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Fantasy Football: Is Baker Mayfield poised to ball out in 2021?

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) drops back to pass against the New York Giants during the first quarter at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

Baker Mayfield has had an uneven start to his NFL career. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft flashed in a major way as a rookie, setting the (then) league record for touchdown passes as a rookie with 27. The fact Mayfield often did so in style made the experience that much more exhilarating.

Before 2019, the Cleveland Browns added Odell Beckham to the offense and entered the new season with more hype than just about anybody. Unfortunately, Year 2 of the Freddie Kitchens experience wasn’t so kind to Mayfield and company, as the Browns limped to a 6-10 record that featured far more bad than good from their hopeful franchise quarterback.

Editor's Note: PFF's 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Guide and 2021 Fantasy Football Cheat Sheets are LIVE!

Fast forward to present day and Mayfield is coming off a campaign that resembled 2018 far more than 2019. The 2020 Browns fell short of the ultimate goal of bringing home a Super Bowl title, but that didn’t stop Mayfield from looking every bit like a future high-end starter thanks to more than a few big-game performances down the stretch.

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What follows is a breakdown on just how good Mayfield has been throughout his short career and what we should expect from him as a fantasy asset in 2021.

Mayfield has been an elite quarterback for stretches of his career

There have essentially been five stretches to Mayfield’s career, two of which have produced a fantasy-friendly quarterback:

  1. Weeks 3-8, 2018 pre-Hue Jackson getting fired: fantasy QB22
  2. Weeks 9-17, 2018 post-Jackson getting fired: QB10
  3. Weeks 1-17, 2019 with Freddie Kitchens: QB20
  4. Weeks 1-6, 2020 with OBJ: QB26
  5. Weeks 7-17, 2020 without OBJ: QB15

The latter threshold can further be broken down by removing three consecutive weeks of horrific weather during the middle of the season. Overall, Mayfield was fantasy’s QB7 during the final six weeks of 2020, trailing only Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins and Lamar Jackson.

Operating behind PFF’s reigning No. 1-ranked offensive line certainly helped matters; just realize Mayfield put more than a few throws on tape last season that would take a lonely film grinder from six to midnight in a hurry.

We’ve seen plenty of ups and downs alike from Mayfield. A closer look at his stable metrics since 2018 indicates that he has generally thrived in situations where we should expect less volatility on a year-to-year basis.

  • Passing grade from a clean pocket: 92 (No. 14 among 59 qualified quarterbacks)
  • Passing grade on straight dropbacks: 85.5 (No. 16 among 65)
  • Passing grade on first/second down: 90.5 (No. 10 among 60)
  • Passing grade with no play action: 77.9 (tied for No. 15 among 63)
  • Passing grade on throws at/beyond the first-down marker: 94 (No. 12 among 61)

I recently wrote about the phenomenon of quarterbacks performing better without their No. 1 wide receiver. The general takeaway: Quarterbacks are better when working within the confines of the offense without feeling as if they need to force-feed an individual player; just don’t confuse that with less talented wide receivers being better options than proven studs.

Mayfield targeted his first read on just 58% of his dropbacks in 22 games with Beckham over the past two seasons, compared to 63% without him. Only Aaron Rodgers posted a better PFF passing grade than Mayfield when targeting the first read after Week 7. It’s tough to stop Mayfield when he identifies an open receiver in rhythm, and the truth is that the best version of this Browns offense would consist of this mindset with a coverage-shifting talent like Beckham making things even easier for the passing game’s complementary options.

Not sold? Consider: Mayfield and Patrick Mahomes each average an additional 0.6 yards per attempt without their No. 1 wide receiver. It’s almost like the small sample sizes are impacting this. Does anyone with a functioning brain really think Mahomes is better off without Tyreek Hill? Of course not; don’t make the same mistake with assuming Mayfield is better off without Beckham’s game-breaking talent.

Helping matters for Mayfield is the reality this offense should (again) be set up to enhance his strengths in 2021.

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