Baker Mayfield and the Browns finally parted ways on Wednesday, with Cleveland dealing the former No. 1 overall draft pick to the Panthers in exchange for a conditional 2024 fifth-round pick. The move brings closure to two different quarterback situations, both of them messy: Carolina has finally added to an underwhelming group of signal-callers ahead of 2022 training camp, while Cleveland has officially paved the way for Deshaun Watson to be their sole premium investment under center.
Which side won the Mayfield trade, however? Here's how we'd grade the deal:
Let's start with this: you can't unlink the circumstances that led to Mayfield's departure from the trade itself. More than likely, there would be no divorce if it weren't for Cleveland hitching its wagon to Deshaun Watson even while the ex-Texans star still faced accusations of sexual assault or misconduct from more than two dozen women. Watson, to be fair, has not faced criminal charges for his alleged serial abuse, but he's still expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2022 season under NFL suspension. Even if you're willing to take the on- and off-field risks associated with all of that, Mayfield almost certainly would've been a superior fill-in than backup Jacoby Brissett for a roster otherwise built for a playoff run right now. And that's not even accounting for his familiarity with the system, or his moxie that won over many fans in Cleveland.
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Therefore, the Browns can only blame themselves for Mayfield, a 27-year-old proven starter with multiple playoff starts, fetching a single future late-rounder. Why? Because they are responsible for alienating him to the point reconciliation was implausible. Was it wrong of them to seek an upgrade this offseason, especially after Mayfield regressed in an injury-riddled 2021? Not necessarily. But when your prized replacement is Watson, a polarizing QB who hasn't played in two years and may not play for one more, you'd better be sure you have a backup plan that doesn't involve selling your former No. 1 pick for a conditional fifth two years down the road. The move saves the Browns $8 million in 2022, with the Panthers agreeing to pay Mayfield roughly $5M and Mayfield himself taking a pay cut, but there's no getting around the mismanagement that forced them to eat any of his salary.
Consider that, earlier this offseason, the Colts essentially netted two third-rounders for Carson Wentz, whose split from Indianapolis had all but been publicly forecast, and whose recent numbers have similarly deemed him a mid-tier starter. Wentz, by the way, costs his acquiring team $28M in 2022, as opposed to the $5M the Panthers will pay Mayfield as a trial starter. Whatever your opinion of Mayfield as a long-term option, there's no getting around the fact the Browns are losers here.
Why the heck not? Mayfield's arrival by no means spells the end of a dysfunctional string of QB gambles from the Matt Rhule-Scott Fitterer-David Tepper regime. In fact, his inconsistency as a starter over four seasons probably puts him on a similar tier as Carolina's recent signal-callers, most notably Teddy Bridgewater. He's looked a lot more serviceable than special thanks to a mercurial run in Cleveland. But his early-career peak has been much more promising than that of Sam Darnold, who will officially "compete" to retain the job this summer. And he comes at a bargain, costing Carolina just $5M on a one-year rental.
The 2024 fifth-rounder the Panthers sent to the Browns can become a fourth based on playing time, but even that is hardly a tough pill to swallow if Mayfield proves capable of keeping the team competitive. If all he brings is competence under center, there's a legitimate path for Rhule's squad to play spoiler in the NFC, considering the underrated pieces the Panthers possess on both sides of the ball, from Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore and an improved offensive line to Brian Burns, Derrick Brown and Jaycee Horn on "D." Couple that with the uncertainty of the Saints and Falcons, and you might talk yourself into a wild-card bid out of the NFC South, especially with Mayfield motivated to rebuild his value ahead of 2023 free agency.
Worst-case scenario, Mayfield flops and proves no better than his immediate surroundings, and the Panthers let him walk in 2023, proceeding with the QB reset (and potential regime reset) they were destined for anyway. Best-case scenario, Baker brings some much-needed juice to their QB room, actually capitalizes on some of the talent around him, and the Panthers get a head start on locking up a potential long-term starter without having to spend excess draft capital to start over.