EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was posted before Thursday's report by NFL Network's Mike Garafolo that the Browns have been informed they are out of the running for Deshaun Watson, and the subsequent report by NFL Network's Tom Pelissero that Baker Mayfield has issued a trade request, which (per Garafolo) Cleveland does not plan to honor.
On Tuesday, Baker Mayfield penned a letter that seemed to end the mystery of whether he'll remain with the Browns in 2022. Though he stopped just short of saying goodbye, it read like a no-doubt farewell to the city of Cleveland. The only questions now seem to be where he'll go and who the Browns will replace him with at quarterback.
Despite all the Browns' public protestations to the contrary this winter, Mayfield may have been as good as gone by January, when Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Mayfield had "differences" with coach Kevin Stefanski about his play-calling that would have to be resolved before 2022. Mayfield responded aggressively at the time, saying he wasn't a puppet. But that sounded phony. He criticized the play-calling publicly days before and throughout the season. He said on NFL Network that he was battling "a lot of internal things," and it wasn't that hard to figure out what he was likely referring to.
As Cabot summed up: The Browns and Mayfield answered questions about an injury to his non-throwing shoulder differently. There were indications Mayfield wasn't that popular with his teammates, including what she reported as frustration among some defensive players and the response by other players to a rift with Odell Beckham.
But perhaps most importantly, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 never developed as a player.
The Browns showed zero apparent interest in extending Mayfield's contract after he helped put up 48 points in a playoff win over the Steelers last January, so it's safe to say this impending divorce isn't just about his shoulder injury (which ultimately required offseason surgery) limiting his production last season; it also has to be about his talent and whether he fit Stefanski's system.
Mayfield throws a beautiful, accurate ball when he sees the play. But he has to see it, and he misses seeing a lot, especially over the middle of the field. He holds on to the ball forever and leaves the pocket early. That leads to a lot of sacks, which is an acceptable tradeoff if you are Russell Wilson. But the 26-year-old Mayfield is like a younger version of Wilson without the same athleticism or creativity. That adds up to a limited, mid-level starting quarterback who can be an asset if everything is right. If anything goes wrong, like having to play through injury, Mayfield doesn't have the physical ability or processing tools to fall back on.
Mayfield can still help a team; it just almost certainly won't be in Cleveland. The Browns surely don't regret guaranteeing his fifth-year option for 2022. Mayfield is an asset, and his trade value can't possibly be less than Carson Wentz's this year. (Can it?) The Seahawks make sense as a trade candidate; they have a need, having dealt Wilson to the Broncos, and I've never believed for a second that Seattle coach Pete Carroll is looking to rebuild. Would a second-round pick get a deal done? The Colts, Panthers, Raiders and even Falcons could also be fits, depending on how the next week goes.
Deshaun Watson's future is the elephant in the room here. The Browns set up a meeting with the quarterback on Tuesday, surely fully aware of what that could imply about Mayfield. They had to know how Mayfield would take it. Logically, the decision to move on from Mayfield was likely made before team brass decided to meet with Watson. Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry must know that Mayfield isn't their future, and that going through another season with him is a waste of time.
Browns fans rightly fear becoming stuck in quarterback purgatory, but the organization probably already felt it was there with Mayfield. Berry and Stefanski, who were both hired in 2020, didn't draft Mayfield. It's a cold calculus, but even if Cleveland doesn't end up with Watson, the difference between Mayfield and whoever is behind door No. 2 for 2022 (Jimmy Garoppolo? Jameis Winston? Case Keenum?) isn't that large.
Mayfield helped author perhaps the two most hopeful seasons since the Browns' franchise returned to Cleveland in 1999, and that shouldn't be forgotten. But the sooner the Browns can move on from him, the better, because divorces like these are rarely pretty.
Mayfield took center stage in the aftermath of his letter, but here were a few other winners and losers from the official first day of the NFL's new league year.
The Bills' Super Bowl chances: The Bills failed to win the Super Bowl last season in large part because their pass rush disappeared in Kansas City during the AFC title game. That shouldn't be a problem next season. Von Miller's initial monster contract figures were attention-grabbing, but the first four seasons of the deal average $17.5 million, the same as the averages in Chandler Jones' and Harold Landry's new contracts. The $51 million in guarantees for the soon-to-be 33-year-old make it risky.
Miller was fantastic down the stretch for the Rams last season. He's a strong run-stopper, and the Bills' coaching staff has done an incredible job getting production out of veteran pass rushers like Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison. Miller's addition and Ed Oliver's emergence late in 2021 helps to round out Buffalo's front seven. I also liked the Bills' signing of defensive tackle Tim Settle. This is an organization that has built up its roster the right way, and it is squarely in its Super Bowl window.
The Rams have to be disappointed to lose out on the Miller sweepstakes after giving up two draft picks for him in a trade with Denver last year, but they knew that risk when they made that move. They got a title out of it, and they've proven excellent at using their available salary-cap space. Now they have more than they necessarily expected.
The Seahawks' defiance: Pete Carroll did not sound like a coach ready to rebuild when he was at the podium Wednesday. The team's moves, like signing former Chargers pass rusher Uchenna Nwosu to a two-year, $20 million contract, indicate the Seahawks want to win now. Expect them to add more at quarterback and try to win forever.
The Ravens' offseason: Bringing back Za'Darius Smith, who was drafted in the fifth round by Baltimore in 2015, for his third NFL contract is such a Ravens move. They know how he'll fit in their system, and they let him make huge money for a few years in Green Bay before returning home. Safety Marcus Williams and Smith are impact signings that should -- along with better injury luck -- help turn the Ravens' defense around.
AFC West quarterbacks: Khalil Mack joined the party via the Chargers last week, and now Chandler Jones has arrived in the division as a member of the Raiders. The Broncos have built up their defensive front, too, which all makes me think that AFC West offensive lines had better have two great tackles, not one. Jones' signing precipitated a rare player-for-player trade, with Yannick Ngakoue heading from Las Vegas to Indianapolis in exchange for improving cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. The Raiders, who were parting ways with Jon Gruden-era holdovers Nick Kwiatkoski and Carl Nassib on Wednesday, needed to remake their defense in the image of new coordinator Patrick Graham. They are off to an excellent start.
Chase Edmonds' fantasy football shares: I was all excited about the Edmonds era in Miami -- and then, when coach Mike McDaniel brought in his former 49ers charge, Raheem Mostert, I realized Edmonds will be sharing the ball plenty.
The Titans' 2021 Julio Jones trade: The Titans gave up a second and fourth-round pick last June for one year of Julio Jones catching 31 passes for 434 yards. I thought the trade was worth a shot at the time, but Jones' body just didn't cooperate. The Titans needed the cap flexibility, and it's telling they wanted to cut their losses now rather than see if Jones could rebound.