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The Cleveland Browns put themselves in a bind at quarterback, and the way out likely includes a long road including more of Baker Mayfield.
In March, a football team traded three first-round draft picks and paid a record $230 million guaranteed for a quarterback currently facing two-dozen civil suits for alleged sexual misconduct, all while the real possibility exists of starting the quarterback they were so desperate to replace that this sentence is somehow fact and not fiction.
Meet the 2022 Cleveland Browns.
Two months ago, the Browns were out of the bidding for Deshaun Watson, with the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints as the finalists to acquire him from the Houston Texans.
Then, suddenly, Watson picked the Browns.
The company line from Watson’s camp was him realizing what’s important for his career. The reality is Cleveland had alienated Baker Mayfield with its pursuit of Watson, and general manager Andrew Berry decided to go all-in to make sure he wasn’t starting a glorified backup come Week 1.
Ultimately, money talks. Especially a record-breaking amount.
This isn’t how a competent organization does business. It doesn’t panic itself into $230 million guaranteed for a player who could be suspended for some or all of the upcoming season, depending upon what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decides to do this summer.
And the recent news is all bad for Cleveland and Watson.
The Browns claim they did their due diligence, and it’s impossible to prove the statement either way. Yet last week, two more civil suits have been brought against Watson in the aftermath of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and its interviews with accusers of the quarterback. Then there’s lawyer Tony Buzbee, who represents each plaintiff, saying Watson offered each of the first 22 accusers $100,000 to settle their cases, provided they signed non-disclosure agreements. Ultimately, no cases were settled.
So here the Browns are. They have a star quarterback being paid a fortune who might not be eligible to play for some time. Meanwhile, Mayfield remains on the roster as Berry has been unable to move him.
With training camp steadily approaching, it appears Mayfield and his team-high $18.85 million cap hit will be in Berea come late July. And while Mayfield certainly wants out, and Cleveland would love to offload his money, it’s hard to see both happening in conjuncture.
Somehow, the best scenario for the Browns is holding onto Mayfield, waiting for the league to bring its discipline on Watson, and then trying to coax Mayfield into playing until Watson returns. And for Mayfield, channeling his anger and hurt feelings into the best football of his life is the right move as well for his future.
All this would create what might be the most bizarre situation the NFL has seen in decades; Mayfield playing for a team who wants no part of him, and he no part of them. And yet for both, they need to succeed, helping the other simultaneously.
The Browns entered this offseason not wanting to rely on Baker Mayfield.
Incredibly, in some ways, they now need him more than ever.
Top 10 AFC quarterbacks entering 2022
1. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs – Self-explanatory
2. Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills – All-Pro, 2x division titles, dual-threat
3. Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers – Pure passer, elite arm talent, mobility
4. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals – Accurate, great chemistry with awesome weapons
5. Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos – The biggest wild card in football this year
6. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens – Electric, can make plays, but weapons?
7. Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns – Possible suspension looms large
8. Matt Ryan, Indianapolis Colts – Durable, former MVP, captain running the offense
9. Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders – A top-12 quarterback in the wrong conference
10. Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans – Competent passer, can’t do it alone
“Well, we haven’t traded him, and — I’ve used the word fool — I’d be a fool to trade him, so yes, Deebo will be part of the 49ers this season.”
– San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch on receiver Deebo Samuel
After a few months of speculation regarding Samuel’s future, we now have clarity. Lynch strongly showed his stance last week, and it’s the right one. Samuel is signed for this season and then can be tagged for two more, should San Francisco want to go that route.
If Samuel holds out on the tag next offseason, Lynch can reevaluate his position and go from there. However, money talks. If the Niners give Samuel a bit more say in his role and then offer him a fortune, there’s plenty reason to believe the marriage works.
Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders played 10 NFL seasons. He never ran for less than 1,000 yards, and made the Pro Bowl in each campaign.
In 1998, his final year, Sanders rushed for 1,491 yards before calling it quits.
Info learned this week
1. Aaron Donald could retire, but his contract — and money — probably sway him
No matter how rich you are, $76.5 million talks.
Aaron Donald is perhaps the rare man willing to walk away from such a figure, but he’d be one of the few. Last week, Donald spoke about his situation on the I Am Athlete podcast and said he’s at peace if he walks away.
Donald, 31, is coming off his first Super Bowl win and although the Los Angeles Rams have him signed for the next three years at the aforementioned $76.5 million. With the Rams willing to re-work his contract, Donald could be in line for additional money, giving him an enormous windfall into his mid-30s.
For Los Angeles, Donald is worth whatever it takes to bring him back. In eight seasons, Donald is an eight-time Pro Bowler and seven-time First-Team All-Pro. There’s a great argument to make he’s the best defensive tackle in NFL history.
But what would it take to keep Donald playing? Probably a few more incentives and guaranteed money loaded into the next few seasons.
For Los Angeles, that’s worth the further investment.
2. McLaurin is skipping Washington’s OTAs, Commanders should prepare to pay
Terry McLaurin isn’t working out with the Commanders right now. And if they want to keep him long-term, they need to accept reality.
McLaurin is entering the final year of his rookie deal, one he has vastly out-performed. The 26-year-old has played with different starting quarterbacks every year and still amassed a pair of 1,000-yard seasons, easily becoming Washington’s best offensive threat.
While it’s near impossible to successfully hold out into training camp under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, McLaurin can show up and refuse to do much, as we’ve seen from others such as Steelers’ edge rusher T.J. Watt.
For the Commanders, it’s either pay McLaurin now or tag him next offseason at roughly $26.85 million based off current receiver deals. For McLaurin’s agent, Buddy Baker, the negotiation starts at the cost of two tags, which is $59 million over 2023 and ’24.
A month ago, we saw the Eagles give A.J. Brown four years and $100 million with $57.22 million guaranteed. Their stats are strikingly similar through three seasons:
Brown: 185 receptions, 2,995 yards, 24 TDs, 16.2 yards/reception
McLaurin: 222 receptions, 3,090 yards, 16 TDs, 13.9 yards/reception
Based on tag numbers, comparable players and age, expect McLaurin to eventually land a deal similar to Brown… in Washington or elsewhere.
3. Kyler Murray shows up for OTAs, showing good faith
After skipping the initial OTAs for the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Kyler Murray has returned. For Murray, who has publicly wanted an extension this offseason, it’s a smart move.
While teams don’t get shaken by a player skipping some offseason work, Murray showing up helps him win public support. Instead of holding out and causing friction both with the organization and fanbase, the former No. 1 overall pick is showing commitment and a willingness to extend his hand, something which will play with fans. The public relations battle is underrated, and although it doesn’t guarantee anything, it helps put pressure on the team.
For Arizona, the prudent decision remains to make Murray play his fourth season before negotiating a long-term extension. The Cards have all the leverage, and they can watch to see if Murray progresses, stagnates or even declines due to injury or otherwise.
Still, for Murray, his best chance at getting extended this summer is to do exactly what he did this week. Show up, work hard and keep trying to get rewarded through private talks and public support.
4. Madden ’23 will see an iconic face, have familiar voice
The EA Sports’ Madden series is the most popular sports video game franchise of all time. This year’s version might be the capstone.
After the passing of John Madden in December at the age of 85, the Hall of Fame head coach, broadcaster and Madden face will be honored with the cover of Madden NFL ’23 along with having his remastered audio clips inserted into the game. There will be three covers in total, all depicting Madden in different portions of his football journey.
When you add up the contributions of Madden on the field, in the booth and as a video game icon, there’s a real argument nobody has made a deeper impact on the sport. This is a fitting tribute to one of the sport’s most-important figures.
5. Bucs sign Hicks, meaning Suh is moving on
In with Akiem Hicks, out with Ndamukong Suh.
Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed veteran defensive tackle Akiem Hicks to a one-year deal worth $2.39 million against the cap. By doing so, it spells the end for Suh, who plays the same position and remains a free agent.
At 35 years old, it’s almost certain Suh will be playing on one-year deals until the end, likely on contenders looking for help. There’s a slew of teams who make sense for the five-time Pro Bowler, including the Saints, Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders, among many others.
But is Hicks an upgrade over Suh? The numbers say no.
As for Hicks, the question is health more than ability. Hicks, 33, has only played 29 games over the past three years, racking up eight sacks and 35 QB hits over that span. For comparison, Suh notched 14.5 sacks and 46 QB hits while missing zero games.
Ryan Fitzpatrick retired on Thursday, and the NFL lost one of its true characters with the news.
Fitzpatrick had an incredibly circuitous route for his football life, beginning at Harvard before being a 2005 seventh-round pick by the St. Louis Rams. From there, it was two years with the Rams, two more with the Bengals, a four-year stop with the Bills which included a $59 million deal, and one-year stays with the Titans and Texans. Then, in 2015, another run of two-year jaunts with the New York Jets, Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins before finishing up in Washington.
All told: 17 seasons, nine teams, 223 passing touchdowns, 34,990 passing yards and the incredible-but-true feat of leading the Dolphins in rushing yards at 37 years old.
Fitzpatrick will always be remembered as a terrific backup with a great beard, better personality and colorful shirts. A fun legacy, to be sure.
Inside the league
Few players have been more respected over the past 13 seasons than Alex Mack. Yet for Mack, it’s time to walk away.
The longtime center for the Falcons, Browns and 49ers is retiring after a long career in the NFL arena. It’s a body of work which could land him in Canton. Mack racked up seven Pro Bowls and was named to the 2010s All-Decade Team.
Making All-Decade is usually a precursor to getting a gold jacket. Dating back to the 1960s team, the only centers to be on the list and not become a Hall of Famer are the Dallas Cowboys’ Mark Stepnoski and Olin Kreutz of the Chicago Bears, both who were named as Second-Team members. Unlike Mack, both were All-Pros, but each had fewer Pro Bowl selections.
Regardless, Mack leaves the game after having one of the best careers we’ve seen from a center.
After taking over a one-win team in 1959, Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi led his squad to the NFL Championship Game one year later, losing to the Philadelphia Eagles.
In the aftermath of defeat, Lombardi said he’d never lose another postseason game. He never did. Lombardi won five championships in the next seven years, including three consecutive from 1965-67.
Mike Tomlin has never endured a losing season. This might be his first.
Pittsburgh has a terrific defense — specifically up front — but the offense is one of the league’s weakest. The Steelers have more questions than answers at quarterback, a lousy offensive line and decent weapons but none which are elite at their respective positions.
Factor in a second-place schedule and a brutal division in which the Bengals, Browns and Ravens are all solid bets to win double-digit games, and it’s going to be a long road for Pittsburgh to finish above .500.
One could argue Tomlin did his best coaching job last year, reaching the playoffs at 9-7-1 despite having a quarterback who struggled to throw with any velocity.
To get there again, he may well have to be even better in 2022.