to have to think this through if they decide to invest in a quarterback with a bum left shoulder. A lot depends upon what the medical report says after they reconstruct that shoulder. Will he be able to take a hit as he did before, or will this thing pop out of place every few weeks?

If you are going to ding him a few places in your fantasy football keeper league rankings, Andrew Berry will probably do the same in his rankings also. Berry will have better information, but there will be some adjustments and the consequence is a lower valuation for Mayfield.

What do the Browns need from Baker Mayfield?

The Browns are not looking for the successor to Daryle Lamonica, the Mad Bomber. They want to run the Kevin Stefanski run-first offense featuring Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt, and D’Ernest Johnson and cold-weather ball control power football, heavy on tight ends. They will be happy with an Alex Smith-type quarterback. Think ball control, smash-mouth beat up the other team with Bitonio, Tretter, and Teller riding Caterpillar tractors in front of the running backs.

This is what the Browns should be doing, but they strayed far from their long-range plan last season, and towards the end, they became an ineffective vertical passing team, with Mayfield assuming the role of a dysfunctional Mad Bomber.

Particularly against the Packers and the Steelers, who were known to have terrible run defenses, what was the reason for throwing so often and taking 14 sacks in two games? Moreover, when they did throw, they rarely threw to Nick Chubb, who was one of the most sure-handed receivers with 20 grabs in 25 targets, or a catch percentage of 80.0. Andrew Berry, Stefanski, and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt have to be convinced this is fixable.

On the other hand, overall it is a great time for agents to negotiate because the NFL annual salary cap allowance has jumped up to $208.2 million, an almost unprecedented 14.1 percent increase from the $182.5 million level of 2021, which had shrunk due to Covid-19. The net increase is $25.7 million compared to 2021.

What this means is that free agent salaries are going to be much higher than last year. Quarterbacks like Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, Nick Foles, Mitchell Trubisky, and Marcus Mariota might very wind up with crazy high dollars in 2022. They might provide a bit of a floor for Mayfield as the off-season market develops.

However, Mayfield has four years with the same team and two years with the same coaching staff. That is an important advantage that increases his relative value to the Browns compared to other potential candidates.

Needless to say, without a long-term contract, Mayfield should be less valuable to other teams than he is to the Browns. Of course, the same could have been said about Slingin’ Sam Darnold and the Jets last season, but they wound up trading him to Carolina for a sixth-round pick in 2021, plus a second-round pick and fourth round pick in 2022. That trade seemed crazy to many observers, but teams do strange things for quarterbacks, so a trade involving Mayfield cannot be completely ruled out.

What can we conclude when it comes to Baker Mayfield?

What can we conclude? In the 2022 off-season, if Mayfield and Shark Sports are serious about staying in Cleveland they have to get a deal done. Hence to keep a starting job, Mayfield is going to get an average salary at best with rather vanilla guarantees.

Perhaps there could be some additional guarantees that activate as the Browns gain confidence that Mayfield is the long-term solution quarterback. However, forget all about Baker earning the Patrick Mahomes rate; that’s only for insurance companies and not NFL salaries.

The Browns are looking for a quarterback to run the Stefanski offense, even though by the end of the 2021 season they were running something far different, with disastrous results. They need to fix that.

Mayfield’s negotiations will actually get a boost from the increased salary cap allowance, but relatively speaking he will be worth less as a percentage of the total team payroll than projected last season. Last year’s estimate for a four-year deal in the low 30’s per season needs to be substantially downrated because of all the negatives of the 2021 season but will be partially offset by the increased cash in league-wide NFL salaries this season.

However, if negotiations break down, the Browns have to have an alternative. Hence Mayfield’s deal needs to be done by the start of free agency or it will be too late.