A Baker’s Case

The Cleveland Browns appear to have finally escaped from the bottom-dweller cellar and entered the world of contenders. From two postseason appearances and over 28 quarterbacks in the last two decades, Baker Mayfield appears to be the first Browns quarterback since Bernie Kosar’s days to make the playoffs in back-to-back years. But is Baker the answer?

In April of 2018, the Browns selected the former Heisman winner with the number one overall pick, paying immediate dividends as Mayfield set a rookie record for touchdown passes (later broken by Justin Herbert). However, 2019 proved to be a different story, resulting in 21 interceptions, a near 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio, and an abysmal 54.4 QBR. Despite the sophomore slump, Mayfield’s play-action numbers continued to impress. Finishing the season second in play-action competition percentage along with a 78.8 passer rating on such attempts.

Stefanski Arrives

With that, the Browns turned to the next young offensive mind: Kevin Stefanski. Stefanski led Kirk Cousins to a career year, and a league-high 14 touchdown passes off a play-action, 5 more than Baker. The addition of Stefanski and his utilization of a wide zone scheme, a run-first mentality, and heavy play-action usage was the key to maxing Baker’s potential.

2020 appeared to be a breakout season for Baker, specifically the final 9 weeks. Baker impressed with a 16:2 TD to INT ratio during this stretch and tossed for over 2400 yards (70% of his total output). It appeared as if Baker had finally stepped up to his role by limiting his turnovers and ill-advised throws. His red-zone efficiency further proved Baker had taken the next step, as he threw for 21 touchdowns with zero interceptions.

The ever so confident Baker from his Oklahoma days had finally set foot in Cleveland; yes, I’m looking at Baker planting the flag and his obscene gesture towards Kansas’s bench his senior year. Gunslinger Baker, minus all the turnovers, appeared to be in form. In throws of over 20 yards targeting the left and right side of the field, Mayfield produced a passer rating of 116.7 and 116.5, respectively (further shown in image ). Add in deep threat OBJ and look for these numbers to further improve. With OBJ’s addition combined with an entire offseason under Stefanski, don’t be surprised if Baker crosses into elite territory next season.

Long-Term Baker Prognosis

However, despite the strong season, pessimism and questions remain. For one, Stefanski’s system did not ask much out of Baker. Evident with their 32.9 pass plays per game, ranking 29th in the league. Does Stefanski not trust Baker? It certainly appears that way, as his 486 pass attempts ranked 17th league-wide, with only 58 (12%) of those attempts being on deep balls. Resulting in a passer rating of 51.6 deep throws when targeting the middle of the field. Despite the limited pass attempts, Baker ranked 29th in what are considered “danger plays” (plays that should have resulted in a turnover). Perhaps his career-low 8 interceptions were simply a mirage.

To make matters worse, Baker finished the 2020 season with seven games in which he finished with fewer than 200 yards and four games resulting in zero touchdowns thrown. While these stats may be irrelevant considering many games called for a heavy dosage of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, it is undoubtedly noteworthy given the number of times it occurred. Baker also finished the season with a 2-3 record (yes, I know wins is not a QB stat) and a 10:6 TD to INT ratio against teams with a winning record. Despite the success, these numbers certainly do raise concerns for the quarterback’s future in Cleveland.

With Baker eligible to sign a long-term extension and the fifth-year option window open, look for the Browns to exercise it and keep their young signal-caller under contract through 2022. Given the Browns’ history with a revolving door at quarterback, this franchise craves stability at the quarterback position. It would not be surprising to see them negotiate a deal sooner rather than later. With other franchises breaking the bank for other signal callers, Baker’s projected market appears to be around $35 million per year, making him the fourth-highest paid player behind Mahomes, Watson, and now Prescott.

However, with Stefanski’s recent comments, this might not be the case. He states, “All of these decisions – it’s a business – but things take care of themselves. It works itself out.” The lack of clarity from Stefanski certainly provides a possible story to monitor as we enter free agency and the draft. Will QB be on their list of potential needs? Join me next time as we dive into the Browns’ needs and potential targets through free agency and the draft.