Before the 2021 NFL season, Baker Mayfield expected to strike a lucrative long-term contract with the Browns, touting a resume that could've warranted an extension worth close to $35 million per year. Now, after taking nine sacks in a loss to the Steelers on Monday night, Mayfield's 2021 season might be over, with the quarterback set for offseason shoulder surgery and telling reporters it's time for him to evaluate "what's in the best interest of me and my health."
The next question is, has Mayfield also played his last snap with the Browns? Months after looking like he might follow the Bills' Josh Allen as the second 2018 first-round QB to land a new deal, Mayfield looks as much a part of the Browns' problems as a victim of them. He's still under contract through 2022, thanks to his $18.9 million fifth-year option, but Cleveland can trade or release him without penalty. And recent offseasons have proven that big-name QB swaps are increasingly on the table.
Given coach Kevin Stefanski's (sometimes inexplicable) commitment to relying on Mayfield's battered arm this year, and the rash of injuries that helped derail the Browns' 2021 season, chances are Cleveland will opt for familiarity and give Mayfield one more audition in 2022, before potentially turning its eyes to the 2023 draft class or veteran market.
But let's say Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry -- who worked under the Eagles' notoriously aggressive Howie Roseman -- decide to shop Mayfield in hopes of an instant upgrade. Here are some potential 2022 destinations for the former No. 1 overall pick, either via trade or after release:
Matt Rhule needs to solve the QB position, like, yesterday. Which is why they probably wouldn't be involved, a year after trading picks for another first-round flame-out in Sam Darnold. But Rhule also wants to be more of a ground-and-pound team, and Mayfield has proven, in better circumstances, that he can manage games.
Both Joe Judge and Daniel Jones are apparently set to return, but why on Earth should that stop them from investing more under center, considering the lifeless way they're finishing? Mayfield would bring personality to a market desperately lacking in NFL juice right now, and he's got the old-school approach Judge would appreciate.
They've got more salary-cap maneuvering to do before they can make any real moves at QB, but Sean Payton could see a higher floor with Mayfield than the alternatives -- chiefly Taysom Hill or a rehabbing Jameis Winston. New Orleans could (and probably should) target a rookie in the draft, but perhaps they'd prefer to win now with their defense.
This, of course, is dependent on Russell Wilson relocating, which is certainly possible after the Pro Bowler even identified preferred landing spots prior to 2021. A total rebuild would be smarter, but Pete Carroll could double down on his run-heavy preferences by inserting Mayfield (or swapping him for Russ!) and pouring more investments into the defense.
The Broncos are near the top of every "[Insert QB] landing spots" list by default. Is Mayfield that much of an upgrade on Teddy Bridgewater? Not necessarily. But with a better O-line and defense, you can argue otherwise. John Elway will never not sign off on a veteran fix, and GM George Paton may not be able to land Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, etc.
Ron Rivera has to be growing impatient. Taylor Heinicke is best off the bench. Their defense is built to compete. Mayfield brings the requisite toughness and starting experience to lead an old-school run-heavy offense. QBs coach Ken Zampese was Mayfield's tutor as a rookie in Cleveland. And what better way to welcome in the team's new era with a former No. 1 pick under center? They're also flush with cap space.
Mayfield may not prefer it, but he knows Texas well, hailing from Austin and playing at Texas Tech. More importantly, Houston is all but certain to move on from Deshaun Watson. Third-round rookie Davis Mills has flashed this year, but letting him learn and/or compete with Mayfield (before re-evaluating the 2023 QB class) would be more ideal. They've got more than enough money to do it.