How Baker Mayfield can be a top-tier quarterback — in the right offense

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In 2022, the Cleveland Browns went all-in on a bet that could hamper the franchise for a good long time. When they traded first-round picks in 2022, 2023, and 2024, as well as the 104th overall pick in 2022, a third-round pick in 2023, and a fourth-pick in 2024 for a 2024 sixth-round pick and former Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson… well, it’s a franchise-defining move, but what that means, we have no idea. Watson’s NFL disciplinary hearing in the wake of a torrent of sexual assault lawsuits (many of which have been settled) happens this upcoming Tuesday, and word is that the league will be aiming for a suspension that lasts at least the entire 2022 season, if not indefinitely.

So, that’s a lot for a guy who will play for you… who knows when. In the interim, the Browns have completely alienated Baker Mayfield, the quarterback they selected with the first overall pick in the 2028 draft out of Oklahoma. The likelihood of Mayfield playing for the Browns in 2022 and beyond is somewhere between null and void; should Watson be out of the equation, backup Jacoby Brissett is the likely starter. The Browns have not traded Mayfield yet. The hangup there seems to be the amount of salary the trading team would be willing to take on. Mayfield is set to make a guaranteed $18.858 million in 2022, the final year of his rookie contract, and he’ll obviously want a new contract in his new home. The Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks have been tagged as the most likely destinations.

Setting aside the mess the Browns have put themselves in with Watson and his new, fully-guaranteed, $230 million contract that goes through the 2026 season, there’s the specific issue of Mayfield’s future as a starting quarterback, and where he fits best. After two NFL seasons in which he showed some promise and a lot of exasperating plays, Mayfield enjoyed a watershed season in 2020 — including the postseason, he completed 349 of 557 passes for 4,030 yards, 2,376 air yards, 30 touchdowns, nine interceptions, an ANY/A of 6.9, a passer rating of 95.7. an EPA of 49.17, and a Positive Play Rate of 49.0%. This put him in at least the top half of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks in every category, though he was in an offense that didn’t always play to his strengths.

The follow-up season, which got the Browns headed down that fractious Watson path, was not nearly as productive. Mayfield worked through a ton of injuries and more dysfunction in the passing game, completing 253 of 418 passes for 3,010 yards, 1,571 air yards, 17 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, an ANY/A of 5.4, a passer rating of 83.1, an EPA of -59.03, and a Positive Play Rate of 43.2. Mayfield had gone from top-half to bottom-third in one season, and though it wasn’t all his fault (given the injuries, it wasn’t mostly his fault), but we are left with the realities of things.

So, with that in mind, and with the goal to give an honest picture of what Mayfield can offer another team, we’re going to look far more at Mayfield’s 2020 season, assume his 2021 was a negative outlier based on injury, and project things forward from there.

How can a new NFL team help Baker Mayfield become the best possible version of himself? We have a few thoughts.

(All advanced metrics courtesy of Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise indicated). 

Where the injuries showed up.

(Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Per Mayfield himself, he played through a torn labrum he suffered in Week 2 of the 2021 season, and a dislocated shoulder he suffered in Week 6. He also had a bruised heel, a bruised knee, and a groin injury, and he dealt with COVID in mid-December as part of a team outbreak. Obviously, these are less than ideal situations for any quarterback, and Mayfield was more than happy to let it all out on the Ya Never Know podcast in the spring of 2022, as the Watson trade was coming down.

(Clearly, the dog is the highlight of this video).

“So I tore my labrum completely, like full front and like basically 90 percent in the back,” he said. “That was Week Two. I did that in the first half. Played the rest of the game, I was fine. . . . Four weeks later, we were playing the Cardinals, and I dislocated my shoulder again. But I dislocated it so bad and at a different angle that the bone, like the humerus that goes up into your shoulder socket, like the big bone right here [that] comes up into your ball and socket and it forced its way out. And I fractured the bone because it wasn’t gonna be a clean exit. So I fractured the bone. So when I had the labrum done and that fracture, the inflammation and everything, I had no function in my left shoulder. And we were going into a Thursday game that week. Monday, I couldn’t lift my arm. When I couldn’t raise my arm, I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’”

“I was trying to be tough and fight through it, but then physically I wasn’t as capable of doing what I would normally. When I wasn’t performing on the field, that’s when it really started to go downhill. Because I can tough it out, I don’t care, I’m not going to complain about it, like everybody is banged up. But then when it started hindering my play and going downhill, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, [expletive].

“That’s when I started losing my own self-confidence and losing myself. This past year was rough. It was. It was rough on me, my family. It sucked because I knew what I could be doing, but I physically wasn’t in a state to do it.”

What did that look like on the field? Well, the Browns’ passing game was circling the drain, especially late in the season, and Mayfield was exactly the mess you’d expect with all that going on. There was no more clear example of this than the four-interception game (a career high) he had against the Packers in Week 16.

The first pick came with 8:45 left in the first quarter, and Mayfield trying to hit Donovan Peoples-Jones over the middle on a deep post. Once safety Darnell Savage moved to carry Peoples-Jones up top, and cornerback Rasul Douglas matched (some might say mugged) Peoples-Jones, Mayfield should have understood that Rashard Higgins was the better (and open) option on the deep crosser.

“The first interception, the one put to Donovan as well, he was probably 15 yards downfield getting illegal contact,” Mayfield said after the game. And while that’s true, it’s also true that you can’t rely on officials calling anything consistently these days, and it’s still up to you to discern the open target based on safety movement. Savage had committed to Peoples-Jones over the top before Mayfield released the ball, and it was on Mayfield to figure that out.

Mayfield’s third interception came with 2:00 left in the first half — he was moving clumsily to his left, and by the time he had his shoulders squared to the target, he missed Landry getting open on a switch release, threw the ball late, and Rasul Douglas had his first of two interceptions on the day.

“Just got to put it more outside,” Mayfield said of that one. “The guy made a good play on it, seeing it left inside and rotating back and playing it.”

Perhaps, but Mayfield also had this dead to rights if he’d reacted in time. Mayfield has never been a poster kid for quarterback mechanics — his style works for him, but you wouldn’t want to teach it. Injuries made those issues more concentrated, and when Mayfield couldn’t see what was going on at a level that would compensate for that, there was nothing but trouble left on the horizon.

Using personnel that fits Mayfield's strengths.

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Now, back to the good season.

In 2020, Mayfield’s 289 dropbacks with 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one running back) ranked 24th in the league. And when given the benefit of 11 personnel, Mayfield completed 176 of 267 passes for 1,960 yards, 1,258 air yards, 20 touchdowns, six interceptions. His ANY/A of 7.4 out of 11 personnel ranked sixth in the league, tied with Patrick Mahomes. His passer rating of 103.2 with 11 personnel ranked seventh in the NFL. His EPA of 47.66 ranked sixth in the NFL, and his Positive Play Rate of 50.0% ranked 10th. Why the Browns didn’t use more 11 personnel when Mayfield was absolutely lights-out with it is a mystery, except to say that it’s head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense, and Stefanski is going to do what he wants to do.

What Stefanski wants to do is to run stuff with multiple tight ends on the field. In 2020, no quarterback had more dropbacks out of 12 personnel (two receivers, two tight ends, one running back) than Mayfield’s 202. And in those 202 dropbacks, Mayfield completed 112 of 185 passes for 1,301 yards, 698 air yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. Mayfield’s 12 personnel ANY/A of 6.4 ranked 19th in the league, his passer rating of 83.2 ranked 20th, his EPA of 8.58 ranked 11th, and his Positive Play Rate of 50.3% ranked 12th.

Stefanski also loves him some 13 personnel — three tight ends, one receiver, one running back. Mayfield led the league in 2020 with 61 dropbacks out of 13 personnel; Derek Carr ranked second with 44. In those 61 dropbacks, Mayfield completed 30 of 54 passes for 468 yards, 258 air yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. His ANY/A of 7.5 out of 13 personnel tied for eighth in the league with Derek Carr, his passer rating of 89.1 ranked 10th, his EPA of -1.20 ranked 13th, and his Positive Play Rate of 46.6% ranked 10th.

At his best, Mayfield was far better in every way out of 11 personnel, and the Browns went decidedly in other directions.

As far as what the Browns’ passing game will look like with Watson (or whoever else during a Watson suspension), offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt opened the door to more favorable concepts in this June 1 quote:.

“It is more based on how we structure practice this year. We put more of an emphasis on situational football. That means every day we are practicing third downs and red zone. Generally, those situations require 11 personnel or Zebra personnel with three-wide receiver sets.

“We needed to work on our passing game and our drop-back passing game, whether that is two tight ends and two wides or three wide receivers. That is definitely an area of emphasis for us. Going in, we are treating this camp like a passing camp, more or less. I think at the end of this we will have 350 passes versus live competition and seven-on-seven periods. We definitely focused in on our drop-back passing game as a point of emphasis this offseason.”

A more compelling emphasis on situational football might have been a proper focus before, but we are where we are on that one. Mayfield was worse out of every personnel grouping in 2021, but as we’ve said, we’re focusing more specifically on the last season in which he had anything nearing a decent bill of health. Stefanski did roll out more 11 personnel calls late in the 2021 season, but it was too little, too late — and in Mayfield’s case, too bad. All four of his interceptions against the Packers in Week 16 came out of 11 personnel. By then, Mayfield’s mechanics were so messed up, and his chemistry with his receivers was so off, there wasn’t much left to do out of any personnel package.

“I think it was certainly game plan-specific to who you are facing and the different looks you are getting to certain personnel groupings,” Stefanski said the day after that particular disaster. “It just felt like 11 was what we wanted to be in that game. It could be moving forward, but we just have to make sure that we are doing what we may think makes sense versus that particular defense.”

Well, the situational thing doesn’t really hold up as a reason. In 2021, Green Bay’s defense gave up 20 touchdowns to 13 interceptions against 11 personnel, including Mayfield’s four. In the second half of the season, when the Packers’ defense really started to come together, just 10 of those touchdowns were allowed, to 10 picks.

Whoops.

As far as the two teams most frequently tied to Mayfield right now, the Panthers ran 11 personnel on 419 of their dropbacks, which ranked 20th in the league. The Seahawks ran it on 482 dropbacks, which ranked 17th. Carolina (with Sam Darnold as the primary quarterback) had 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions out of 11 personnel, while Seattle (with Russell Wilson leading the way) had 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

As with any personnel package, it matters who your quarterback is.

Letting Mayfield do what he does best.

(Syndication: The Enquirer)

In 2020, Mayfield was one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks when given the benefit of pre-snap motion — with it, he completed 188 of 283 passes for 2,014 yards, 1,140 air yards, 15 touchdowns, three interceptions, an ANY/A of 7.1, a passer rating of 100.3, an EPA of 24.94, and a Positive Play Rate of 49.5.

On this 43-yard touchdown pass to Odell Beckham Jr. in Week 2 of the 2020 season, the tight end motion gives Mayfield a man indicator for the Bengals’ Cover-1 shell. From there, Mayfield rolled left out of the pocket, and hit Beckham with a pinpoint downfield pass to the boundary. There was no deep safety to help cornerback William Jackson III, one of the league’s better man corners, because safety Jessie Bates III came down to cover Jarvis Landry’s deep over, and Beckham turned Jackson around with the stutter move. It was still up to Mayfield to make the deep pass go, and he did.

As we have seen, Mayfield also felt dangerous outside the pocket. When outside the pocket in 2020, he completed 70 of 126 passes for 970 yards, 666 air yards, seven touchdowns, two interceptions, an ANY/A of 7.3, a passer rating of 92.4, an EPA of 1.58, and a Positive Play Rate of 44.0%.

In 2020, Mayfield was effective on designed rollouts, but he was also very good when plays broke down and he had to get on the move. On this touchdown against the Colts in Week 5 of the 2020 season, Mayfield rolls to his right as he doesn’t see what he wants, and then hits running back Kareem Hunt for a two-yard touchdown as two defenders. This is an outstanding timing throw in random circumstances — which every NFL quarterback has to learn to deal with.

Aligning Mayfield with a coaching staff that better understands what he does best in a situational sense would be the way to get the most out of him as a quarterback. This always seems obvious, but as George Carlin liked to say, “Some people need practical advice.”

Developing chemistry with reliable receivers.

(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

It seems another cruel irony in the Mayfield scenario that the Browns acquired former Raiders and Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper this offseason; the veteran is just 28 years old, a near-peerless route-runner when healthy, and he understands how to develop chemistry with his quarterbacks. Which is something Mayfield really hasn’t had. Even when the Browns had Odell Beckham Jr., things didn’t always work out between Mayfield and Beckham.

The Browns used Beckham as a decoy for other receivers when he was their best receiver. They didn’t allow him to exploit one-on-one matchups as much as they should have. And Mayfield-Beckham combo just never got on the same page as a result. When Beckham became more of a threat in Sean McVay’s offense, with Matthew Stafford as his quarterback, it should have come as no surprise.

Beckham’s one deep catch, that 26-yarder, came against the Bears in Week 3, his first game back from an ACL injury. The Bears played Cover-1 with deep safety Deon Bush cheating to the trips side. When Higgins ran the intermediate out route, and Bush recovered to help cornerback Jaylon Johnson with the potential Beckham deep route, Beckham responded by cutting his route and giving Mayfield an open target.

“Odell came in and caught the balls that were thrown to him his way,” Van Pelt said a few days after the Bears game. “He looked really good running routes. He drew coverage his way, which helps us in a lot of different ways in the run game and in the pass game, as well. He definitely had an impact out there, and we expect that to continue.”

It’s just as easy to scheme things open for Beckham as it is to use Beckham to scheme things open for everybody else. What that takes in an inherent understanding of what Beckham does well, and how he can take the top off a defense in so many ways.

Getting Beckham open on crossers and switch releases should also have worked. It very nearly did against the Vikings in Week 4. This was a deep incompletion, but the outcome did not reflect the process. Beckham was in the right slot with Anthony Schwartz outside.  When Schwartz took cornerback Cameron Dantzler out on the deep over, it was up to safety Harrison Smith, one of the best in the NFL, to work Beckham through his route.

This, he did not do. Beckham just demolished Smith on a nasty out-and-up, and had Beckham not stumbled on the turf, this would have been an easy six.

“They were very close,” Van Pelt said after the Vikings game of the Mayfield-Beckham deep connection. “Really, if you complete two of those throws, Odell is well over 100 yards, and everybody is not saying a word. That is tough. Deep balls are tough to complete. Your completion percentage is lower on those, but we were just off a hair. The one ball he had down the right side, he had to step up and maneuver some pressure, which was a tough throw, that one was close.

“The one at the end of the game [the play illustrated above], I take as much responsibility for that as anybody. As the coordinator, I repped that play multiple times versus a zone coverage, and we have driven the ball into that spot, knowing that the safety and the corner would react, and this was a man look that we have not and I had not prepared those guys for. I take as much responsibility as anybody.”

The other deep incompletion Van Pelt referred to was another situation where the Vikings were in conflict covering both Schwartz and Beckham. This time, Beckham was the iso receiver to Mayfield’s front side, and Schwartz made it more complicated with a deep over from trips to the other side. Smith was in a bind, Beckham beat Dantzler… and Mayfield underthrew the ball.

“I cannot sit here and lie like, ‘I do not want the ball,’” Beckham said this week. “Like I tell you every time I get up here, they do not pay James Harden for defense, you know what I mean? He is a shooter. I feel like I am a shooter. As I get down in the red zone and I am running a corner route and three people come with me and Higgy (WR Rashard Higgins) is wide open, I have to know that happens. I know that I bring a lot of attention to defenses on the other end, and other people are going to be open. You just have to live with that. Ultimately like I said, the Chargers are not some slouch team. They are a 4-1 team, and the only team they lost to is a 4-1 team. They were just were a better team that day. Like I said, they did the little things they had to do.”

If you have a shooter, you put the ball in the shooter’s hands. Michael Jordan had to adapt to Tex Winter’s team-integrated triangle offense, but evolution eventually won: He was Michael Jordan, and he was going to get the damned ball. In the end, that made everybody better.

Whoever has Mayfield in 2022 and beyond should realize to to develop that chemistry. This is where the Seahawks, with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as their primary targets, would seem to be of great interest to Mayfield — and probably to Metcalf and Lockett, who would rather catch footballs from Mayfield than errant stuff from Drew Lock and Geno Smith. The Panthers have a decent group of targets with Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Rashard Higgins (who played with Mayfield in Cleveland from 2018-2021), but the high side isn’t quite what Metcalf and Lockett offer. Whichever way this goes, it could be easy for Mayfield to have a better situation with all his receivers.

Mayfield can be a viable starter -- with the right help.

[Jeff Lange/Beacon Journal]
Browns 6

To say that Mayfield needs schematic and personnel assistance to be the best version of himself is by no means a pejorative tome. All quarterbacks need that kind of help to rise to the occasion. Go back and look at Tom Brady’s first half-season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, when he was getting the hang of Bruce Arians’ offense, while Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were aligning their playbooks to what Brady prefers. If the greatest quarterback ever to play football needs a few more motion calls and different route concepts to avoid overthrowing Scottie Miller by 30 yards against the Saints, safe to say that it’s okay for everybody else.

Coming into his fifth NFL season, Baker Mayfield has had one year in which he was healthy and developed enough to be a top-level NFL quarterback. He responded by doing so, despite a group of receivers who didn’t always see things the way he did, and a staff that seemed determined to give him the opposite of that kind of schematic help for his specific benefit.

Does this mean that Mayfield is one right turn away from becoming the next Aaron Rodgers? Most likely not. But Mayfield has shown that there his a plus-level starting quarterback in his frame, and 2022 marks time for another team to bring it out.

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