Could the Browns and Jets move on from Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold? The fifth-year option deadline looms

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Friday, October 23, 2020

First of all, theCleveland Brownsare not about to bench Baker Mayfield for Case Keenum. They are not at that point. If you're thinking it's likely because of the prior relationship between Keenum and Browns coach Kevin Stefanski from their time together with theMinnesota Vikingsin 2017, I'm here to tell you that you're overthinking it.

Based on the conversations I've had this week with people close to that situation, the Browns' coaching staff still believes in Mayfield. They recognize he had a lousy game on Sunday at thePittsburgh Steelers; but he didn't practice much last week due to a chest injury, he took a hit early in the game that exacerbated it and he was playing against one of the league's best defenses. The team believes he will bounce back.

That said, though, the rest of this season is a very important one for Mayfield and his future in Cleveland. Next offseason is decision time for the Browns.

This is Mayfield's third year in the NFL. Rookie contracts are four years long, but contracts for first-round picks include a fifth-year team option that has to be exercised or declined between Years 3 and 4. By the first week of May 2021, the Browns have to decide whether they want to pick up Mayfield's option for 2022. Based on the way fifth-year options are calculated under the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), his 2022 option salary will likely be in the range of $25 million to $26 million.

And here's the kicker: The new CBA mandates that beginning with the 2018 draft class -- of which Mayfield was the first pick -- the fifth-year option is fully guaranteed at the time it's exercised. Previously, that option was only guaranteed against injury until the start of the league year to which it applied. For instance, the Chargers exercised the 2021 option on wide receiver Mike Williams, their first-round pick from 2017; but as long as he is healthy, they can still back out of it at any time prior to the start of the 2021 league year in March. Starting with Mayfield's class, that's no longer the case, which means it's going to be tougher for teams to commit than it used to be.

Now, if Mayfield turns things around, has a big year, the Browns make the playoffs and everybody's happy, sure. No-brainer. They pick up the option and maybe even start talking about an extension with him. But if he continues to struggle and they aren't sure about him as their franchise quarterback in the long term, can they really commit -- in May 2021 -- to paying him more than $25 million in 2022 cash and cap room?

TheNew York Jetsare in the same situation with Sam Darnold, who was the third overall pick in that 2018 draft. There's no way for them to be sure about Darnold at this point, and there might not be any way for them to be sure about him in May. Their current coach (who could be gone by then anyway) and general manager weren't there when the team drafted Darnold, so they have no attachment to him that predates their 2019 arrival. And the Jets are 0-6 and the favorites to end up picking first in a 2021 draftin which Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is viewed as a can't-miss franchise savior. Are the Jets going to want to commit --in May 2021 -- to payingDarnold more than $25 million in 2022 cash and cap room?

Recall that five quarterbacks were selected in the first round of the 2018 draft. After Mayfield and Darnold, Josh Allen went No. 7 overall to theBuffalo Bills, Josh Rosen went No. 10 to theArizona Cardinalsand Lamar Jackson went No. 32 to theBaltimore Ravens. Jackson's option decision will be a no-brainer, as he was the league's MVP in his second year, and the improved Allen certainly looksat the moment like a keeper in Buffalo. Rosen no longer carries a fifth-year option, having been traded to theMiami Dolphinsand subsequently released. (Rosen is now on theTampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad.)

So of the five first-round quarterbacks in 2018, it seems possible -- even likely -- that three will not have their options picked up. All three were top-10 picks.

These are bad misses. The fifth-year option was created in the 2011 CBA, so decisions have been rendered on seven drafts' worth of first-round picks -- 2011 to 2017. In those seven drafts, there were 19 quarterbacks selected in the first round. Of those 19, 11 had their fifth-year options picked up. The other eight? Well, it's a list on which you really don't want to find yourself. In chronological order, the names are:

Bridgewater, of course, had his option declined because he suffered a catastrophic knee injury and spent a couple of years working his way back. He is now the starting quarterback for theCarolina Panthersand having a nice year. But the rest of these guys were either cut or had their options declined because they didn't turn out to be good enough.

When teams miss on a first-round quarterback, it's tough to recover from. When they miss on quarterback in the top 10, that's extra disastrous. Arizona seems to have survived it, but only by punting on Rosen and picking another quarterback (Kyler Murray) No. 1 overall the following year. If the Browns and Jets decline the Mayfield and Darnold options in the spring, odds are they'll be starting over with fresh options at the position. Don't Have a Quarterback Island is a perilous place to be stranded.

It's worth noting that there are players who have had their fifth-year option declined and played well enough that the team signed them anyway after their fourth year. None of the quarterbacks on this list falls into that category, though. You have to look at guys such as running back Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints) and cornerback Kyle Fuller (Bears) as players who did well enough in Year 4 to get their teams to reconsider their willingness to commit.

Trubisky entered the season with a similar opportunity, but heappears to have lost it. The spotlight shines brightest on the quarterback position, which means the decisions are the highest stakes. The Browns and the Jets will have to see a lot over the rest of the campaign from the guys they drafted two years ago in order to feel good about picking up Mayfield's and Darnold's options.

Other notes and things on my mind around the NFL this week:

The QBs aren't the only ones with interesting fifth-year option decisions

The pick between Mayfield and Darnold in 2018 wasNew York Giantsrunning back Saquon Barkley, who is out for the year with a torn ACL suffered in Week 2. By the end of his third year, he will have missed 17 of a possible 48 games for a team that during his time there has a league-worst record of 10-29.The GM who drafted him could be gone by the time the option decision is due. The coach who was there when the Giants drafted Barkley is already gone. Are you picking up a fully guaranteed 2022 option on Barkley in May when he is coming off a torn ACL?

One thing that works in Barkley's favor: The fifth-year option price for running backs is significantly lower than it is for quarterbacks. Projecting based on the formula in the new CBA, it looks as if Barkley's fifth-year option will come in somewhere between $8 million and $9 million. That's not a crippling amount if, by May, the Giants feel good about Barkley's recovery. Consider that they've already invested a fully guaranteed, four-year, $31.915 million rookie contract in Barkley, what's another $8 million or $9 million between friends?

The Giants' other option would be to sign Barkley to a contract extension in the spring, though it's tough to get a player to sign when he is coming off a year lost to injury. Players generally prefer to sign when they're coming off good years.

The Antonio Brown-to-Seattle connection is a long time coming

Editor's note, 7:15 p.m. ET: Brown is signing a one-year deal with the Bucs, sources tell ESPN's Adam Schefter.

TheSeattle Seahawksappear to have a good thing going: They're 5-0 with quarterback Russell Wilson competing at an MVP level and with second-year wideout DK Metcalf playing as well as any receiver in the league alongside reliable Tyler Lockett. They could use some help on defense, but the offense is humming. Still, they are absolutely eyeing Brown, the former Steelers/Raiders/Patriotswide receiver whose league-imposed suspension for off-field conduct is scheduled (though not certain) to end after Week 8.

The Seahawks, according to multiple sources, have had their eye on Brown since last summer, when the Raiders released him and the Patriots signed him right away. Seattle was interested in signing him at that time, but not at the price the Patriots paid. The Seahawks waited, as the rest of the league did, through the entire 2019 season while Brown was under league investigation; but they kept monitoring, checking into Brown's background and doing their due diligence on him in case they had a chance to sign him at some point.

That point could be coming soon. Sources close to the situation said there's still work to be done before Brown is on the Seahawks. When the league suspended him, it said it was possible the suspension could end up being longer than just eight games if new information about his conduct came to light. The Seahawks have been in contact with the league to gather as much information as they can on where that stands. It's possible the final details don't come together and he doesn't end up in Seattle. But at this point, it sounds more likely to happen than not.

There have been other teams that have expressed interest in Brown over the past year, including the Ravens, Saints andTexans(though Houston's interest has likely waned because of their 1-5 start). Tom Brady is believed to want him with Tampa Bay, though coach Bruce Arians has publicly said that's not happening. Seattle is the strongest candidate and the most likely landing spot because it has been working on this a while.

Why, you ask? It's not as if Brown can rush the passer for a defense that could use it. Why bring his volatility into a situation that's going so well?

Seattle believes its coaching staff and culture isn't ever going to be upset by one player, even if he's a disruptive one. Of course, the Patriots believe that about themselves too, and Brown lasted only one game there. Yet the way the Seahawks see it, Brown wasn't disruptive while he was in New England but he got cut because of revelations about his off-field conduct prior to his arrival there.

And to the earlier point, the Patriots gave Brown $9 million in guaranteed money. Whatever contract he ends up getting from Seattle will be nowhere near that -- likely minimum salary or close to it with incentives for performance and total flexibility for the team to get out of it if things go south. Acquiring him responsibly is the key, and as long as the Seahawks can keep the risk to a minimum, they believe Brown -- if he is the player he used to be or even 80 or 90 percent of that -- is a game-changer worth adding.

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