The Browns and the Ravens play Sunday in a game that will help decide the AFC North winner. It’s also a snapshot of where each team stands with the quarterback it selected in the first round of the 2018 draft. Nearly four seasons later, Cleveland has picked up Baker Mayfield’s fifth-year option, as has Baltimore with Lamar Jackson, though both quarterbacks’ long-term futures with their respective teams remain uncertain. Though there have been discussions, neither quarterback has agreed to terms on a long-term extension.
When it comes to value, many NFL personnel like to say that players are either trucks or trailers. Trucks pull others along with them; trailers need others to do the pulling. Despite having played some of the worst games of his career over the past month, it’s fair to say that Jackson is clearly a truck. He’s 37-11 as an NFL starter, has won an MVP, and was in the conversation for that award again earlier this season. He’s improved his downfield passing, the area of his game critics argued would hold him back in his development. Jackson’s play has fallen off in recent weeks: He’s thrown eight interceptions through the past four games and his yards per attempt have fallen, but it’s worth noting that he’s playing with several backups as the Ravens have been decimated by injuries this season. Baltimore has 22 players on injured reserve, including left tackle Ronnie Stanley and cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, and leads the NFL with 81 starts by players lost due to injuries. The team lost its top three running backs for the season before Week 1. Yet the Ravens are 8-4 and currently hold the no. 3 seed in the AFC largely because of Jackson, who is first in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt. He is the clear reason the Ravens are still tied for third in rushing yards. “He’s going to be our quarterback for years to come,” coach John Harbaugh said before this season. There’s little reason to doubt that statement.
Mayfield’s case is more complicated. He’s the most successful Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar, though that’s not saying much. Mayfield is 28-28 overall in his career, with one winning season and one trip to the playoffs. He’s struggled this season—he’s the 21st-ranked quarterback by EPA, and his Pro Football Focus grade ranks him 28th. He’s posting career lows in yards per game and touchdown percentage, but his performance is likely compromised by injury. Mayfield has been playing with a partially torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder since September 19 and has collected other injuries, including a right knee contusion and an injury to his left foot. When healthy, Mayfield can lead a team to the playoffs, but he needs a good coach and a good roster around him. He’s certainly not a truck, but it doesn’t quite seem fair to call him a trailer, either. Mayfield is more like a sidecar. The problem is that, in 2021, no one knows what the heck a sidecar is supposed to cost.
There’s currently very little in the way of a middle class of starting quarterbacks. This season, 14 teams have starters who are under contract at $25 million or more in average annual salary, according to Spotrac. Another 14 have quarterbacks on rookie contracts. (Spotrac currently counts Andy Dalton as the Bears’ starter but, for the purposes of this conversation, I am counting Chicago among the teams with starters on rookie contracts, as Justin Fields is their starter when healthy and is expected to start Sunday against Green Bay.) The remaining four teams—the Steelers, Broncos, Saints, and Texans—are all in periods of transition.
The Browns would likely be fine with signing Mayfield to a multiyear extension with an average annual that is closer to the lower end of what long-term starters make. In October, ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported that the Browns were comfortable paying Mayfield in the “mid-to-high” $30 million range. Several starters on multiyear deals exist in this range: Kirk Cousins makes $31 million in 2021 and Matt Ryan makes $27 million. Heck, Tom Brady makes $25 million per year in Tampa.
However, that group of quarterbacks is older and mostly made up of players who signed their deals a few years back. Among the starting quarterbacks who more recently re-signed with the teams that drafted them, salaries are on the higher end. The last three such quarterbacks to sign extensions—Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Dak Prescott—all make at least $40 million per year.
Allen was the most recent quarterback to sign a long-term extension, a six-year deal worth an average of $43 million per year. NFL contracts are negotiated largely based on precedent and Allen, also taken in the first round of the 2018 draft, was in the situation most analogous to Mayfield’s current circumstances when he signed. If the Browns extend Mayfield, following suit would require Cleveland agreeing to pay him more than $40 million annually, which should make your stomach turn like bad FirstEnergy Stadium nachos.
There’s an obvious downside to giving a quarterback who hasn’t shown elite ability a top-of-market deal. The first and second overall picks of the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, both got big extensions from the teams that drafted them, struggled, then were traded despite the Rams and Eagles needing to take on the two biggest dead-money salary cap hits in NFL history in order to do so.
Moving on is clearly scary too, though, especially when the sunk cost is the no. 1 overall pick; additionally so when the organization is Cleveland, which carries the added baggage of not wanting to add another name to the Jersey.
What’s less plain is the third option that doesn’t involve a team committing 15 to 20 percent of its salary cap to one player or moving on altogether. In a rational world, just pay the guy something somewhere in the middle would seem like a good solution. But egos get involved, as do players’ rightful determination to secure a long-term future in a dangerous sport. A team signing a franchise quarterback to a second contract that’s well below the top of the market would have to be willing to blaze its own trail.
It’s possible, though, that following an offseason when the Rams moved on from Goff and the Eagles moved on from Wentz, both at great cost, teams in similar situations, like the Browns, will think longer and harder about making major financial commitments to players they still have big questions about. Leaking figures is often a negotiation tactic, but if Cleveland is ball-parking $35 million per year as what they’d be willing to pay Mayfield long term, they are at least thinking about settling on a deal that’s well below the $43 million per year the Bills gave Allen in August. That would significantly change how teams do business, particularly if a forward-thinking organization like Cleveland were to make that move.
The Browns also have a short-term option available to them that skirts making a clear decision. Mayfield is set to earn $19 million in 2022 on his fifth-year option. After that, the Browns could keep him on the franchise tag in 2023 and 2024 if they wanted. The 2023 franchise tag number for quarterbacks is projected to be $28.5 million, according to Over the Cap. Going year to year this way wouldn’t exactly solve the Browns’ conundrum and could upset Mayfield, but it still might be the best option. Kicking the can down the road can be a good idea if there’s nothing to be gained by opening the can.
The most valuable commodities in the NFL are a good quarterback on a rookie contract, Patrick Mahomes on any contract, and 44-year-old Tom Brady still, somehow, being underpaid. For just about everyone else, it’s murky. The Ravens are lucky to have a relatively clear path forward. But if top quarterback salaries continue to rise, there should come a point when not every extension sets a new high-water mark. The Browns and Baker Mayfield may be about to tell us if we’re there yet.