Will Baker Mayfield be back with Browns? Why NFL contract expert Joel Corry deems QB's return likeliest outcome
It may be difficult for many dedicated observers of the Browns to envision Baker Mayfield returning as Cleveland's starting quarterback in the fall.
With the Browns (7-9) wrapping up their 2021 season of unmet expectations in Sunday's finale against the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals (10-6) at FirstEnergy Stadium, the momentum for Mayfield to be back has certainly appeared to be on life support lately.
Mayfield has been shut down for Week 18, ending his massively disappointing fourth NFL season. He has publicly criticized the play-calling of Browns coach Kevin Stefanski twice in the past month, and he's scheduled to undergo surgery Jan. 19 on the completely torn labrum he suffered in his left, non-throwing shoulder in Week 2.
But Mayfield and Stefanski met Friday and were on the same page about moving ahead together and working out any issues that exist, a person familiar with the situation said Sunday morning. NFL Network first reported Mayfield's standard exit meeting for the season went well.
Even though there is a path forward for Mayfield and the Browns, everything could still change in the offseason if the Browns acquire an obvious replacement.
As former NFL agent Joel Corry analyzes the situation and the quarterback landscape leaguewide, he still believes Mayfield is more likely than not to remain with the Browns in 2022, when the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft will be under contract for $18.858 million guaranteed as a result of General Manager Andrew Berry exercising the fifth-year option in the player's rookie contract this past April.
“What I think will happen as opposed to the wish list is Baker Mayfield is back next year,” Corry said.
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Corry is an NFL contract and salary-cap expert who writes an “agent's take” column for CBS Sports and hosts a podcast called “Inside the Cap with Joel Corry.” Before launching his media career, he spent more than 15 years representing NFL players.
In a lengthy phone interview Friday night with the Beacon Journal, Corry agreed the quarterback market in the coming offseason can be broken into three tiers.
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The first tier — let's call it “the big fish” — is formed by three superstars who could force their way to new teams: Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans.
Wilson (two years left on his contract for $24 and $27 million, according to spotrac.com) and Watson (four years left for $37, $35, $32 and $32 million) have no-trade clauses, so they could dictate their landing spots. Further complicating a potential deal for Watson is the fact he's facing 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault during massage sessions.
“There are teams in a better position draft capital-wise than Cleveland to go after one of the three big fish,” Corry said. “Out of the big fish, you might have a better shot at Rodgers if he's willing to leave. I have no idea what he's going to do.”
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Corry floated the notion that Rodgers (one year left for $26.97 million) and five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Davante Adams could flee the Packers as a package deal if the QB wants out and Green Bay doesn't reach a contract extension with Adams or use its franchise tag on him.
The deadline for clubs to franchise players is 4 p.m. March 8. The window for teams to legally negotiate with the agents of players from other clubs who have expiring contracts will open at noon March 14. The trading and signing period will begin when free agency officially kicks off at 4 p.m. March 16. Trades can be agreed upon before then.
“Christmas comes in March or April” for a team if it can acquire Rodgers and Adams, Corry said.
The Browns are projected to be in the top half of the league for most salary-cap space in 2022 (36.4 million, per Spotrac.com; $39.6 million, per OverTheCap.com). That combined with salaries the Browns can dump means they would be among the teams that could afford what would feel like a fantasy football package if the Packers were to shock the world.
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Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins among options if Cleveland Browns seek quarterback upgrade
The second tier of quarterback options is composed of other starters who could be traded. Jimmy Garoppolo of the San Francisco 49ers is a bridge to rookie Trey Lance, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders and Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings could be dealt amid potential organizational shake-ups.
Corry ranks Garoppolo (one year left for $25.6 million) as the likeliest of the three to be traded, followed by Carr (one year left for $19.87 million) and Cousins. Stefanski coached Cousins in Minnesota. Next season, Cousins will be due $35 million fully guaranteed, which makes Corry wonder if the Browns could package Mayfield and other assets to the Vikings in exchange for Cousins.
“For Cleveland, if you have to eat the entire $35 million, you're losing $16 million in cap space if you get Baker to go back to Minnesota in some sort of trade,” Corry said.
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This is common sense: If the Browns were to acquire a QB in either of the top two tiers, Mayfield would not stick around.
“He's not going to want to be here,” Corry said, “and you won't want to pay him $19 million to sit on the bench.”
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Whether the Browns would need to eat some of Mayfield's $18.858 million guaranteed in a trade is a legitimate question, but Corry doesn't believe the upcoming shoulder surgery and an anticipated four to six months of rehabilitation represent a significant hurdle.
“It's a question of passing the physical, and teams have passed guys coming off surgery when they're willing to trade for them,” Corry said. “So I don't consider that to be a big obstacle.”
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Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston could be signed as competition for Browns QB1 job
The third tier of quarterbacks represents hypothetical competition for Mayfield instead of a clear-cut upgrade. Corry considers it the most realistic path for the Browns.
“If I'm the front office, I'm trying to upgrade and trying to get one of these guys [in the first two tiers], but at the same time, assessing from the standpoint that I'm thinking that's probably not going to be successful because other teams can outbid me from a draft capital standpoint for the most highly coveted ones,” Corry said. “So I've got to have my other plan — Baker and someone to push him.”
Teddy Bridgewater of the Denver Broncos, Marcus Mariota of the Raiders and Jameis Winston of the New Orleans Saints are impending unrestricted free agents who Corry believes would make sense as competition for Mayfield.
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Like Cousins, Bridgewater spent time in Minnesota with Stefanski. But Corry thinks Mariota would be the best option in this group partly because Mariota was once in Mayfield's shoes. In 2019, the Tennessee Titans acquired Ryan Tannehill in a trade with the Miami Dolphins, so he could compete with Mariota, who was on his fifth-year option at the time.
Although an incoming rookie cannot be ruled out as possible competition for Mayfield, the 2022 quarterback draft class is not highly touted. Dane Brugler, draft analyst for The Athletic, has Matt Corral of the University of Mississippi, Kenny Pickett of the University of Pittsburgh and Sam Howell of the University of North Carolina as projected first-round selections.
“I can't recall a veteran quarterback year like this from a trade standpoint where you have this many guys who could potentially be moving,” Corry said. “This is highly unusual. Couple that with you don't have a quarterback legitimately worthy of being taken in the top 10 of the draft — just a unique year.”
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What will the Cleveland Browns do with backup QB Case Keenum?
Veteran backup quarterback Case Keenum will start against the Bengals, and he's under contract with the Browns through next season, when he's scheduled to make $6.5 million with a cap hit of $7.8 million but a dead-cap hit of just $1.3 million if he's released. Keenum's days with Stefanski go back to Minnesota, which suggests Cousins and Bridgewater shouldn't be discounted as potential targets.
Still, Corry said it wouldn't be logical for the Browns to keep Keenum, unless Mayfield is gone.
“I could see [Keenum] being around as the backup to a huge upgrade where Baker's not around,” Corry said. “But if it's Baker and you're trying to push him, [Keenum is] out. He's probably someplace else.”
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Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com.
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