Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen are up for extensions. Carson Wentz's implosion might hinder all of them.

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·NFL columnist
·7 min read
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When the 2020 season started for a refreshed Cleveland Browns regime, the coming design was fairly simple.

Establish a culture that doesn’t change every other year. Align the general manager, head coach and chief strategist. Draft smartly and be aggressive in free agency. Cut loose players who weren’t the right fits and get Odell Beckham Jr. to buy in. And of course, set up Baker Mayfield for his best possible success in his third season as the starting quarterback — then hammer out a contract extension in the summer of 2021.

The Browns are on track in all respects, but it’s now fair to wonder if the almost unbelievable implosion of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz is going to complicate the priority of that latter extension. And not just in Cleveland, either. The Browns are one of three franchises that will enter massive, future-altering contract talks with their quarterbacks this offseason. The other franchises are the Baltimore Ravens with Lamar Jackson and the Buffalo Bills with Josh Allen.

Mayfield, Jackson and Allen have all shown the most promise, albeit to varying degrees, while running the NFL gauntlet since the 2018 draft produced five first-round quarterbacks. As it stands this week, all three play for franchises that want to get new deals in the books this summer. It’s certainly more than the other two first-round quarterbacks — Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen — have going for them.

As much as the aforementioned trio has an argument for new deals, there has to be a creeping question in the coming talks. With high-end NFL quarterback extensions rocketing into unprecedented and potentially team-destroying territory if an evaluation is wrong, should franchises start pushing first-round quarterback extensions into the summer after Year 4, rather than the current standard of three seasons? Would waiting one more year make a difference and help a team avoid the next Wentz asteroid?

Baker Mayfield has helped lead the Browns to their first winning season since 2007. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Baker Mayfield has helped lead the Browns to their first winning season since 2007. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson deals have set market

“It’s a thought — I get it from an added evaluation standpoint — but with Carson, taking one more year would have made things worse [for the Eagles],” said an NFL source close to the Wentz negotiation. “His fourth season was good. [He] went to the postseason. Even though he got hurt in that [playoff] game, I think the contract after last season would have been the Deshaun Watson deal [four years and $160 million]. Imagine if what’s happening right now was happening in Year 1 of a Deshaun Watson deal.

“But if you’re not certain about the player, in that case, you wait and if they reinforce it with another season, you feel better about the money and guarantees.”

The source paused and then added: “But don’t forget that Carson was as good as certain when that deal got done. Nobody thought it was a bad deal. It still might not be in the long run, either. It’s not over yet.”

It’s a fair point that another year with Wentz might not have changed anything, but it also illustrates the quandary that teams face with massive QB extensions. In the cases where someone doesn’t live up to a deal — or in the worst-case scenario, falls apart after signing it — the new level of financial commitment and the guaranteed money can padlock a team into the tightest of spots. That’s what is happening with Wentz, who carries a dead-money commitment of $33.8 million next season if the Eagles were able to offload him on the trade market before another $15 million of his 2022 salary becomes guaranteed on the third day of the new league year (which still hasn’t been set in stone).

Essentially, the Eagles made one hell of a commitment to Wentz with the structure of his four-year, $128 million extension. Not just in dollars but in the triggers that guaranteed future salaries. And that’s why they’re paying the price now. That and Wentz nosediving this season with his poise and decision-making.

All of which turns the spotlight back to Mayfield, Jackson and Allen. Their teams better be absolutely certain of their evaluations before stepping into the steep extensions that all three could command.

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Most comfortable to re-sign: Mayfield, Jackson or Allen?

Start with Jackson, who won the NFL’s MVP in 2019 and looked like a player whose overall dynamism might be worthy of grouping him into the Patrick Mahomes tier of quarterbacks. Heading into the final quarter of the 2020 season and with the Ravens limping with offensive line woes, Jackson’s peak from last season feels more distant than anyone expected. He’s still the Ravens’ unquestionable centerpiece, but he also has shown this season that the roster and maybe even scheme around him could use some tuning up to get the most out of him. That’s not the worst thing in the world for the franchise to grapple with, but Jackson’s next contract could command more than $40 million per year. If Baltimore is wrong about where he’s heading, a failure wouldn’t just be bad — it would be an extinction level event.

Now consider Mayfield, whose career has been a game-to-game roller coaster. He’s capable of being a highly effective passer who can pile up stats. But as this season has unfolded, it’s also clear that he’s at his best when the Browns have a dominant play-action run game working for them, not to mention one of the league’s best offensive line coaches in Bill Callahan setting the table in front of Mayfield. When parts of that line or run game have broken down, Mayfield has seen his play dip, much like the Los Angeles Rams have seen Jared Goff’s career mirror this same path.

The questions about Mayfield are pretty clear. Is he cutting the image of a $33 million to $35 million a year quarterback right now? And if he isn’t, is Cleveland willing to push off his extension for one more season to be sure about the track he’s on?

This, more than any other, feels like it could be a Carson Wentz situation waiting to happen. And it’s worth noting that Mayfield’s general manager, Andrew Berry, was inside the Eagles’ organization in 2019 and got to see Wentz firsthand. It would be absurd to believe Berry isn’t going to think long and hard about Mayfield and Wentz before a new deal gets done.

Buffalo's Josh Allen might end up cashing the heftiest paycheck among the QB class of 2018. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Buffalo's Josh Allen might end up cashing the heftiest paycheck among the QB class of 2018. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

That leaves Allen, who has surprisingly surfaced as the quarterback from the 2018 class who has steadily and consistently made gains in each of his three seasons. In many ways, he looks like precisely what he was billed to be: a cannon-armed quarterback from a small college who had massive upside and could develop the most consistently under the best coaching of his football life. Not that Allen doesn’t come with some moments that showcase he’s still working to improve where he’s going. But if you’re looking for the quarterback who has pressed onward and upward without the rollback, it has been Allen, not Jackson or Mayfield.

Indeed, if it wasn’t Jackson’s absolute obliteration of the NFL in 2019, we’d be talking about Allen as the best quarterback from the 2018 class. That might make him the most easily extendable player this summer — although the Bills still have to be comfortable with Allen being at least a $35 million quarterback, which is what he will command.

The scariest part of all these deals remains the one that the Wentz source pointed out. Carson Wentz appeared to be worthy of the extension that he received. And one year later, it continued to look like the smart, cost-conscious move. Yet here we are in 2020, with Wentz facing the first healthy benching of his NFL career and a surefire contract extension morphing into an anchor. With quarterback salaries rising to new heights, extension timetables getting moved up and contract guarantees getting more burdensome by the year, the nightmare of miscalculation is staring into the face of every general manager, team president and franchise owner who sits down at the negotiation table.

Wentz has made that nightmare more real than ever. And for the teams that are about to sign the quarterbacks that they’re so certain about, it’s now impossible to ignore.

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