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Why Is Cleveland Struggling to Trade Baker Mayfield and Where Will He End Up?

Why Is Cleveland Struggling to Trade Baker Mayfield?

The Browns and Baker Mayfield have not only reached an impasse, they’ve passed that. The divorce is inevitable, but Cleveland has been struggling to find a suitor for the former first overall pick. Like most breakups, there is mutual culpability, and both sides are at fault for why they’re at this point. 

Let’s take a look at why Cleveland is having such difficulty trading him, why Baker’s failure to use leverage led to this, and where he could end up

Why Cleveland is Struggling to Trade Baker Mayfield

There’s been a lack of understanding regarding why trading Mayfield has been such a challenge for the Browns. When Cleveland first acquired Deshaun Watson, I tweeted that he was going to have trouble finding a team, and the reasoning is pretty straightforward. There’s no team that will trade for Mayfield and make him their immediate starter. His $18.9M guaranteed Fifth-Year Option for 2022 would therefore make him the highest paid backup QB in the NFL.

The most expensive backups — Foles, Bridgewater, Taylor — are making $8M, $6.5M, and $5.5M, respectively. Plus, these are the highest paid backup QBs; most backups make in the $2-4M range. 

So, let’s say the Browns agree to pay $10M of his 2022 salary. That still leaves the acquiring team with a little less than $9M, which would keep Mayfield right above Foles as the highest paid backup. This is why Cleveland is having such a problem finding a suitor for him. It’s not that nobody has interest in him, although there’s less interest than I would have thought. It’s more that no one is willing to give up a draft pick of any consequence and pay even a portion of the $19M for a guy that’s probably a backup. Almost every team in the league already has a serviceable backup, and we’re entering a draft. 

Part of what also makes it hard to trade him is that there’s only one year left on the contract. This could be an impediment for some teams because if you resurrect his career, you don’t want to be in a position where you have to either franchise tag or extend him immediately. Perhaps an acquiring team would look to extend him for one-year at a team friendly base value with meaningful incentives.

Baker’s Mistake

 

Mayfield had the leverage last year. Remember that a year ago, the Browns were in the conversation about going to the Super Bowl for the first time in well over 20 years. They also have an owner who’s been impatient — he’s owned the team for nearly a decade and had no success, but finally thought he had a really good team last year with a chance to compete for a championship. 

Baker also was an integral part of the team a year ago, and they did not have an adequate alternative option at QB. It’s hard to believe that the owner would have risked a potential Super Bowl season to avoid extending him, unless he was unreasonable in his contract demands.

Mayfield had the leverage to try to get a deal done, and he didn’t take advantage of it. That was a mistake that could have prevented all of this from happening. The Browns probably would have committed $35-40M a year to him, and Watson would not have been an option. Yet, unlike all of the other top young quarterbacks around the NFL over the past few seasons — Mahomes, Allen, Watson, Wentz, Goff, etc. — Mayfield decided not to demand an extension after his third season. 

Possible Suitors

Let’s turn to the two teams that have been reported as the likely suitors, Seattle and Carolina. At this moment, both of these teams look like improbable destinations…

Seattle: Regardless of whether it’s a good or bad evaluation, the Seahawks do like Drew Lock. They also just signed a backup quarterback in Geno Smith, who they gave $3.5M ($500K of which is guaranteed). Seattle remains a possibility but is not the most likely landing spot in my opinion. It’s also not clear from their actions that they view Mayfield as a priority at this point. 

Carolina: It’s a similar situation as Seattle, but to an even greater extent. Between Mayfield and Sam Darnold, they’ll end up with one starting quarterback. That’s almost $40M all in guaranteed money and they would have two QBs with uncertainty. For $40M, you should know you’re getting a difference-maker. Are they really going to do that at this point in their team’s development? I can’t picture it, and recent reports suggest that they won’t trade for Baker prior to Thursday. 

In addition to the teams that have received coverage, here are a couple of teams that aren’t on most people’s radar that may make sense…

Pittsburgh: The Steelers are actually the best option. Though Mitchell Trubisky signed a two-year $14.285M deal, Mayfield would represent an immediate upgrade for a team in a loaded division. Pittsburgh’s defense is probably strong enough to avoid bottoming out, so they could look to Mayfield to help them compete for a playoff spot. It also would give Baker the opportunity to play the Browns twice a year. 

Atlanta: They just signed Mariota to a two-year, $18.75M deal. Mayfield would go there and be their backup for a significant salary on a team that has been riddled with cap issues. 

Houston: Putting injury concerns aside, one could make an argument that Davis Mills is the better option moving forward for Houston. But they remain an intriguing option for Mayfield. 

Likely Outcome

Now, at some point, 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. Alternatively, the Browns could get to a point where Baker is just negative energy that they don’t need around the team, and they decide to cut him. When another team signs him (almost certainly for the minimum or close to it), that will offset. 

From Baker’s perspective, getting cut is actually the best outcome for two reasons: first, he’ll become a free agent and his salary won’t limit his suitors; he’ll be able to choose where to sign, and there should be a reasonable amount of interest. Second, he’ll end up signing for the minimum or close to it, which is not ideal for the Browns because only that amount will offset (though it will be better than eating the entire contract). 

If he is traded, the Browns will have to pay a large amount of his contract, but they should save more than the minimum in that scenario. 

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. That’s the best case scenario for Cleveland. It will be similar to what Carolina received for Teddy Bridgewater.