Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry had a press conference this week and while he didn't say much, he did at least leave some hints about the thought process the Browns have with a handful of players.
Berry routinely plays it safe with the media. Some of it is deliberate and some is just how Berry is. He never comments on negotiations with players and is extremely vague when it comes to strategy in part because it's difficult to provide a catch all answer. Berry did admit the team likes what they have in quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Addressing questions on four players, including Mayfield, Berry didn't give away much, but it was enough to read something into his comments.
Ultimately, it is speculation but far from reckless. It's informed speculation based on what the Browns have been doing already as well as what's been going on already with this team.
On quarterback Baker Mayfield:
“Like all of our players, we want to see them take strides and show growth as we go into Year 2 within our offensive and defensive systems. Look, Baker is the first quarterback in – you guys probably know the years more than I do – who has led this organization, led this team to the playoffs and a playoff victory. He has endured an enormous amount of adversity in his young career, just quite honestly with the changes he has gone through with coaching staffs, front offices and offensive systems, and he has risen above it all. I think we all saw him grow from week to week to week last year, and we expect him to continue that progress and have a fantastic 2021 season for us.”
The decision of whether to extend Mayfield now or pick up his fifth year option and defer it another year, perhaps two is a big one. It's also an expensive one. Waiting adds money to any potential extension they might sign, so the earlier they do it, the better for their overall financial outlook relative to the salary cap.
And if Mayfield simply plays at the level he did the final ten regular season games and two postseason games, it would be money well spent. However, it's all about the salary cap and $30 million on the salary cap is significant spread out over the five years.
The Browns have never wavered in their faith in Mayfield, which would at least suggest they are comfortable enough to extend him now, just as they did with Myles Garrett last year.
Garrett signed a 5-year $125 million extension and he won't even get to it until 2022. The Los Angeles Chargers waited to negotiate Joey Bosa's contract until after his fifth year option. They signed Bosa to a 5-year $135 million contract, the first year of which he received in 2021.
On a yearly average, Bosa's is worth $2 million more per season, but getting to it a year earlier is also more expensive. Had the Browns waited, they would've almost certainly had to pay out a higher contract than the one Bosa received.
If the Browns take the same approach with Mayfield, he would still have one more year before getting to his fifth year option and won't get to new money until 2023. With the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens likely in the market to extend their quarterbacks Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, the Browns would then have to pay out more in 2022 or 2023, not unlike the situation with Bosa.
As much as picking up Mayfield's fifth year option and waiting on an extension seems like a valid theory, to make sure Mayfield is the right player, they don't have a great alternative. In the event Mayfield were to get hurt or simply forget how to play over the next two seasons, the Browns will likely not be in position to get a great quarterback in the draft and would then have to sign a free agent or make a trade in the same vein as the Rams did in acquiring Matthew Stafford if they are intent on competing.
Even if it's not financially set, the Browns and their plans are pretty thoroughly reliant on Mayfield for no less than two years. There's no good scenario for the Browns where Mayfield were to fail, so they're more inclined to bet on him as opposed to against him. The deal likely won't be done until the summer, but it's something the Browns will likely want to do before the regular season starts.
On wide receiver Rashard Higgins:
“I will not touch on the specific dialogue we have had, but I think it suffice it to say we would like to have Rashard back. He obviously played a key role for us this past year and we have a really positive history with him. Look, free agency can be difficult, and obviously, he has earned the right to make the decision that is most appropriate for him. We will maintain consistently good communication with him and his reps. We will see where it goes.”
The Browns aren't closing the door on anything, but it has always seemed as though the organization would be choosing between Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins this offseason and the Browns are picking Landry. Entering the season, Higgins was fourth on the depth chart, because the Browns prioritized speed in that third receiver spot. There's even less reason to believe that will change as the Browns will be able to bring in a better option with speed this offseason.
It sounds as though the Browns will basically let Higgins and his agent shop for their best deal on the open market, then come back and see if the Browns want to match. If the market isn't there, he could be back. More likely, Higgins will get a better offer elsewhere that would also give him a bigger role in the offense, which he deserves.
On tight end David Njoku:
“A couple of things there. First, we will explore every available option that becomes available to us to improve the team. That all being said, we are really pleased with our tight ends room. I think that group did a nice job for us this past year, and it is obviously a focal point in (Head Coach) Kevin (Stefanski)’s offense. Look, I thought David played really well for us last year. He did a nice job with his teammates. He did a nice job with his role within the offense. We think he is a very young, productive player.”
The Browns like Njoku. One of the first moves Berry made when he took the job was to pick up his fifth year option. Njoku may not love his role in this three tight end setup, but the Browns see it as a massive advantage and short of a trade offer they can't pass up, he's going to be here.
That trade offer would likely involve a defensive player that helps this team now. That's a difficult needle to thread. Short of that, it would almost certainly require a day 2 draft pick that would allow the Browns to get a player that can contribute immediately. A day three pick and cap relief that can get elsewhere doesn't deliver that.
On corner Terrance Mitchell:
“We would like to bring all of our guys back if we could. Again, all of these guys who are going to hit the market or are going to be free agents, it is something that is going to have to go through both sides. Terrance was a big part of what we did this past year. Again, we are going to stay in communication with him and his reps as we typically do. I will not go into the details of those discussions, but he was obviously a very productive player for us this past year.”
Initial reaction? He's not going to be back.
It really comes to what Joe Woods wants to do with the secondary. The Browns played zone exclusively last year due to a lack of options with their personnel. Cover-3 and quarters coverage was largely all they could do. If the Browns want to play more man, which would play more to the strengths of Denzel Ward and a now cleared Greedy Williams, Mitchell won't be back. He's simply not fast enough.
The Browns want to upgrade their speed on defense, which would at least suggest they want to play more man coverage with their corners. That could maximize Ward, but also require them to make a bigger investment at the corner spot across from him, be it money or draft capital.