The Cleveland Browns find themselves in a perilous set of circumstances. Deshaun Watson’s suspension has become a when, not if proposition, and Baker Mayfield has communicated an eagerness to escape. While the controversy emanating from Ohio is increasing, the feeling that Mayfield’s career is suffering as a result is inescapable.
However, this may be a case of history repeating itself. Former Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Miami Dolphins, General Manager of the New York Jets, and co-founder of The 33rd Team, Mike Tannenbaum, likened Mayfield’s opportunity to journeyman quarterback Vinny Testaverde’s with the Jets.
Testaverde found success with the Jets after moving on from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who drafted him first overall in 1987, a story that Mayfield can parallel.
“Vinny Testaverde won the starting job early in the [1998 NFL Season], even though we [the New York Jets] planned on using Glenn Foley as our starter that season,” said Tannenbaum. “
In June of 1998, former first-overall pick Vinny Testaverde signed with the New York Jets, who, at the time, had planned on rolling with incumbent starting quarterback Glenn Foley. As usual, things rarely go as planned in the NFL.
“Testaverde had a tremendous, arguably MVP, year in 1998,” he said. “We [the Jets] won the AFC East and appeared in the AFC Championship with Vinny under center that year.”
Testaverde completed 61.5% of his passes for 3,256 yards and 29 touchdowns in only 14 appearances. In 13 starts, Testaverde won 12 games. On top of it all, Testaverde threw a career-low seven interceptions and posted his career-high passer rating of 101.6 among seasons in which he played at least eight games.
“Mayfield is in a similar situation as Testaverde was,” he said. “Mayfield is a former first-overall pick who can go somewhere he is the back, perhaps initially, and contribute meaningfully as the season progresses.”
Mayfield did not enjoy his best season in 2021, mainly because Mayfield played through a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. Last season was the first time in his career that Mayfield did not surpass 20 passing touchdowns and 3,500 passing yards. It seems much longer ago, but Mayfield nearly led the Browns past the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2020 AFC Championship Game.
“Mayfield is at his best when executing boots and roll-outs,” he said. “While he is not uber-athletic, nor a pure pocket passer, Mayfield can work effectively on the move.”
In 2020, Mayfield saw a six-point difference in his PFF season grade between dropbacks with play-action and dropbacks without. On play-action snaps (which made up 28.9% of his dropbacks), Baker threw 13 of his 30 touchdowns while only throwing one interception. In comparison, Mayfield threw 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions on dropbacks without play-action (71.1%). He saw his big-time-throw %, average depth of target, and adjusted completion % increase on play-action throws while decreasing his turnover-worthy play %.
“Mayfield can benefit immensely from going to a team like Carolina or Seattle,” he said. “Carolina has weapons like D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Christian McCaffrey, but they also have an ambiguous quarterback situation with Sam Darnold and Matt Corral.”
The Browns picked up Mayfield’s fifth-year option on April 23, 2021, and he is slated to make $18.85M next year. After that, Mayfield hits the open market in March of 2023. Considering NFL teams’ contracts have rewarded quarterbacks, $18.85M is relatively inexpensive. Mayfield’s 2023 salary would rank 14th among quarterbacks, between Tom Brady with $15M and Jimmy Garoppolo with $27.5M.
“I think it has been humbling for him; not experiencing the kind of interest from the league as he was expecting,” Tannenbaum said. “It reminds me of his struggles at Texas Tech before transferring to Oklahoma and eventually winning the Heisman Trophy.”
Something about Mayfield is giving teams around the league pause. Perhaps the especially quarterback-needy teams are leveraging the Browns’ insistence to deal Mayfield against them. Public disgruntlement rarely increases a player’s trade value. Nonetheless, Mayfield would upgrade over some of the league’s projected starters.
“What is most important for him [Mayfield] is how he finishes, not how he starts,” he said. “Mayfield needs to put himself in the best position for the 2023 offseason.”
Mayfield has performed well enough to keep himself in this league, and surely teams are negotiating with the Browns for his services.
Most of all, though, do not forget history repeats itself; and come September and October, do not be surprised if Mayfield displays a Testaverde-esque reemergence during his first contract year. Mayfield must only make it through this year before taking matters into his own hands during the 2023 free-agency period.