The Cleveland Browns head into their bye week at 6-6 with an offense that's produced 30 whole points in the last three weeks and whose playoff wick is burning quickly because of it.
The next five weeks are going to go a long way in determining the long-term future of the quarterback position in Cleveland. Yes, Baker Mayfield has his fifth-year option locked in for 2022 at $18.86 million, and the odds are at this point that he'll be back for at least 2022.
"I think with Baker, especially from a long-term perspective, you really try and take a big-picture approach," general manager and executive vice president of football operations Andrew Berry told Cleveland reporters this week. "Really with any player, it is about (the) body of work over several years and also taking into context the environment or particular individual's situation. We have seen Baker play a lot of good football here. We have seen Baker play good football this season. I know he is excited and we are excited for the opportunity ahead of us. We expect him to play his best football moving forward over the next five weeks."
But the Browns, who have worked so hard under Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski to climb out from under their past, are nearing the precipice of QB purgatory with an underwhelming five-game finish from Mayfield. They have options, but are any of them viable?
Option 1: Mayfield turns his season around, puts together a couple game-winning drives, the Browns make it to the playoffs and he's rewarded with a long-term contract.
This is best-case scenario for Mayfield. It also is among the least realistic of scenarios. Mayfield hasn't put together a game-winning drive yet this season after having seven in his previous three years. But also... you aren't reading this article for the "Browns win the Super Bowl behind MVP Mayfield" option. So on to the next.
Option 2: Keep Mayfield on the fifth-year option and have him prove it in 2022.
This is what the Buccaneers did with Jameis Winston in 2019. He didn't do enough in four years to warrant a long-term deal, and so the team asked him to prove it in his fifth-year option and he threw 30 interceptions.
Mayfield and the Browns were never close on a contract extension in the offseason despite reports to the contrary. The Browns have wanted to see more from him and they haven't. Maybe that light switch turns on in Year 5, or maybe he is who he is. But giving him another year when he's already guaranteed nearly $19 million isn't the worst idea.
The issue here is that you remain in limbo another year. Then, do free agents want to come to Cleveland with the most important position in sports unsettled? Then, is Mayfield unhappy because the team isn't committing to him?
Option 3: Sign a bridge quarterback.
Sounds simple, right? Get a veteran quarterback who's going to be better than Mayfield and either keep or trade Mayfield.
OK, well who are you going to get? A bridge quarterback is a bridge for a reason. On his best day, Mayfield is very likely better than that quarterback. And chances are that bridge QB is just as inconsistent, if not more, than Mayfield.
Option 3 is tied with Option 1 for being the least likely options for Cleveland.
Option 4: Stand pat in free agency, trade Mayfield before the draft and use the acquired capital to draft your rookie quarterback.
This option has a lot of hope and contingencies involved. The Browns would need to be good with going into 2022 with Mayfield by standing pat in free agency. Then they'd need to watch the QB market play out in March and April and hope a quarterback-needy team is willing to take on Mayfield in what would be similar to a Sam Darold-to-Carolina trade.
The Browns could then use those draft picks to climb up in the draft and get their guy. Of course, this is a weak QB class and there's no guarantee that your guy would be there if you can't get into the top five or 10 of the draft.
A risky option, indeed.
Option 5: Spend what you must to trade for Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson.
It's the option that would seemingly solve Cleveland's issue here. It's also the most complicated of all.
Do the Browns have what it takes -- or, more appropriately, have the stomach to give up what it takes -- to land one of those superstar quarterbacks in a trade? Even if you do, does the quarterback want to come to Cleveland?
Let's spend some time on that. Does being a run-first team help or hurt the Browns' chances of landing that quarterback? On one hand, the Browns can boast the best running back duo in the league and one of the best offensive lines in all of football. On the other, a star QB may prefer a system where he can sling it around the yard. Perhaps the Browns could adjust in the offseason, but you likely gave up the capital with which you'd do that in order to land the quarterback.
Have Berry and Stefanski changed the perception of the franchise enough to land a big fish? Would that player legitimately choose Cleveland over the likes of Denver, Pittsburgh, Miami or other locales that may offer better weather or more recent history of winning? If that player could be convinced that he could be a LeBron James-like figure there, I could see Cleveland winning out.
What about how the Odell Beckham Jr. experience ended? Would his perspective on the franchise alter a player's thoughts on joining the franchise? Perhaps, but I'd offer this.
It's been a key tenet of Berry's regime to handle all things with class and dignity there. When Beckham was making his fuss to get out -- and when he ultimately did get out -- you didn't hear anonymous sources trashing him out the door. The Browns made it known through backchannels that Beckham was a quality teammate and locker room guy; it just didn't work out.
We all see that Mayfield, who's playing injured, is not playing well right now. But no one is throwing him under the bus there. Berry spent the majority of his pre-planned bye press conference being overly fair and complimentary of Mayfield.
"I think we all know that Baker is incredibly physically tough," Berry said.
"Quite honestly, with the offense we have, (we have) just not been consistent enough in the passing game," Berry later said. "I want to be clear here: That is not necessarily a one-player or a one-person problem."
"I think Baker has shown a lot over the past three-plus seasons, so I do not necessarily subscribe to this notion that there is something in these next five games that is of particular focus," he continued.
You get the point. Obviously it doesn't make any sense for Berry to trash his quarterback with five games left in a playoff-hopeful season. But whether he means to or not, he's setting the table to show all potential future Browns how this franchise handles their guys in public. Maybe that signals something to one of the top quarterbacks who will be available come March.
There are opportunities and potholes in every scenario here for Cleveland, and the Browns are hardly in worse shape than most NFL teams. But they're nearing an inflection point with the quarterback position, and these next five games will be vital to determining the next move.
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Week 13 picks
A good, solid 10-5 week for me in Week 12. I'll take it. That brings my season record up to 116-63-1. Let's be even sharper this week. I took the Cowboys on Thursday night.
Which NFL picks can you make with confidence, and which Super Bowl contender goes down hard? Visit SportsLine now to see which teams win and cover the spread, all from a proven computer model that has returned almost $7,100 since its inception.
Chargers at Bengals
Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
I don't like the way this Chargers offense is trending right now. It'd behoove first-year OC Joe Lombardi to ask Justin Herbert what his favorite plays from Pep Hamilton's offense last season were and run a bunch of those this week. I've been denying the Bengals all season but they look rejuvenated since their Week 10 bye.
The pick: Bengals
Giants at Dolphins
Sunday, 1 p.m. TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
I was at the Ravens-Dolphins game a few weeks ago and it felt like a turning point for the most underachieving team in football. Miami's defense is clicking at the right time with their soft schedule, and Tua isn't making many mistakes.
The pick: Dolphins
49ers at Seahawks
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
This game means a lot to both programs. Even though Seattle is slipping, the Niners know Pete Carroll has had their number for years. No one in San Francisco is taking this game lightly.
The pick: 49ers
Patriots at Bills
Monday, 8:15 p.m. TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
I want so badly to pick Buffalo here. But I've seen too much inconsistent play from Josh Allen the last four weeks to say the Bills win this one. Mac Jones has been the more consistent QB, and the Patriots defense is better now that Tre'Davious White is done for the season.
The pick: Patriots
- Buccaneers over Falcons
- Cardinals over Bears
- Vikings over Lions
- Colts over Texans
- Eagles over Jets
- Football Team over Raiders
- Rams over Jaguars
- Ravens over Steelers
- Chiefs over Broncos