If Baker Mayfield is eventually traded, who could Browns turn to at quarterback?

Baker Mayfield has requested a trade, for all intents and purposes saying his goodbye to the Cleveland Browns.

The Browns, having flirted with trade target Deshaun Watson, might be saying right now that they won't grant the request. But it certainly feels like both sides have gone too far in the wrong direction to salvage the relationship.

If a trade ends up happening — and we think it will in time — the Browns will be down one starting quarterback, and sources say that's not ideal.

Of course, a quarterback could come in return for Mayfield, and that's certainly one major option toward addressing the issue. But there also are other methods by which the Browns can find their 2022 starter.

Here are a few paths the Browns could take:

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

If Deshaun Watson ends up in Atlanta, Ryan would be sent packing. That's a pretty stark turn for the Falcons, who reportedly agreed to contract adjustments on Ryan's deal, but those have not yet been processed while the Falcons pursue Watson.

Ryan's current deal runs two more years and pays him salaries of $23.75 million in 2022 and $28 million in 2023. The Browns are currently sitting with about $16 million in salary-cap space but could make it work if they wanted to.

Might Matt Ryan be bidding farewell to the Atlanta Falcons? (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Might Matt Ryan be bidding farewell to the Atlanta Falcons? (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Ryan turns 37 in May, but he's maintained a high level of performance — even while the Falcons have fallen off and receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley faded. In 2021, Ryan completed 375 of 560 passes (67.0%) for 3,968 yards, 20 TDs and 12 interceptions.

If there's a stat that should concern Cleveland, it's the number of sacks he's taken. Ryan was sacked 40 times last year, the fourth in a row he's taken at least that many. Over the past four years, his sack total is 171.

Ryan's durability is tremendous, though. He's only missed three career games, and only one since the 2009 season. He certainly could be a high-level bridge QB for the next season or two — and perhaps even longer — depending on when the Browns would consider drafting his potential replacement.

Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

This wouldn't come without challenges, but Garoppolo could help the Browns transition from the Mayfield era to the next one.

The 49ers say they want to do right by Garoppolo and trade him this offseason, but so far the market has been cool. There are a few reasons for this.

One, Garoppolo just underwent shoulder surgery and is likely to miss a big portion of the offseason program, wherever he lands. The expectation is that he'll begin throwing sometime in early July. That's a bit concerning for any team that would ostensibly want to make him their Week 1 starter, but by that pace he'd be back for the start of training camp.

Jimmy Garoppolo's trade market has been quiet so far. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)
Jimmy Garoppolo's trade market has been quiet so far. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

Two, his contract might need adjusting. Garoppolo currently is on the books to hit the salary cap for $26.95 million next year. It's one thing to add Ryan at or around that number, but Garoppolo doesn't come with the same qualifications and plusses.

Which leads us to another concern: Is Garoppolo that good? The 49ers' success without him has paled to the results with Garoppolo on the field. But there's also a reason San Francisco engineered a major draft trade a year ago to secure Trey Lance. The 49ers might have felt then — and almost certainly do now — that Garoppolo has played about as well as he's going to play.

No shade toward Kevin Stefanski, who is a fine play-caller and offensive designer. But if Kyle Shanahan has seen Garoppolo's ceiling, what's to say that the Browns are somehow going to get more out of him? Plus, in addition to the shoulder, Garoppolo has suffered a litany of injuries over the past few years.

Marcus Mariota, Las Vegas Raiders

Mariota would come much more cheaply than the first two options. He's also younger at 28 years old and has taken far fewer shots in recent years than both.

But Mariota has not started a game since Week 6 of the 2019 season, when he was benched by the Titans. Since then, Mariota has completed 19 of 31 passes for 254 yards, one TD and one INT and run 22 times for 175 yards and two more scores. The Raiders often used Mariota's athleticism with a special package of plays the past two seasons, mostly as a runner.

Is Mariota ready for starting duty again? He'd likely answer yes, but the Browns might not think so. Acquiring Mariota likely would cost less (perhaps an incentive-laden deal?) and might consider a one-year, "prove it" type of deal, but it almost certainly would require the Browns to draft a quarterback relatively high this year — say, somewhere in the first three rounds.

Mariota's past injury concerns would be a worry; he was injured on his first touch of the season last year and has had various ailments since entering the league. Also, we just can't know what to expect from him after he barely saw the field for most of the last three years.

Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints

Winston, like Mariota, would be a tough sell as anything but a placeholder. But he's at least taken some recent starts — and not fared horribly.

Like Mariota, Winston found his career at a crossroads a few years ago, signing with the New Orleans Saints as Drew Brees' backup. After barely playing in 2020, he threw a 56-yard TD pass in the playoffs that year against his former Buccaneers team but then was thrust into a starting role last season with the Saints.

Winston, 28, got his 2021 campaign off to a strong start. He completed 59% of his passes for 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions in seven starts, leading New Orleans to a 5-2 record. But Winston suffered a torn ACL and damaged MCL in Week 8, which ended his season.

He's now a free agent and reportedly getting back into playing shape and likely would be ready to see the field during OTAs — earlier than Garoppolo would. But is Winston trustworthy? Sure, Sean Payton seemed to be getting the best out of Winston last year, but his career prior to that had been defined by massive swings. Some quite good, some hilariously bad.

If the Browns do sign Winston, he'd have both of his former teams — the Bucs and Saints — on the schedule this year. But can he help lead a talented roster before he's replaced? This feels like a high-variance type of signing.

Gardner Minshew, Philadelphia Eagles

As far as Mayfield replacements go, this one might be a little too on the nose.

No, they're not the same player, but with a similar frame and play style Minshew has been likened to a dollar-store Mayfield in the past. Minshew's histrionics might not be the perfect salve, even if he is considered somewhere on the charming-harmless spectrum by some.

Football-wise, Minshew might deserve more respect than he's getting. In his career (27 games, 22 starts), he's completed 542 of 857 passes (63.2%) for 5,969 yards with 41 TDs and 12 picks, also running 105 times for 518 yards and a score.

Could the Eagles trade Gardner Minshew? (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Could the Eagles trade Gardner Minshew? (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Over Mayfield's past 22 starts, he's completed 421 of 681 passes (61.8%) for 5,059 yards, 28 TDs and 14 interceptions, along with running 72 times for 234 yards and two more scores.

Granted, more than half of those starts came after Mayfield suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 last year, one that worsened throughout the course of the season and caused him to miss two starts. It's arguable he should have missed more.

When the Eagles dealt for Minshew, it came at a pittance: a conditional sixth-round pick. That's both the allure and the bottom-line rub right there. Minshew's numbers have been good, but he's clearly not valued as a true starter by many NFL teams.

So yes, he possibly could be had for a song, and Minshew is a year younger than Mayfield. But like the prior two options, the Browns immediately would be on the clock to draft his successor.

A draft pick

This could be in play whether or not the Browns acquire a veteran following a trade of Mayfield.

It's perhaps not the best year to be looking for a QB savior in the draft, but reports about how terrible this crop of passers are feel way overplayed. Two, perhaps even three, could end up as respectable NFL starters. But are any star-quality? That's a fair question to ask.

The Browns have decent draft capital now — and could get more in return for Mayfield. Their current allotment of picks:

  • Round 1: No. 13 overall

  • Round 2: No. 44

  • Round 3: Nos. 78, 99

  • Round 4: Nos. 107 (from Lions), 118

  • Round 6: No. 202 (from Cowboys)

  • Round 7: No. 223 (from Lions)

That's eight picks, plus Mayfield in theory, with which to play. At 13, they might be able to get the QB2 — likely either Pitt's Kenny Pickett or Liberty's Malik Willis.

Our feeling: Willis will be gone. Someone will trade up for him, and we'll spend the day after Round 1 debating whether he "went too high." Whatever. But depending on how high QB1 is drafted, especially if it's Willis, that could compel another team to leapfrog teams such as the Browns at 13 or even the Seahawks at 9 to land QB2, which we'd guess is Pickett.

This might play out a bit similarly to the 2017 NFL draft. The Bears slid up to No. 2 to take Mitch Trubisky. That was followed by the Chiefs and Texans trading up to 10 and 12, respectively, for Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.

Liberty QB Malik Willis could be the first quarterback drafted. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Liberty QB Malik Willis could be the first quarterback drafted. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

It's important to remember: There was a healthy dose of skepticism toward that class's quarterbacks at the time. No one was sure when the first QB would come off the board. Some of the day-before-the-draft mocks five years ago had the quarterbacks trickling off the board somewhere in the teens, or maybe a shade earlier.

The point is that Willis and Pickett are likely to go earlier than many realize now. That also could push a third QB into the first round, perhaps even a fourth. Desmond Ridder has gotten a little buzz lately. Matt Corral is still interesting enough.

So this gives the Browns a preview of what might happen if they head into Draft Day without a clear solution at quarterback. They had better be prepared to move up if that's the case. If they land Garoppolo, they might still feel that pressure considering the injury concern. If they get Ryan, they clearly can be patient — or punt to the 2023 draft if they really want.

But really, with any non-Ryan addition — or with no movement — before the draft, the Browns can't sit and watch the paint dry. Even in this maligned QB class, there's enough demand elsewhere that the action could be surprisingly hot at the position. The Browns must figure out which QB they like best and assume he'll be picked half a round to a round higher than they may currently be projected to go.