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How Will Baker Mayfield’s Injury-Marred Season Impact the Browns’ Extension Decision?

Cleveland came into this season still uncertain about the team’s future with Mayfield. Now, six games in and with Mayfield out this week, the team seems to have more questions than answers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If I had to pick one play to sum up the Browns’ season thus far, it would be a pretty easy choice. It happened late in the third quarter of an otherwise forgettable Week 2 game against the Texans, with Cleveland up by a touchdown and threatening to double its lead. Baker Mayfield took the snap from under center, carried out a play-action fake to Nick Chubb, and spun his head around to look downfield. Just as he was doing that, Donovan Peoples-Jones was coming out of his break on a pivot route right in Mayfield’s line of sight. There wasn’t a Texans defender within 6 yards of the receiver, who had only open grass between him and the end zone.

Yet Mayfield didn’t throw him the ball. Inexplicably, the QB turned his back to the open Peoples-Jones and looked to the backside of the design, where tight end David Njoku was running a corner route. Njoku was covered, which sent Baker into panic mode, and he ended up scrambling and picking up a yard.

That yard came at a painful cost. The fourth-year signal-caller had hurt his shoulder attempting a tackle in the first half, and it was later revealed he tore his labrum. Now, after an awkward fall in the Browns’ lopsided loss to Arizona on Sunday re-aggravated Mayfield’s injury, Case Keenum will get the start Thursday against the Broncos. Mayfield will be added to the ever-growing list of injured Cleveland stars:

Mayfield shouldn’t be sidelined for too long, but the timing could not be worse. Sitting at 3-3, the Browns’ season seems to be at a tipping point. The next handful of games—all of which come against teams in a similar spot in the AFC playoff race—could either push Cleveland toward contention or down a murky path that could alter the next decade for the franchise.

This was supposed to be Baker’s make-or-break year. It’s the final year of his original rookie contract, and though the Browns picked up his fifth-year option in the offseason, guaranteeing him a $18.9 million salary in 2022, only three quarterbacks—Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, and Robert Griffin III—have ever played on the option since it was instituted for first-round picks in 2011. And all three moved on to different teams the following offseason. In other words, recent history suggests that if Mayfield has a future in Cleveland, a new deal will be coming this offseason. But at this point, we’re not any closer to figuring out whether Mayfield is a long-term answer worthy of a big second contract—and now he’s hurt, making the evaluation process even trickier.

About a month ago, we were wondering how much the Browns would be willing to pay the 26-year-old when they eventually—inevitably—gave him that extension. Now it’s worth asking whether they should pay him at all.

Let’s go back to that doomed scramble against the Texans. I didn’t choose the play solely because Baker hurt his shoulder on it, but because of what led to the painful fall: Mayfield turning down an easy play for a much more difficult one. In the first two months of the season, Mayfield has consistently tried to do too much in an offense that asks its quarterback to do the opposite: just take the layups.

Head coach Kevin Stefanski’s performance this year has been criticized, which tends to happen when a team fails to meet expectations. But his play-calls have provided Mayfield with plenty of those layups. There isn’t a more layup-y throw for an NFL quarterback than a screen pass, and the Browns are calling them at the seventh-highest rate in the league this year after ranking 25th last season, per Sports Info Solutions. Screen passes are short, predetermined, and safe—even if they don’t typically produce a ton of yards. But that last part hasn’t been the case for the Browns in 2021. Mayfield is currently averaging 12.2 yards per attempt on screen passes, per Pro Football Focus. Carson Wentz ranks second at 8 yards per attempt. The gap between Mayfield and Wentz is larger than the gap between Wentz and Mac Jones, who ranks 25th. When I say Cleveland’s screen game is in its own league, I’m not exaggerating.

Stefanski’s more schemed-up calls have been pretty effective this season. It’s when you take those schematic cheat codes away that Mayfield really struggles. On straight dropback passes—so no play-action, screens, or RPOs—he ranks 28th in total EPA and 29th in success rate among the 34 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 40 such passes, per Sports Info Solutions. Those splits are worse than last season, when he already ranked a mediocre 18th in EPA and 19th in success rate on those plays.

Mayfield’s urgency to create a big play has been the biggest factor in his declining production. He’s scrambled 16 times through six games, which puts him on pace to finish the season with 45.3. That would be 18 more than his career high of 27, which he set last season. Baker is fine at scrambling; he just does it too much. And when it comes at the cost of missed opportunities downfield, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze:

This is when Mayfield’s physical limitations show up, even going back to before the shoulder injury. When it comes to NFL quarterbacks, Baker is on the smaller side. He measured just over 6 feet at the 2018 NFL combine, which put him in the 6th percentile among quarterbacks, per MockDraftable. That’s not necessarily a barrier to success for NFL quarterbacks, but it certainly makes things more challenging. Kyler Murray (5-foot-10) and Russell Wilson (5-foot-11) circumvent their height issues by being impossible to tackle and having the ability to make any throw off any platform. Drew Brees (6 feet) made it work by developing otherworldly accuracy and a computer-like ability to process what defenses were throwing at him. Those three are the exemplars for shorter quarterbacks, and they all have elite traits. But Baker’s elite trait is his competitive fire, and that means very little when you have a 250-pound edge rusher who runs a 4.6 40 on your heels, or if the defense rotates to an unexpected coverage right after the snap.

It also means very little when that competitiveness becomes a weakness. Mayfield tries desperately to be the franchise quarterback the Browns fans want him to be—sometimes to a fault—and to make the plays that other top quarterbacks make. But based on what he’s shown so far, he just doesn’t have it in him.

That’s not to say Baker can’t be a winning quarterback. We saw him help the Browns end a decades-long playoff drought just last year. And when he trusts Stefanski’s system and plays within the structure of it, he can produce like a top-five quarterback, as he did down the stretch of 2020.

When Mayfield is throwing in rhythm, the dude can throw the hell out of a football.

His issues, at least when it comes to making throws, pop up when he’s forced to hold the ball. If that first or second read isn’t open, his feet get frantic and he has a hard time settling down. That’s when he misses throws, or worse, puts the ball in harm’s way.

Mayfield When Holding Onto the Football

Time to throw Turnover Worth Plays Interceptions Passer rating PFF Grade
Time to throw Turnover Worth Plays Interceptions Passer rating PFF Grade
Under 2.5 seconds 0 0 114.5 75.3
Over 2.5 seconds 6 3 82.4 62.4
Data via Pro Football Focus

In what might be an effort to take the playmaking and decision-making burden off his quarterback, Stefanski has increased his usage of screen passes this season. But defenses have made it more difficult to throw the play-action passes that produced so many explosive gains for Cleveland in 2020. Defenses are focusing less on the Browns’ run game this season—43 percent of Cleveland rushing attempts came against a “stacked box” last year, per Sports Info Solutions, compared to 19 percent this year—and as a result Mayfield is seeing more two-high safety coverages, which make those deeper pass plays harder to pull off.

Baker Seeing Fewer Loaded Boxes

Season Dropbacks v. 8 in the box per game Dropbacks v. one-high coverages per game
Season Dropbacks v. 8 in the box per game Dropbacks v. one-high coverages per game
2020 5.9 18
2021 2.2 13.8
Data via Sports Info Solutions

Stefanski has responded by calling fewer play-action passes—since Week 2, the Browns rank 28th in the NFL in play-action usage, per Sports Info Solutions. But play-action is beneficial to quarterbacks for two big reasons: (1) it simplifies the read for the quarterback by giving him an either-or decision, and (2) the run fake slows down the pass rush, which provides the quarterback more space in the pocket. For a smaller quarterback who needs a clean platform to throw the ball at a high level, and isn’t the quickest thinker in the pocket, Mayfield’s reliance on play-action isn’t all that shocking.

With all the Browns’ injuries and defenses taking away the play-action game, the playmaking burden has fallen squarely on Mayfield’s shoulders. Most quarterbacks would struggle in similar circumstances, and for that reason alone, maybe we should give him a pass for his play thus far. At the same time, these mistakes aren’t really new. They’re all over Mayfield’s tape from his first three seasons—we’re just seeing them more often in 2021. Plus, while the Browns have had plenty of talent to spare to this point, if they do give Mayfield a big second contract, it will be much more difficult to put a stellar supporting cast around him given that he’ll no longer be on a rookie deal. “We can’t expect him to perform without his star teammates” isn’t the best argument when you’re debating whether or not to pay a quarterback a cap-altering amount of money.

If anything, all of these injuries may have provided us with a peek at Mayfield’s future … and it doesn’t look especially promising. For optimism’s sake, let’s say Cleveland gets healthy and Baker bounces back down the stretch as he did in 2020. That just puts the Browns right back where they were last offseason: unsure if a short, promising stretch was a sign of a brighter future for Mayfield—only this time, they won’t have another year to think on it.