PALM BEACH, Fla. — For all intents and purposes, the Cleveland Browns are talking about Baker Mayfield in the past tense. The question now appears to be whether the franchise is willing to incur salary cap pain to make him a tradable commodity.
Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski said Monday that Cleveland would prefer to get the situation with Mayfield’s future “resolved soon” but it has “several dynamics” in play before that can happen. Other teams at the league’s annual spring owners meetings in Florida have made it clear what the two biggest dynamics are: Mayfield’s $18.8 million guaranteed salary next season, and the progress of the January surgery to repair the torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder.
Those two issues, along with Cleveland trading for Deshaun Watson and signing Jacoby Brissett, have left the Browns with little leverage on the trade market with Mayfield. So much so that interested teams seem certain that given a long enough timeline this offseason, the Browns are going to end up approaching Mayfield about an outright release in exchange for a restructured salary in 2022, similar to a deal that was worked out with Odell Beckham Jr. last season. That deal saved Cleveland $3 million in cap space, while allowing the wideout to pass through waivers and eventually sign with the Los Angeles Rams. Like Beckham before him, Mayfield would likely go from zero to multiple potential suitors once he doesn’t cost a trade asset or his guaranteed salary for 2022.
“He’s a [No. 1 overall] pick who has been able to have some success as a starter,” one NFC executive said at the meetings. “I think if you just look at Mitchell Trubisky having some options and interest [in free agency], there will be some interest in Baker, too.”
Another NFC personnel man added: “A lot of teams want him but aren’t going to take on the salary. They will all pounce on him once [Cleveland] has to cut him.”
Asked if the Browns could make Mayfield more attractive on the trade market by agreeing to pay some of his salary, the NFC personnel man said even that scenario will be a challenge because it’s virtually impossible for the Browns to have him on the roster next season.
“They would have to eat 80 percent [of Mayfield’s salary], but they have already shown their cards,” he said. “Teams are going to sit idle and force them to cut Baker because it’s going to be an odd situation keeping him around.”
Some of that oddity was already on display Monday, when Stefanski spoke at length about his quarterback depth chart and was clear that Brissett is the team’s backup. That effectively ends speculation that Mayfield could somehow return and start if Watson were to be suspended for games next season due to the NFL's ongoing investigation. The league is still in the midst of a probe into the 22 civil lawsuits pending against Watson for a range of sexual misconduct and assault allegations.
Teams courting a trade for Watson were taking a potential suspension seriously enough that all were weighing the need for an experienced backup if he had to miss an extended period. On Monday, Stefanski made it clear that plan is focused squarely on Brissett and not Mayfield.
“We have to be ready, whenever the [Watson suspension] decision is made, potentially to go with Jacoby,” Stefanski said.
Mayfield’s suitors are certainly not as plentiful as they might have been early in the offseason. Nearly every starting quarterback spot outside of the Seattle Seahawks has been addressed in some fashion. That said, one AFC general manager noted that if you look in a two-year window for Mayfield, that changes significantly.
“A better question, maybe the more realistic question, might be which teams could need a starter in 2023,” he said. “Because there are places he could go in 2022 with the intention of being a successor to someone. If he’s willing to take that approach, his free agency could aim at a lot of places.
“But from a trade aspect, that’s a smaller group, because teams that could sign him as a no-risk free agent are making less of a commitment than a team that’s giving up something. If you’re giving up a draft pick for him, I’d think the hope is that you have plans for him after next season.”
The two-year window approach could include as many as nine teams: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers preparing for life after Tom Brady following this season; the Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions each knowing they can exit the contracts of Ryan Tannehill and Jared Goff for minimal salary cap pain next offseason; Trubisky and Marcus Mariota both effectively being on one-year “show me” deals with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Atlanta Falcons; Daniel Jones and Sam Darnold effectively being in the last year of their deals with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers; and then teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints measuring Jalen Hurts and James Winston in 2022.
That’s a fairly wide swath of teams, but also easier to envision for Mayfield if he’s running his own free agency later this offseason.
For now, that isn’t happening. And it may stay that way for a while as Cleveland waits to see if circumstances unexpectedly push someone to the trade table.
As Stefanski put it Monday, “It’s a unique situation. Gotta see how it plays out. I know all of us, we’d love an answer yesterday.”