Having a high-end quarterback on a rookie-scale deal is the best bargain in the NFL right now. It allows a team to invest in the talent around the quarterback by giving them the financial flexibility to retain core players and be strategically active in free agency. However, once a team turns over the keys to the franchise to its young quarterback, the clock starts ticking on their next extension.
The Cleveland Browns are having this debate internally right now in Berea, Ohio, regarding whether they should try to lock their young franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield into a long-term extension. But with an excellent offensive head coach in Kevin Stefanski, and Mayfield’s performance yielding mixed results over the first three years of his career, the Browns should hold off as long as they can on an extension.
Stefanski’s offenses have been built around a strong running game and timely play-action calls, which has led to success for most quarterbacks he’s worked with. In 2020, the Browns tallied the third-most rushing yards in the NFL, taking significant pressure off Mayfield and allowing him to thrive off play action.
Mayfield ran the eighth-most play action of any quarterback with at least 200 pass attempts last season, and he had the fifth-most average time to throw of any quarterback.
This led to a 2020 QBR rank of No. 2 on play-action passes. However, on typical dropbacks, Mayfield was actually more middling, placing at No. 20 in QBR. Those numbers are not actually far off from Case Keenum’s output with the Vikings in 2017, when he ranked No. 5 in QBR on play-action passes and No. 23 on typical dropbacks. Keenum is currently Mayfield’s backup.
When you’re building a team, you’re constantly asking yourself: Is this player a replaceable part or not? And Mayfield may be surprisingly more replaceable than anticipated considering Stefanski’s success with other quarterbacks in Minnesota.
When extending a player, the reason you’re doing it is to try to lock in a player at a fair price. Once an extension is done, you can feel comfortable that you aren’t losing the player and don’t have to deal with the vagaries of the marketplace. In Mayfield’s case, because he has two years left under contract and could potentially have three more years if the Browns were to franchise tag him, there should be no rush to get an extension done. I’m sure that recent examples of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz not playing well after their extensions is something the Browns are weighing in their analysis.
That’s not to say that I dislike Mayfield, or that I don’t think he can become a franchise quarterback. I liked him coming out of Oklahoma and I thought he would be a really good player despite his physical limitations. He has a chance to be nearly as good as other shorter quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. But because of his height and lack of speed, accuracy and anticipation will always be very critical to his success.
When you turn on the 2020 tape, it is clear that Mayfield is a quarterback you can win with in the NFL, but he is not necessarily a guy who is good enough to carry a team on his own. The Browns’ roster is very talented right now, and one of the reasons they’ve been able to amass that talent is because of Mayfield’s low-end cap hit for the quarterback position.
Before giving Mayfield an extension, I would continue to assure that the offensive line is fortified and under contract. That needs to be a strength for the Browns to put him in an optimal position for success. I would also try to prioritize re-signing key pieces like Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb to keep the team’s core pieces together while biding time on a Mayfield extension.
In an NFL front office, accounting for every dollar spent is extremely important, and teams need to be as judicious and smart as possible with a long-term strategic plan in place. While Mayfield has shown flashes of excellence, I would need to extend him at the right price and with the right structure. The Browns should not bend over backwards to get a deal done.