The Make or Break Season for Baker Mayfield
The drop off from quarterback Baker Mayfield’s first season to his second season was remarkable. In 2018, Mayfield was in the running for rookie of the year. He had 3,725 yards and 27 touchdowns in just 13 starts. Mayfield also helped the Browns improve from an 0–16 record the previous year, to a 7–8–1 record his rookie season. Expectations were high heading into the 2019 season, especially after Cleveland traded for superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
Reality didn’t meet expectations however.
The Browns actually got worse in 2019. They finished the year 6–10, and Mayfield appeared to regress heavily. Instead of building on his rookie season, Mayfield looked lost. He completed just 59% of his passes for 3,827 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions (second most in the NFL), despite having one of the most talented groups of skill players.
So what went wrong for Mayfield?
First, his offensive line was one of the weaker units in the league. The Browns finished 2019 with the 23rd ranked o-line according to Pro Football Focus. Mayfield usually had little time to find his playmakers, and was forced to improvise. This led to a large amount of poor decisions on the QB’s part. The second hinderance to Mayfield’s sophomore season was coach Freddie Kitchens. After Kitchens was successful after being promoted to interim offensive coordinator in 2018, many felt like the transition to head coach would run smoothly. Instead, Kitchens showed why he has never been an NFL head coach. Questionable decisions along with poor game management tactics hurt Mayfield’s development. Third, the Browns’ defense didn’t help Mayfield much. Cleveland allowed the 11th most yards per game, and the 13th most points per game in 2019. It also didn’t help that defensive star Myles Garrett was suspended for six games last year.
Despite all of that, some onus must still be placed on Mayfield for his poor season. He has to be better, no matter the challenges. He was the number one pick. That means overcoming obstacles, and not throwing the second most interceptions in the league. Too much offensive talent surrounds him to only be completing 59% of his throws. It’s on Baker to improve in 2020, or else Cleveland may start thinking about a new QB.
I however think Mayfield, as well as the Browns, will improve in 2020. They have no excuse not to.
Cleveland made it their number one priority to improve the weak spot of their roster this offseason: the offensive line. The team signed Tennessee tackle Jack Conklin in free agency. The Browns also used their first round pick on Alabama tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. Those two moves have led to Cleveland’s offensive line being ranked as the sixth best heading into the season according to Pro Football Focus.
The Browns also still have a top tier group of playmakers. Nick Chubb is coming off a dominant season in which he had nearly 1,500 rushing yards (1,494), and eight touchdowns. Kareem Hunt returns, and remains in a backup role despite having 1,327 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his only full season played (2017). Cleveland’s passing attack only got stronger this offseason as well. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry remain in place, as well as talented tight end David Njoku. The Browns however, signed breakout tight end Austin Hooper (787 yards, 6 touchdowns in 10 starts) to add to the galore of talent. Add it all up, and Cleveland has the ninth ranked receiving corps heading into the season according to Pro Football Focus.
The defense should also improve this year for two reasons. The first being related to the players. Myles Garrett is set to return from his suspension, and is one of the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL. Cleveland also used three of their first four selections in the draft on defensive players, most notably LSU safety Grant Delpit. Second, Cleveland hired a new coach this offseason. Former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will now be calling the shots for the Browns. If he is even just a slight improvement over Freddie Kitchens, the team will be placed in far less poor positions.
All of the improvements are for naught however, if Mayfield doesn’t make the jump.
The improvements throughout the roster, coupled with the fourth-easiest strength of schedule has Mayfield primed for a big season. Will he be able to capitalize on it though?
Mayfield has shown a tendency to turn the football over in his first two seasons. In 2018, he had 14 interceptions and six fumbles (two lost) in 13 starts. Last season, he had 21 interceptions and seven fumbles (three lost). It’s up to him to cut down on the giveaways. If he can, Cleveland has the pieces to make the playoffs. If not, then Mayfield’s time with the Browns may come to an end sooner rather than later.