The Cleveland Browns and Baker Mayfield are in a situation that could have ripple effects that change the NFL and quarterback contract negotiations for years to come.
Going into the season, the Browns locked up Baker Mayfield’s 5th-year option to keep the former #1 overall pick on his current rookie deal through 2022. However, talks of a huge extension that would make him the face of the franchise, one similar to the deals that Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson in his draft class have already been awarded, have reached a stalemate.
The most-valuable commodity for a team to build a contender is a quarterback on a rookie contract- you can spend big money on other positions that aren’t the most-pricey in the sport. We’ve seen that when the “Legion of Boom” Seahawks were able to have the stacked defense on big contracts while Russell Wilson was making pennies on the dollar. When Patrick Mahomes won the Chiefs their first Super Bowl in 2019, he was making only $450K that season.
He’s now on a deal worth up to $450 million through 2032.
With the NFL making more money than it ever has, it has operated with the idea that you eventually pay your quarterback and hitch your wagon to him and commit, and the highest-paid player, regardless of performance, is merely the most-recently paid player. Some of the richest contracts ever given out over the years have been: Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Joe Flacco, Kirk Cousins, and Derek Carr- all paid more than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for teams that didn’t get Super Bowls out of it.
Those moves were made out of an NFL ideology at the time period that you NEED to lock up your franchise quarterback for good because nothing crippled a team’s chance to compete without an above-average gunslinger. Paying the most important position on the team and keeping him happy to prevent him from leaving is priority #1.
But in recent history, the fear of the quarterback market and pressure to pay your guy as soon as possible have been crippling mistakes in some circumstances. The 2016 draft class is the most glaring: while the Cowboys were able to get Dak Prescott for pennies on the dollar in the 4th round, the Rams and Eagles took Jared Goff and Carson Wentz with the #1 and #2 overall picks. Goff went to a Super Bowl with the Rams in 2019, but is yet to win a game outside of Sean McVay’s system after he took over as head coach. However, since he still managed to be the one driving McVay’s car, the Rams gave him a 4-year, $134 million deal. It crippled the Ram’s cap and they shipped him to winless Detroit after realizing the contract was a major mistake.
Wentz had about a 13-week span where he was the MVP favorite and looked unstoppable on the Eagles until he blew out his knee; the Eagles still won the Super Bowl without him, but he’s never looked the same since then. Philadelphia gave him the benefit of the doubt that he just needed some extra time to rehab to get back to what he once was by handing him 4-years for $128 million, and it ruined the Eagles’ chemistry and team-makeup, and now Wentz is seen as a stop-gap player in Indianapolis as Philly is scrambling.
Baker has shown similar signs of life that the early honeymoon phases of Wentz and Goff showed in Philly and in LA. A 26-25 record as a starter, he went 11-5 last year and was 18th in yards, 12th in touchdowns, threw for 222.7 yards per game, and got the Browns their first playoff win in 26 years over their hated division rival Steelers in a stunning blowout. He showed major signs of improvement after previously quarterbacking with Hue Jackson, Freddie Kitchens, and Gregg Williams- all coaches who have since been MIA or found in the unemployment line at McDonald’s.
But did Baker’s rise last year have more to do with head coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme that made it easier for him? Was the Browns’ team success tied to the impeccable roster makeup put together by GM Andrew Berry that allows them to have the best offensive line in the league, Myles Garrett on defense, and a running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt that had the 3rd-best rushing attack in league, 148.4 yards per-game?
As it sits today, the Browns are 4-4, last in their division, and can’t seem to score. Not only that, but several of those losses have come due to the incapability of Mayfield to be able to put the team on his shoulders and lead them in a comeback- once against Kansas City after the same circumstances last postseason, and again against the Chargers in week 5. Baker’s prove-it year has been a nightmare season for him thus far as he’s been forced to try to do so with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. His representation will now have the injury card in their hands to play.
The rest of the Browns roster is widely-considered to be one of the most-deep in the NFL. Does Andrew Berry really want to spend the money that another QB-needy team would on Baker and be strapped to him for the next 4-5 years at a premium price? Does Stefanski think someone else could operate this team to a similar skill level on a much-cheaper deal because their success was a product of his coaching and the run game?
What the Browns decide to do with Baker, cutting the cord instead of remaining committed to the man who has meant so much to a team that has seen so many lows, could change the way that quarterback contracts are managed for many years to come. If Cleveland moves on, it could create a culture of jumping from either stop-gap quarterbacks competent enough to lead complete teams to glory or continuing to take flyers on rookie contracts. It doesn’t look bright for Baker or other middling quarterbacks who would love to cash out on the major payday that the Lamars, the Daks, the Mahomes, and Allens are bound to get, but with how easy it is to put up otherworldly numbers at the position, you now have to prove you’re a once-in-a-generation type quarterback to get paid- it’s no longer “next contract up”.
This could only be the beginning of more quarterback movement, or a well-earned comeback story for a man who has been good enough to make some magic happen for Cleveland thus far.