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Sports Seriously, USA TODAY
The anticipated contract extensions for quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield rank among the ongoing storylines of the NFL offseason.
By all indications, Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens are making progress toward a new deal that will put the 2019 NFL MVP in the company of Patrick Mahomes, Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson as the highest-paid passers in the league.
Allen, meanwhile, looks to capitalize on a 2020 season when he was runner-up for league MVP and soon could get paid by the Buffalo Bills.
But Mayfield isn’t a lock to secure elite-level money. That’s because despite being selected No. 1 overall in the same 2018 draft class as Allen (seventh) and Jackson (32nd), Mayfield hasn’t provided the same kind of instant success as his peers, experiencing his share of ups and downs in the last three seasons.
Both Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns have instead progressed gradually and are coming off a campaign that included the club’s first playoff victory since 1994. It’s believed that Mayfield can lead his team on a further climb thanks to continuity – something he has lacked thus far in the NFL – that a second season under coach Kevin Stefanski provides.
The Browns do like Mayfield. This spring, they picked up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, ensuring that he remains with Cleveland for this season and next.
A person with knowledge of the situation said there is mutual interest in exploring an extension. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak on behalf of either party. However, despite the shared interest, the two sides have yet to make significant progress with negotiations.
Although getting a deal done promptly could work out favorably for Cleveland, Mayfield actually might benefit from taking a patient approach.
Some around the league believe that Cleveland shouldn’t feel pressure to lock him into an extension this offseason. The uneven play Mayfield exhibited for the first two-plus seasons of his career before finishing off the 2020 campaign on a strong note has caused doubts about his potential for some analysts and NFL insiders.
“I would not sign Baker Mayfield (to an extension),” former New York Jets general manager and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum told USA TODAY Sports.
“I just think when you’re slow and short, it’s hard to have sustainability, and Kevin Stefanski has had success with other quarterbacks in his career like Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum (in Minnesota). So, if I’m Cleveland, I’m taking that money and spending it on other players that can impact the team, knowing I have a quarterback that played well, but his skill set, to me, there’s nothing about him that’s dynamic.”
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Tannenbaum believes the Browns have time on their side, which gives them more time to evaluate Mayfield.
“I think he plays this year, which is Year 4,” he added. “He plays next year, which is Year 5, and if he plays well, I’d tag him. So, I have him for three more years, so what’s the rush?”
Tannenbaum doesn’t stand alone in his assessment. Two other current NFL talent evaluators told USA TODAY Sports they believe Mayfield falls in that “good, but not elite” category. However, a third said the Browns should be encouraged by Mayfield’s growth during last season and predicted that the quarterback will only continue to ascend. All three spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to comment publicly on players on another team.
The talent evaluators all said they could envision trying to retain Mayfield on a fair market value deal that both rewards the quarterback but also preserves the flexibility to aggressively pursue other roster needs.
Both agree that hammering out a deal sooner rather than later would best suit the Browns.
However, Mayfield could possibly score a more handsome payoff by slow-playing negotiations.
Although he’s coming off an encouraging season (3,563 yards, 26 touchdowns, eight interceptions and an 11-5 record while completing 62.8% of his passes), another year under Stefanski could lead to another significant leap forward in his development – which could translate into greater team and individual success. That of course could further drive up Mayfield’s value.
He already knows his salary will jump to $18.86 million in 2022 because of the fifth-year option, and the 2023 franchise tag figure for a quarterback could hover around $30 million.
Playing on a year-to-year basis until he gets the contract offer he absolutely loves could benefit Mayfield financially in a similar way that approach rewarded Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott.
Waiting a year or two also could better position Mayfield to command a richer contract because Cleveland could have greater flexibility under the salary cap at that time. The cap is set at $182.5 million for the 2021 season, but increases to $208.2 million next year. And with revenue expected to skyrocket thanks to the return of fans in stadiums and the new broadcast deals the NFL secured over the offseason, league insiders believe the cap could approach $240 million or $250 million by the time Mayfield’s option year wraps up.
So from that standpoint, Mayfield could benefit from stalled negotiations. Meanwhile, those looming figures could prompt the Browns to consider what feels like slightly overpaying now rather than being forced to commit to an exorbitant amount later.
Follow USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.