Analysis

Trading for Baker Mayfield is a Smart Move — But Carolina Panthers Made One Significant Mistake

Baker Mayfield Limited Reps

Back in an April 26 article, I predicted that the Browns would need to eat a “significant chunk” of Baker Mayfield’s nearly $19 million fully guaranteed salary in order to move the fifth-year quarterback in a trade after acquiring Deshaun Watson.

The direct quote from that article read, “The Browns are going to pay so much of his salary that another team will be willing to give them a pick, although it won’t be a great one….Ultimately, nobody is going to pay him almost $19M. If the Browns eat a significant chunk of it, maybe he costs the acquiring team $6M as a backup, and the Browns get a late round pick.”

After learning the details of the trade that sent Mayfield to Carolina, it’s clear that our assessment of the situation more than two months ago was fairly accurate.

Reports state that Cleveland will receive a conditional fifth round pick as well as more than $8 million in cap relief in the trade. The Browns agreed to take on more than $10.5 million of Mayfield’s fully guaranteed fifth-year option in order to complete the trade. On the flip side, the Panthers will take on just less than $5 million in fully guaranteed base salary and make up the remaining $3 million in incentives.

Why Cleveland Agreed to This Deal

From Cleveland’s perspective, the two biggest motivating factors in making this move were saving money and moving on from someone who did not want to be there anymore.

Even with the Browns eating more than $10.5 million of the remaining season left on Mayfield’s contract, Cleveland is more than $48 million under the 2022 salary cap — the most cap space in the league this season by more than $25 million. The Bears are the next closest team with just over $23 million in cap space.

On top of this, the Browns picked up a future pick in the trade — granted, it’s a 2024 Day 3 pick. This is decent compensation to get for Mayfield considering they had little to no leverage in this situation and he is coming off of an injury plagued 2021 season. Additionally, after signing Watson and extending Denzel Ward this offseason, the Browns are (and will continue to be) in the business of saving as much cap space as possible to carry over into future seasons in order to continue building around their stars.

Carolina’s 2022 Outlook

As for the Panthers, assuming Mayfield wins the starting job, I believe they actually made a significant upgrade at the quarterback position. Going into the 2018 draft, I had Mayfield ahead of Darnold — and I stand by my analysis 4 years later.

If you take away the 2019 season where Freddie Kitchens was the head coach in Cleveland and discount his injury ridden 2021 season, Mayfield has been a solid starter in this league. This is not to say that he is a difference maker or a star — he’s a ‘B’ at best. However, watching the tape, he has proven to be one of those guys that you can win with if you surround him with good players and good coaching.

I actually believe that the Panthers, who had one of the best defenses in the league in 2021 (in terms of yards allowed) as well as an underrated receiving corps and a rebuilt offensive line, could find themselves in the playoffs this season with a healthy Mayfield at the helm.

Worst case scenario, Mayfield cannot pick up Matt Rhule’s system and he becomes a backup for the reasonable price of $5 million and a future year’s fifth round pick. As stated in the aforementioned article, the most expensive backups in the league (Nick Foles, Teddy Bridgewater, and Tyrod Taylor) are making between $5.5 and $8 million. Mayfield would certainly be the most talented of that group.

Where the Panthers Went Wrong

The one thing that does surprise me that the Panthers did not do according to initial reports is  a second year of control over Mayfield. If he does in fact return to the 2020 version of himself, he will become one of the better players to hit unrestricted free agency in recent history. In similar situations, I always made it clear to agents that I’m not in the business of resurrecting a guy’s career for someone else’s benefit. I’m not willing to lose him after just one year after investing and believing in him when others wouldn’t.

Even if the second year was only an option year or heavily incentive laden, the Panthers would prevent themselves from going into 2023 searching for their sixth different starting quarterback in as many seasons dating back to 2018.

Yes, the Panthers always have the option to franchise tag him after the 2022 season if they’d like, but that is a hefty price to pay for one year of a player who has shown to be streaky from season to season. The 2022 franchise tag figure for quarterbacks was $29.703 million — an 18.3% increase from 2021. It’s a safe assumption that the 2023 number will exceed $30 million for the first time in NFL history. It would likely take a significant increase in production (even from his 2020 season) in order for Carolina to go down that route with Mayfield.

Without insisting on reworking his deal and getting a second year of control, the Panthers have placed themselves in a situation where even if Mayfield plays great in 2022, they are back looking to sign a quarterback going into 2023.