Baker Mayfield is in an interesting position.
After leading the Cleveland Browns to a massive franchise turnaround, getting to the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and their first winning season since 2007, Mayfield finds himself without a definitive home. Yes, he's still on the Cleveland Browns payroll, but that could all change in a matter of moments.
But more importantly, why would Baker Mayfield want to stay in Cleveland after getting pushed out in favor of Deshaun Watson, the former Houston Texans quarterback who may not even play this season, or possibly ever again in the NFL? If the Browns haven't shown you any loyalty, why should the Cleveland Browns QB stay?
Baker Mayfield is somehow stuck between a rock and a hard place and yet has options to make 2021 his last season in Cleveland. It's a weird time in the former Oklahoma QB's professional career. But in a way, he's the hottest commodity in the NFL ahead of the 2022 Season.
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Let's start by looking at why the Browns haven't traded Mayfield. After acquiring Watson from Houston for a slew of draft picks, the Browns left everyone scratching their heads as to why they wouldn't also deal Mayfield to.... literally anyone else. Mayfield is not a backup and there's no way Cleveland would split time under center between their two signal-callers. So what's the game plan? Well, it's a little more grotesque than you might think.
Deshaun Watson hasn't played in an NFL game since the end of the 2020 season. On April 21, 2021, Watson requested a trade out of Houston, citing his unhappiness with the direction the team was heading and that he had been left out of the conversation surrounding the hiring of David Culley as head coach and Nick Caserio as general manager. However, this wasn't the only piece of news surrounding Watson that had come out in the last month.
On March 16, 2021, the first civil lawsuit against Deshaun Watson by a masseuse was filed. Over the course of the next three weeks, 22 total lawsuits would be filed against Watson for similar behaviors described in the original suit, with each plaintiff accusing Watson of sexual assault, allegations the NFL and law enforcement has since investigated. In March of 2022, a grand jury declined to charge Waston over the allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct, but the civil suits still remain.
Whether it was these instances or his refusal to play due to the trade request, Watson missed the entirety of the 2021 NFL Season. Still, that didn't stop the Browns from trading three first round picks (2022, 2023 and 2024) to Houston for his services. After the trade was complete, the Browns and Watson then agreed to a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million deal, the largest contract and most guaranteed money in NFL history. Deshaun Watson was now the Browns quarterback.
Just a reminder the Browns made that trade and agreed to that historic contract while Watson was facing 22 civil lawsuits.
What does this have to do with Baker Mayfield? Good Question.
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At the time of the contract, the NFL had not made a decision on what kind of punishment they would hand down to Watson following their own investigations. That's an important distinction, considering that the NFL could assume that Cleveland knew what they were getting into when trading for Watson, assuming the risks of acquiring the former Texan.
What risks? Well, the NFL has been pushing for a one-year suspension at the very least for Watson, with some NFL Insiders saying the NFL may impose an indefinite suspension. If that indefinite suspension were to be handed down, the Browns would obviously lose the services of Watson, but more importantly, they may even lose the draft picks they sent to Houston. That's the cost of doing business when that business is trading for an alleged serial sexual predator.
If the Patriots lost a first-round pick in Spygate and Deflategate, mainly due to their direct knowledge of the infraction and their obstruction of the league, there's no way the Browns come out of this unbruised. Unless the NFL also comes down hard on the Houston Texans, which is possible.
And that brings us back to why Baker Mayfield hasn't been traded yet. Because if the Browns lose Watson and their picks, they'll still need a quarterback for the upcoming season. Imagine that horrifying conversation Mayfield could have with the Browns brass. "Hey, remember when we traded for a scumbag with a long track record of sexual misconduct right in front of your face? So, that kinda fell through for us, so.... we're sorry?" But there's another layer to this, which really makes Cleveland look even worse. And no, we're not talking about the $45 million he's guaranteed to get if he's suspended for a year.
It's possible that Cleveland knew this would be a potential outcome. If Cleveland went into this deal with the understanding that they may actually lose their picks, why would they deal Mayfield and lose their insurance policy? If the NFL hands down an indefinite ban from the league and the Browns lose their picks, they can easily get them back by dealing the quarterback who they spurned. What's the worst-case scenario for them? They have their picks back and will have a year of Jacoby Brissett as their quarterback, who was decent as the starter for the Colts. Add in the option to tank and draft Bryce Young out of Alabama? You see where I'm going with this.
The Browns have yet to trade Mayfield away because they need to know how many draft picks they'll lose after Watson's suspension, so they can cover their losses. Baker Mayfield is the Cleveland Browns' hedge against Deshaun Watson's suspension.
Who Would Be the Other Team in a Baker Mayfield Trade?
While Deshaun Watson gets ready for the season at Browns training camp, Mayfield has been quiet about where he'd like to go next season. It's odd being a free agent without actually being a free agent.
The easy answers to the question "Which NFL teams would want to trade for the former No. 1 overall pick from 2018's Draft?" are the Seattle Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers. Both teams have big question marks under center, with the Seahawks shifting to a post-Russell Wilson Era and the Carolina Panthers looking for a way out of their franchise funk that doesn't include Sam Darnold.
The Seahawks dealt franchise star Russell Wilson to the Denver Broncos this offseason, acquiring two first round picks (No. 9 in 2022 and the other in 2023) as well as tight end Noah Fant, defensive end Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock. While Lock isn't a superstar, he's very much a solid option for the Seahawks. But with Mayfield potentially available, Seattle could jumpstart their rebuild around a more well-known QB looking to show his ex that their breakup was a mistake. I mean, it's either that or a mix of Lock and New York Jets legend Geno Smith.
The Panthers are in an even worse spot. Darnold is a bust, and while they could wait to see what happens with Ole Miss product Matt Corral, they may want him to get acclimated to the NFL from the sidelines before throwing him to the wolves. The only thing that would keep Carolina from dealing their potentially high draft pick is the thought that they may also want to snag a top QB in 2023's NFL Draft. That's totally fair, but it also comes at the price of balking at a sure thing in Mayfield. Carolina's last franchise quarterback, Cam Newton, made Carolina his home and put his body on the line so much for his team, that it eventually led to his downfall and eventual departure from the league. Mayfield has those same "put the city on your back" qualities in a field general. Those kinds of players don't grow on trees.
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And at the end of the day, that's maybe the saddest part of this whole saga. The Cleveland Browns know better than any other franchise that an on-field leader who can connect with fans in their city is hard to come by.
Tim Couch, Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn have all failed to be that guy in Cleveland, but Baker Mayfield didn't. After all of the pain and suffering Browns fans have been through over the last 30 years, Baker Mayfield brought them out of the darkness and into the light.
Only five Browns quarterbacks were able to accomplish winning seasons in Cleveland since 1989: Bernie Kosar in 1989, Vinny Testaverde in 1994, Tim Couch in 2002, Derek Anderson in 2007 and Mayfield in 2020. Another shared statistic? All of them were gone within two years following their successful campaigns, with the exception of Testaverde, who found success with the Ravens after Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore, but he still left Cleveland in a way.
If you can't learn your history, you're doomed to repeat it. And Cleveland seems to have found themselves in hot water with a quarterback once again. But this time, it's their own fault.
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