There are quarterback competitions.
There are quarterback competitions for seemingly cursed franchises.
And then there is what the Cleveland Browns now have: A quarterback competition for a seemingly cursed franchise, with a head coach whose future is in limbo … with the beginnings all played out on a reality television platform.
Welcome to the “Hard Knocks” party, Baker Mayfield and Tyrod Taylor.
If there was any debate about whether Mayfield’s arrival in Cleveland would take center stage in the coming months, the NFL and HBO just ended it. The “Hard Knocks” franchise was forced onto the Browns, thrusting Mayfield into the face of a national audience for at least five straight weeks.
Not that anyone should be surprised. If there is anything that places a franchise into the wheelhouse of the league’s highest profile reality show, it’s the elements of drama and struggle married to a big (and sometimes controversial) personality like Mayfield’s.
In the voluminous history of failed quarterback ventures, Mayfield will be another chapter in a ghastly run of mismanagement at the position – or his arrival will be the meaningful pivot that fans have been begging for. Either way, we’ll get a very deep, personal look inside the beginnings of the moment. It could be very good or very bad for the franchise, simply through the added distraction of opinions and interactions that are typically not meant for television consumption.
That latter reality is a big part of why NFL teams loathe “Hard Knocks” so much. It celebrates exposing the inside of rooms that strive to achieve success through secrecy and honesty. Coaches and front offices hate “Hard Knocks” because they always know the cameras and microphones are lurking, and can never be quite sure how a comment or moment will be absorbed once it goes through a lens and gets broadcast into the faces of not only fans, but their own players.
Few teams – if any – have gone through the “Hard Knocks” experience and felt it was a net positive for the franchise. Particularly when part of that process has included exposing a highly drafted quarterback, whose success or failure is bound to be nitpicked and broadcast under even the most normal circumstances. Adding television cameras to that reality only makes it more complicated, multiplying a microscope that doesn’t need it.
What does it mean for the Browns? It means that Mayfield vs. Tyrod Taylor will be amplified to dramatic levels, even if it’s already a forgone conclusion that the No. 1 overall pick is destined to eventually win the starting quarterback job. But it also means that Mayfield will get an even more personal look into how the coaching staff and general manager John Dorsey are absorbing his progress versus what Taylor offers in the immediacy. That’s not exactly a catastrophic problem, but Mayfield is unquestionably an emotional chip-on-his shoulder talent. Hearing the private thoughts of Hue Jackson or offensive coordinator Todd Haley at this stage of his career is less than ideal.
But that matters little now. Despite being less than enthusiastic about the idea, the Browns can’t avoid the circus. The NFL has decreed that it’s heading to Cleveland, with the biggest spotlight intended for Mayfield. For better or worse, the stage is set once again for the rise or fall of a Browns quarterback. And with him, the rest of the franchise, too.
The other five quarterback battles that could develop? Here’s a look, starting with the likeliest …
New York Jets: Josh McCown vs. Sam Darnold
McCown has the experience and that shouldn’t be underrated in this training camp battle. And depending on who is speaking in the personnel community, Darnold may benefit from starting at the No. 2 spot and watching for a while. But the pressure to get the ball rolling on Darnold is going to be immense for the Jets’ brain trust, which is facing a clean sweep of firings if something positive doesn’t develop at the quarterback spot this season. In effect, all the chips are on Darnold, evidenced by general manager Mike Maccagnan saying from the outset that the rookie will have a wide-open shot to win the starting job. Teddy Bridgewater can’t be written out of the equation either, but he’s on a one-year contract and the financial and developmental design isn’t for him to win this job. If this goes according the Jets’ plan, Darnold wins this job in training camp despite McCown’s familiarity and experience, and Bridgewater develops into a high-end backup, ushering McCown into retirement after 2018.
Arizona Cardinals: Sam Bradford vs. Josh Rosen
For the third year in a row, Sam Bradford finds himself involved in a quarterback derby that he won’t win. And this time around, it will likely be a combination of rookie investment and health realities. His left knee issues aren’t going to go away with some rest. But the Cardinals are going to dial back his workload this offseason in hopes that it helps the situation. Unfortunately for Bradford, that rolls out a red carpet for Rosen to progress more quickly and eventually reel in the starting job. In most circumstances, a veteran player with Bradford’s experience and one-year salary commitment ($15.6 million) would be locked into the majority of the first-team reps in the offseason and training camp. But Bradford’s lighter workload due to the knee rehabilitation is going to gift Rosen more advanced work with the first-team offense in organized team activities, the passing program and full-squad minicamp in June. When training camp rolls around in July, Rosen should have a solid familiarity with the offense and personnel. And that is going to push up his developmental timeline and give him a very strong chance to win the starting quarterback job by September.
Buffalo Bills: AJ McCarron vs. Josh Allen
For now, the Bills have already committed to taking a very patient approach with Allen, who has high-end NFL tools but a far steeper learning curve than rookies like Mayfield, Darnold and Rosen. With that in mind, Allen will start at No. 3 on the quarterback depth chart, in the hopes that he can be initially developed without being in a constant conversation about when he will have a shot at the top job. But the Bills aren’t kidding themselves, either. Unless Nathan Peterman takes a huge stride forward this offseason (which is possible), Allen should ascend to the No. 2 spot behind McCarron at some point in training camp, if not before. That’s where it should get interesting. McCarron has some talent and experience, not to mention the significant hunger to start. Unlike Josh McCown and Sam Bradford, McCarron’s best days as an NFL player should be ahead of him. Allen has a massive amount of potential, not to mention draft investment. But he has some bust potential, too. McCarron is going to fight him tooth and nail for this job as long as he’s on the roster – and that alone makes it a shaky assumption that the top spot will default to Allen in 2018. If anything, Allen could very well be this season’s Patrick Mahomes, spending the season on the bench learning and with management forecasting his ascent one year from now.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco vs. Lamar Jackson
Realistically, salary guarantees dictate Joe Flacco should be the Ravens’ starter for the next two seasons. After 2019, he can be cut with a minimal $8 million dead salary cap charge. But there is some lingering discontent over Flacco’s mediocre back-to-back seasons, in which he started all 32 games but averaged only 19 touchdown passes in those two years. In an era of inflated passing stats, that’s a tepid return on investment for a guy who should have been firmly entrenched inside the NFL’s top 10 quarterbacks. It’s interesting that more of the blame for Flacco’s past two seasons isn’t pinned on offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. With Jackson in the fold, the “who’s to blame?” question will get louder since Jackson seems far more suited to the kinds of versatile quarterbacks that Mornhinweg has worked with in the past. Much is made of Mornhinweg’s impact on Michael Vick with the Philadelphia Eagles and what that could mean for Jackson. At the very least, Mornhinweg’s history with Vick suggests he’ll try to get Jackson on the field in some capacity in 2018. The bottom line: Jackson is going to get some serious investment this offseason and training camp, despite Flacco being the clear-cut starter. And as we saw with Deshaun Watson with the Houston Texans in 2017, an electrifying playmaking quarterback can change minds quickly when it comes to workload and opportunity.
Denver Broncos: Case Keenum vs. Paxton Lynch
This shouldn’t be a quarterback battle. And it’s a very long shot that it will develop into one. Keenum’s $25 million in guaranteed money and the faith of the coaching staff and front office should entrench him as the starter. All of that said, the Broncos could have invested a draft pick in a quarterback and didn’t. That’s a clear indication that the front office (and most definitely general manager John Elway) sees enough developmental value in 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch and 24-year-old third-stringer Chad Kelly to see if one of them can take a jump forward this offseason. Such is life for Keenum, who has clawed for everything he has gotten in the NFL but continually had to deal with challenges to his roster position. Are the Broncos 100 percent committed to Keenum as their starter in 2018? The money and language from the brain trust says absolutely. But Elway lamented not getting a better look at Lynch last season – and if there is progress by Lynch, he’ll find a way to explore it, if only in training camp. Mark it down: if Lynch makes above average progress this offseason and Keenum has any struggles, there will be pressure from Elway to get another look at Lynch.
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