Baker Mayfield has eight games to make his case that the Cleveland Browns should pick up his fifth year option, but even if they don't, it doesn't spell doom for Mayfield in Cleveland.
The best case scenario is that the remaining eight games, plus a post season berth, Mayfield looks great and makes it painfully clear he's the franchise quarterback and the team has to pick up his fifth-year option, the same way they did with Myles Garrett, then almost immediately start work on a contract extension. That's also the only way it's simple.
Despite the number of people suggesting head coach Kevin Stefanski and general manager Andrew Berry aren't tied to Mayfield, they are invested in his success. They aren't trying to just dispose of him to get 'their' guy. Berry wanted Mayfield. Kevin Stefanski applied for this job twice in part because of the young signal caller.
And given the way the Browns feel about Mayfield, especially listening them talk about him, they still might enthusiastically pick up Mayfield's option, which will be worth at least $25 million, all guaranteed in 2022.
In a situation where Mayfield plays some good games, but struggles against the likes of the Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh, raising the question whether he's the guy to get them over that hump and there's a good argument that he's the fourth best quarterback in the division, passing on his fifth-year option could be the prudent move.
As much as that might look bad from an optics point of view, it's hardly the end of the world. For one thing, this organization has made it pretty clear they aren't worried about optics; just making decisions they feel are in the best interest of the football team. Unless the Browns were to bring in someone to supplant him, such as trading for an established quarterback, it simply extends the decision making process.
Mayfield won't love it. No player is going to thrilled their team has decided not to pull the trigger on giving them a $25 million check. But if Mayfield comes back in 2021 and is great, he will likely get more than the $25 million, since he'll have all the leverage at that point.
The other possibility is perhaps Mayfield and the Browns want to keep his contract figure relatively low early, believing they have a chance to get to the Super Bowl in 2022, deferring substantial payments for a year to load up the team for a big run, then receiving balloon payments. Unlikely, but nevertheless possible.
The Los Angeles Chargers drafted Philip Rivers when they had Drew Brees, who hadn't done enough to convince them he was the answer at the position. Rivers held out into his rookie year and Brees played great, suddenly making it a difficult decision for the team. Fate stepped in and Brees suffered a catastrophic shoulder injury, making the decision for them, but had that not occurred, the Chargers had a choice to make.
Maybe they were simply committed to the rookie and would have tagged, then traded Brees to the highest bidder. It's possible they would have kept Brees and then traded Rivers.
Everyone wants to know that Mayfield is the franchise quarterback. After his rookie season, it has seemed as though he was on the cusp of stardom entering each of the past two seasons. It hasn't happened the way anyone was hoping, including Mayfield, but that doesn't change the fact that the end of this season is only a meaningful deadline if the Browns insist upon it, moving on to other options.
Unless the Browns make a trade for an established quarterback, the Browns don't view it that way. So much of the Browns front office strategy is based around giving themselves as many avenues as possible. Mayfield coming back as the starter in 2021 without the fifth-year option opens the door to a ton of them.
A firm answer on Mayfield as the franchise quarterback is certainly in the best interest of everyone with the Cleveland Browns, but the decision on the fifth-year option isn't necessarily the determining factor. After all, they could pick up his option and make the determination they need to move on after 2022.