Defending Baker Mayfield: Why wouldn't the Cleveland Browns give him an extension?

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Should the Browns extend Baker Mayfield? (2:04)

Tim Hasselbeck insists Baker Mayfield is only going to improve under Kevin Stefanski. (2:04)

BEREA, Ohio – In the wake of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz being dealt away from the teams that drafted them, the same phrase has begun to reverberate with regards to the Cleveland Browns and their quarterback, Baker Mayfield.

“Cautionary tales.”

Two years ago, Goff and Wentz, the top two picks of the 2016 draft, signed the richest contract extensions in NFL history. Yet just this month, the two were jettisoned before those record extensions had even kicked in, leaving their former teams with record heaps of dead-money blows to their respective cap sheets.

This offseason, another former top pick is extension-eligible coming off a banner third season quarterbacking his team to the playoffs. And yet, some are wondering if the Browns should kick the can down the road on a Mayfield extension, largely because Goff and Wentz cratered soon after signing theirs.

Of course, that’s a rather fatalistic viewpoint of Mayfield and the Browns. And one focused on events elsewhere, instead of the facts on the ground in Cleveland.

True, Goff and Wentz regressed for various reasons after enjoying success early in their careers. But that doesn’t mean Mayfield will follow suit. In fact, all signs point to him getting better -- next season and beyond.

For the first time since the Browns drafted him in 2018, Mayfield won’t have to dedicate his offseason to learning yet another new offense. After playing for three different head coaches over his first two seasons in the league, Mayfield thrived during the back-half of last season in first-time head coach Kevin Stefanski’s scheme, portending their budding future together.

“That’s a huge part of this,” Stefanski said last month, while revealing how thrilled Mayfield was to finally begin growing within the same offense. “We can start at that baseline and that foundation and build on what we’ve done.”

Mayfield had some rough moments early while adapting to Stefanski’s offense following a virtual offseason learning it. But from Week 7 through Week 15, just last year’s MVP (Patrick Mahomes) and this year’s MVP (Aaron Rodgers) posted a better QBR than Mayfield, who during that stretch tossed 15 touchdowns with just two interceptions. As a result, the Browns wound up finishing the regular season with 11 wins, their most since returning to the NFL in 1999.

“Once he started getting comfortable with what we were doing and once I was using more concepts that he was comfortable with, which is a big part of this,” Stefanski said, “he really started playing at a high level.”

Mayfield continued to play at a high level in the postseason, throwing for 263 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in Cleveland’s first playoff victory in 26 years, a 48-37 win in Pittsburgh -- where the Browns had not won in 17 attempts.

“You saw growth from him as a player from the first game to the last,” Stefanski said. “Really pleased with his progress, and I think he recognizes that he has room to grow.”

Any extension to any NFL player comes with at least some risk, as the cases of Goff and Wentz underscore. But at this point, the Browns either believe in Mayfield -- or they don’t, at least not yet.

Cleveland already demonstrated that belief last offseason, committing a franchise-record $60 million in guaranteed money in free agency to upgrade Mayfield’s supporting cast, with All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin and Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper, plus veteran quarterback Case Keenum, to serve as Mayfield’s mentor.

The Browns also used the 10th pick in the draft on left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. to solidify the offensive line. With vastly improved protection and a scheme befitting his skill set, Mayfield rekindled the confidence and touch he flashed during his first season when he broke the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes. He also emerged as the unquestioned leader of the locker room.

Given the upward trajectory of Mayfield and the Browns, there’s nothing to suggest Cleveland won’t double-down again on the former No. 1 overall pick in the coming months.

The Browns already will have to make a partial commitment to Mayfield this summer. As colleague Dan Graziano pointed out, starting with Mayfield’s 2018 draft class, fifth-year options for first-round picks are now fully guaranteed at the time they're executed, at a significantly higher price than before.

But going halfway and pushing off an extension invites downside, too. What if Mayfield is better in 2021? A potential extension would cost the Browns even more down the line, as Tim Hasselbeck noted on ESPN this week. That would only make it more difficult to get one done at all.

On Wednesday, ESPN colleague Ed Werder suggested that the Dallas Cowboys might have to use their first-round pick on another quarterback, if they can’t lock up Dak Prescott to a multiyear deal before March 9. Returning to square one at quarterback is not where Cleveland wants to be again anytime soon.

To get a deal done with Mayfield this summer, the Browns probably will have to start in the neighborhood of $35 million over four years. That would make Mayfield one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, pending what happens with Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, who also are extension eligible.

But others down the line, like Mayfield’s former Oklahoma teammate Kyler Murray, are going to continue to reset the quarterback market next offseason. What might seem expensive now could quickly become a bargain, especially as the league negotiates new rights deals.

The Goff and Wentz situations also showed that even the worst-case scenario can still be mitigated. The Rams were able to turn Goff into Matthew Stafford; the Eagles flipped Wentz into draft capital. Sure, the cap sheets in Los Angeles and Philadelphia will be a mess this year as a result of those trades. But if Mayfield proves not to be the answer at quarterback, the Browns will already be in short-term trouble anyway, whether they extend him or not.

Franchise quarterbacks are incredibly hard to find, and it's virtually impossible to win without one, as Cleveland has had to painfully learn over the years. Now is not the time to get cute, dodge about or worry why it might go wrong, just because it did in Philly or L.A.

The Browns appear -- finally -- to have their franchise quarterback. Acting otherwise could prove to be a cautionary tale of its own.