The Cleveland Browns are about to face an issue that they have never had to deal with since returning to the league: making a financial decision about whether or not they have a franchise quarterback. Why that is, is simply because they have never had a quarterback who could be described in that way before.
But now with former first-overall pick Baker Mayfield eligible for a contract extension, it is time for the front office to start figuring out whether or not he is such a guy. Three years into his career, he helped lead the Browns to their first winning record since 2007, their first playoff appearance since 2002, and first playoff win since 1994.
And they have plenty of recent history from other teams to consider when making their decision. The phrase ‘cautionary tale’ gets thrown around a lot when discussing big contracts given to young quarterbacks who don’t successfully turn their teams around and ‘carry them over the hump’, so to speak.
The most recent examples of this are the top two picks in the 2016 NFL Draft—Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Both of them were traded this offseason, their teams willing to take on the largest amounts of dead money in NFL history in order to get rid of them. The Rams traded Goff and draft picks in order to get Matthew Stafford, while the Eagles got only draft picks.
Will Cleveland be where they are four or five years from now with Mayfield—a player good enough to keep them treading water, but not enough to swim to shore? Considering how long they’ve been drowning, even treading water might look like an attractive alternative.
They don’t have to make a decision this year. Mayfield will only be going into his fourth season, and they have the fifth-year option tool at their disposal. But generally, teams try to lock up their quarterbacks as early as possible, after their third season, as the Chiefs did with Patrick Mahomes.
Just last year, the Browns signed Myles Garrett to what was at the time the largest contract for an edge rusher in NFL history after his third season. How would it look if they sign Garrett early, but not Mayfield?
And the other factor to consider, of course, is how his price will rise a year from now. Aside from the fact that the cap should be up next year, there is the realistic possibility that Mayfield has his best season next year, in his second season in Kevin Stefanski’s system.
If they have to pay the premium price for a franchise quarterback, they’ll of course gladly do it. But first they have to know if they have one.