Baker Mayfield took a huge step backwards in 2019 — that’s no secret. Everything in Cleveland was a massive letdown, and it led to people being fired at the end of the season. For the first time in years, the Cleveland Browns had high expectations, and they didn’t come close to meeting them. But even more concerning was the fact that a major question arose that no one expected to be considering so soon: Is Mayfield actually the guy?
While quarterbacks shoulder the blame — and reap the rewards in terms of credit and statistics — the incredibly complex nature of passing offenses in the NFL means there are always more elements at play, and deciphering underlying maladies is often not that simple.
Tom Brady’s numbers fell off a cliff in New England last season, but you could make a good argument that it was entirely because of a lack of receivers. Further, you can make an equally strong, but less intuitive, argument that the receiving woes were the reason the offensive line looked dramatically worse, because the lack of open receivers caused Brady to hold the ball longer and perform worse when pressured, worsening the optics of the protection across the board.
This is true when it comes to Mayfield last season as well. There is no arguing that he took a huge step backwards, but what impact did the other moving parts on offense have, and how much were they to blame?
Answering all of these questions is another article. The point is that the Browns moves this offseason have been about eliminating those variables from the equation so they can fairly judge Mayfield and, as much as possible, only Mayfield this coming season. Or, another way of looking at it: They are doing everything possible to build around Mayfield to give him the best chance to succeed.
Pass protection or happy feet?
Mayfield was under pressure on 33.4% of his dropbacks in 2019, which was a jump up from 29% in his rookie year, and his performance was dramatically worse under those circumstances. As a college prospect, he had a tendency to hold onto the ball too long and take pressure he shouldn’t have, but it was a small negative in his game — something that would surface every now and then. In year two, it became a bigger problem, but the source was unclear. Was the offensive line much worse, causing Mayfield to lean into his flaw? Or was he just getting into bad habits?
In signing Jack Conklin in free agency, the Browns moved to eliminate one possible answer. Conklin was the cleanest lineman available in what wasn’t the strongest group this free agency period, but he is a very good run blocker and a solid-at-worst pass protector. His PFF pass-blocking grade was 74.0 last season, more than 12 grading points better than Chris Hubbard, whose spot he likely takes. The Browns are likely to be in the tackle market come draft time given the strength of the draft class and the legal issues ahead of Greg Robinson, who started on the left side last year.
Shift In Offensive Strategy
Last season, the Browns seemed determined to make 11-personnel work (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers), even when they were more efficient and effective with two tight ends on the field. Maybe they preferred the talent level of that group and believed eventually it would show through, but it never did. New head coach Kevin Stefanski likes to use a lot more 12-personnel (one back, two tight ends), so he's likely to want to pivot towards the grouping that was more efficient for the team last season.
Now, there are some question marks when it comes to Hooper. His grade against single-coverage was one of the lowest in the league, and a huge proportion of his production in Atlanta was the result of scheme and what defenses were giving the Falcons more than as a result of his skill set. But this was not a good offseason to find tight end help, and Hooper was the class of the free agent group. It's also a very weak year for the position in the draft, so the Browns were effectively forced into a deal that is likely not great value but does solve a schematic issue they had no answer to otherwise.
Until last season, Mayfield’s cavalier and cocky attitude could have been seen as a positive. When the team’s season began to unravel, however, Mayfield wasn’t able to pull it back together.
The Browns may not be trying to change Mayfield’s behavior or leadership style, but they have brought in a veteran quarterback who has experience starting and leading a team. If it achieves nothing other than giving the team a better backup option, it’s a positive move. But there is also a good chance Case Keenum can offer some guidance (by example, if nothing else) when it comes to Mayfield leading this franchise and roster.
Will any of these moves be the reason the Browns offense succeeds or fails in 2020? No. This team will go as far as their quarterback can take them, just like every other team in the NFL. But, along with the hiring of Stefanski, they may provide the framework for Mayfield to get his career back on track after the setback of his sophomore campaign. The team can’t turn Mayfield into something he isn’t, but they can give him the best possible platform from which to succeed, and that’s what they have attempted to do this offseason — with the draft still to come.
We don’t yet know whether Baker Mayfield will thrive or collapse as the Browns quarterback, but the team has at least set out to ensure that we can fairly and accurately analyze that next season and beyond, rather than spending time wondering how much of his failings are due to circumstances beyond his control. For that reason alone, this has been a good few days for the Browns.