Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
It took a little while, but Baker Mayfield is finally free. Free from the perpetual freak carnival show that is the Cleveland Browns franchise. Free from an organization that did not value him, did not respect him, and did not honor the commitment he showed when he played through a serious labrum injury. Baker is finally free to blossom into the quarterback he was always meant to be - or maybe, the QB he always was, until the Browns Browned everything up.
On July 5, one day after America celebrated its 246th birthday, Mayfield got to do a little celebrating of his own when news arrived that the Browns and the Carolina Panthers agreed to a deal that would send Mayfield to Carolina in exchange for a conditional fifth-round draft pick. In order to facilitate the deal, the Browns agreed to pay $10.5 million of Baker’s $18.5 million, fully guaranteed salary for 2022. The Panthers, meanwhile, will pay $5 million of his salary, while Mayfield himself agreed to a $3.5 million reduction in salary, which can be made up through performance-based contract incentives.
All in all, this is a huge win for Mayfield, who escapes the hellhole which is the Cleveland Browns and gets a brand-new opportunity to show the NFL why he was the #1 pick just five years ago. Mayfield will likely step into the starting QB-role with the Panthers, provided he can beat out incumbent and fellow 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold, who the Panthers traded for just last year. Given Darnold’s track record, the job should be Mayfield’s to lose.
Although he’s coming off arguably his worst season as a pro, Mayfield has proven in the past he can be a capable and, at times, very dynamic QB. He has a very strong arm and a gunslinger’s mentality. He isn’t afraid to try and fit the ball into tight windows and he has supreme confidence in himself. Obviously, there were moments where this got him into trouble last year. But keep in mind that, as I mentioned before, Mayfield suffered a very serious injury early in the season, hindering his ability to throw and causing him significant pain and discomfort.
Looking back at Mayfield’s career trajectory, we can see that he’s been very up-and-down. His rookie year, he was fantastic. After coming off the bench in Week 3 to replace an injured Tyrod Taylor, Mayfield would go on to throw an NFL rookie-QB record of 27 touchdown passes (in just 14 games!). The next year…Mayfield and the Browns flopped. New head coach Freddie Kitchens was in wayyyyyyyyyyyy over his head and the Browns disappointed to the tune of a 6 - 10 record.
In Mayfield’s third season, the Browns brought in current head coach Kevin Stefanski, who had been the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. Stefanski was an immediate success, implementing a strong running game and bringing out the best in Mayfield, who finished the year with 26 TDs to just eight interceptions. The Browns finished 11 - 5 that year, one of the best records in their franchise’s short history (since being reintroduced to the league in 1999). Even better - after making it to the playoffs as a Wild Card, the Browns would go on to embarrass the hated Pittsburgh Steelers 48 - 37 in Heinz Field for the team’s first playoff win.
Mayfield was a hero in Cleveland after that game. Although the Browns would go on to lose a close game to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round, the future seemed impossibly bright for Mayfield and the Browns. Then it all went to shit.
2021, as has been litigated before, was an abject disaster for Mayfield and the Browns. The team many picked in the preseason to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl fell short of nine wins and missed the playoffs. The entire roster disappointed, but the blame fell directly on the shoulders of Mayfield, fairly or not.
In a move that reeked of desperation the day it happened, the Browns traded the farm and their dog to the Houston Texans in exchange for QB Deshaun Watson. Now, this trade would have looked odd even if Watson wasn’t facing a litany of lawsuits for sexual impropriety - but given the circumstances, it was absolutely perplexing. Yes, Mayfield disappointed in 2021. But did the entire Browns front office and ownership forget about 2020? Did they forget about that incredible playoff win? Did they forget that Mayfield was their guy just two seasons ago?
The answer to those questions is, of course, yes. Fortunately for Mayfield, that doesn’t matter anymore. He’s somewhere he’s wanted, valued, appreciated. For the Panthers, this is their opportunity to take a step forward.
You might not have noticed because Darnold’s poor play masked just about all the positives coming from Charlotte, but the Panthers actually have a pretty solid roster. They have playmakers and rising talents at every level, offense and defense. If Mayfield can return to his 2018 or 2020 form, the Panthers might be a surprise contender in the NFC South.
There still are a lot of questions to be answered though, and none are bigger than the giant question mark looming over former All Pro running back Christian McCaffery. While he’s been one of the best all-around RBs in the NFL over his career, McCaffery has had a lousy time staying healthy, playing in just 10 games over the past two seasons. Last year was also his least productive season on a per game basis, averaging a career-low 63.1 rushing yards per game and scoring just two TDs.
If McCaffery can stay healthy, however, watch out. The Panthers have an offense that can threaten defenses with both the run and the pass. Receivers D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson both have tremendous speed to threaten defenses vertically, McCaffery is a fantastic option running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield, and Taylor Moton, Brady Christensen and 2022 first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu form the core of a young and talented offensive line. Mayfield can easily be the missing link that jump starts this offense from 29th in the NFL in points per game to somewhere in the middle. Just reaching average on offense would go a long way, especially because the Panthers’ defense looks like it could be coming into its own.
Although they might not have any players as heralded as McCaffery on their defense, the Panthers feature several standout defenders in their own right. Shaq Thompson is one of the better cover linebackers in the NFL and co-led the Panthers with two INTs, chipping in two sacks as well. Third-year edge rusher Brian Burns is a rising star at the position, collecting nine sacks in each of the past two seasons. If he can take a step forward, it would go a long way towards replacing the departed Hassan Riddick and his 11.0 sacks in 2021.
Of all their position groups, however, it's cornerback where the Panthers have the most potential. Donte Jackson, Jaycee Horn and Keith Taylor form a fascinating trio. Jackson has been the steady member of the group, producing consistently since entering the league as a second-round pick back in 2018. Horn, son of former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Horn, was the Panthers first-round pick last year, and oozes with talent, although he only played in three games in 2021. Taylor was the pleasant surprise of 2021 for the Panthers, as the fifth-round pick played his way into the starting slot corner role. If these three, who are all 26 or younger, can improve and jell, the Panthers could have the nucleus of a shutdown secondary.
Above all else, though, it’s up to Baker to prove his 2021 season was an injury-riddle aberration. Despite some rumors to the contrary, a reunion between the Browns and Mayfield was never a realistic option. Why would Mayfield want to return to a team that abandoned and disgraced him? Why would the Browns want a guy back in their locker room that clearly has no trust in them whatsoever? It never made sense for either side.
Now that he’s in Carolina, Mayfield has the opportunity to remind everyone what a special player he can be. With Moore and Anderson at WR, he has arguably the best two targets he’s ever had since arriving in the NFL. And although the Browns have had a strong running game in the years Mayfield has been in the league, neither Nick Chubb nor Kareem Hunt can hold a candle to McCaffery in the passing game. Everything is set up for Mayfield to continue to do what he does best: prove his doubters wrong.