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Watson What-ifs: Could Baker Mayfield Lead the Browns Offense to Glory?

Baker Mayfield’s stubbornness and explosive upside made him a legend in college football and set records as a rookie. Now he has fallen so far no one wants to trade for him. Could it be his opportunity to shock everyone once again?

When Baker Mayfield got injured and faced a challenge for his starting job at Texas Tech in 2013, he tried to engineer his departure to another team. The process did not go smoothly for him then, either, as he had to sit out a year before he could play for Oklahoma. 

But his stubbornness ultimately paid off when the Big 12 voted to extend the eligibility of some intra-conference transfers. It gave Mayfield an extra year to set a career-high in passing yards, win the Heisman hands-down, and get picked #1 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Mayfield is stubbornly demanding he be let go somewhere he might start, and his future—and his present team’s future—is more uncertain than ever. Mayfield refuses to take part in team functions. The Browns refuse to release him. After the 2022 Draft, few teams have a dire need of QB. 

Meanwhile, the eligibility of the Browns’ presumed starter is in question and probably will not be determined until just before the season starts. It is almost certain that Deshaun Watson will be suspended for some time. The pressure might be on the NFL to hand out a relatively steep punishment. 

Is Gambling Worse than Sexual Harassment?

If Watson is not suspended for the whole season, then critics will cite the season-long suspension of Falcons WR Calvin Ridley and the two-year suspension of the MLB’s Trevor Bauer. Neither is perfectly congruent. One is for a different offense and a different league entirely handed down one. But both are inconvenient for the NFL.

Ridley’s suspension for engaging in legal sports gambling while being on long-term leave from his team was already being mocked when it was handed down. Understandably, the NFL feels it needs to protect any possible taint to the integrity of the game. 

Yet unavoidably, it sets up a contrast if the NFL opts for a lesser punishment for Watson. The league is saying that pursuing girls on Instagram for “massages” and allegedly forcing some of them to engage in sexual activity is less morally repugnant than it is for someone to engage in recreational sports betting, an industry the league sanctions and promotes. (Ridley says he bet a total of $1,500 on his own team to win.)

The grand juries did not indict Watson. Neither did Ezekiel Elliot nor Kareem Hunt face charges for assault allegations against women, for which both were suspended. Watson still faces civil suits, which will undoubtedly cause more embarrassing testimony to be revealed. Like those excerpts of his deposition, he admitted to lying about his whereabouts while crossing state lines to meet an unlicensed masseuse. His lawyer admits Watson had sex with some of the women, claiming those encounters were consensual. Might this be “conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel”?

Predicting Watson’s Suspension

CBS’s Jason La Canfora predicts Watson will be suspended for more than half the season. He also predicts the Browns will eventually get rid of Mayfield. Even despite taking a huge cap hit, to avoid the headache. NBC’s Mike Florio, on the other hand, argues that maybe the Browns will “need this guy for all of 2022.”

A prideful man like Mayfield wouldn’t want to play filler QB for six games for a team he hates. What if Watson is suspended for the entire 2022 slate? Mayfield could use the opportunity to prove his worth as a starting QB and get himself his post-rookie QB.

What happens if Watson is suspended for 8-12 games? Would that be enough of an opportunity to convince both sides to reconcile? 

The AFC North is a tough division. If the Browns rely on substandard QB play from Jacoby Brissett, who last year threw for five TDs and four INTs in his best season yet, they might not make the playoffs. 

Whatever happens, we won’t know until much later. But the fact is, there is a greater than zero chance that Mayfield plays snaps for the Browns in 2022. The chances are great enough to consider what it might look like and where Mayfield and Cooper would be worth drafting.

The Browns with Baker

Despite Mayfield playing the worst season of his career, the Browns’ offense performed average-to-above average on a play-to-play basis in 2021. They had the 14th highest DVOA in Football Outsiders’ rankings and the 17th highest successful play percentage, according to Sharp Football Analysis. What that didn’t translate into was scoring. The Browns scored only the 20th most points per game. They were within a one-point margin of Pittsburgh, Miami, Washington, and Denver.

The Browns’ clear strength was their running game. With their top three RBs all graded in PFF’s top 25, there was no slowing the Browns down. They led the NFL with 5.1 yards per rushing attempt.

Cleveland kept its offensive line together, but it lost depth at WR. They will be missing Jarvis Landry, their top targeted receiver, third-leading Rashard Higgins, and Odell Beckham Jr. 

TEs Austin Hooper and David Njoku were targeted more than Higgins and Beckham. The Browns run two- and three-TE sets significantly more frequently than the league average. And they added Amari Cooper as their new number one WR. 

But the lack of depth could hurt them. Currently, 2021 third-rounder Anthony Schwartz, targeted 22 times in 2021 and caught ten passes, is third on their depth chart. They also spent a 2022 third-round pick on David Bell of Purdue.

A Mayfield-Cooper Connection?

Then how will Cooper do on a Browns offense with Mayfield at quarterback? Even at his best, Mayfield would be a significant downgrade from what the Browns expect with Watson. The Browns would be going from a pure passer with a poised pocked presence to an erratic gunslinger who makes fatal mistakes outside of his system and structure.

Over his career, Mayfield has prospered when running the play action. His completion percentage in his career is four points higher when running play-action than not. In 2021, the difference was eight points. Deshaun Watson’s completion percentage and passer rating in his career have been equal whether play action or not.

Cooper has been used to playing with a better passer over the past four years. Dak Prescott has graded above 80 in PFF’s database each of the past three years. He operated out of the shotgun ten percentage points more frequently than Mayfield in 2021. He protects the football much better than Mayfield. His interception rate every year since 2018 has been under 2%. Mayfield has been over 3% in two of his four seasons and is 2.9% for his career. 

Many of Mayfield’s ugly interceptions and overthrows put his receivers at risk. Beckham tore his ACL chasing down a defender who picked Mayfield off. Mayfield leaves WRs vulnerable to getting clobbered when he lobs passes too high over the middle. Among 33 qualifying QBs, Mayfield had the third-highest rate of bad throws graded by Pro Football Reference, worse than Trevor Lawrence. (Prescott had the seventh-lowest rate of bad throws.)

Cooper, however, is possibly better suited for Mayfield’s style of play. His size, one inch taller and twelve pounds heavier, means he should be able to box out defenders for errant throws better than Beckham. That is if Cooper is willing to step up his effort. One former scout assessed that Cooper had been taking plays off when he wasn’t the featured target and is too rigid to catch poorly-thrown passes.

Like Beckham, Cooper has complained about not getting enough targets. Will Cooper bring that negative attitude with him to Cleveland? 

Unlike in Dallas, where Cooper was targeted second-most behind Lamb, Cooper will be the undisputed #1 in Cleveland. Still, Kevin Stefanski’s offense with Mayfield under center is a run-first offense. Stefanski never concerned himself with getting the ball to Beckham ten times a game. Cooper will be moving from an offense in Dallas that threw the ball 38.4 times a game to one that threw 30.6 pass attempts per game. Mayfield’s Browns also threw the ball to WRs at the second-lowest rate of any team in the NFL, with TEs and RBs targeted heavily.

It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where the Browns’ passing game is struggling, the Browns are losing, and Cooper’s disenchantment begins bubbling up. The scenario is likely with Mayfield or Brissett at quarterback. With Mayfield, the difference is that there would be the addition of an emotional, aggrieved former #1 pick which feels no loyalty to his team and no compunction against setting a barrel of gunpowder alight.

Mayfield’s Fantasy Potential

With all this said, what is Baker Mayfield’s potential in a new dynasty league? How would his play at QB affect the prospects of Amari Cooper?

Mayfield falls amongst a group of QBs whose position as a starter is unclear or unstable. The National Fantasy Football Championships database has processed about thirty drafts between April and the time of writing. In those drafts, Mayfield fell at an average position of QB31 in the 19th round. In between Mitch Trubisky, Marcus Mariota, Cody Pickett, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Sam Darnold.

The QBs you could draft in a similar position to Mayfield are either low-end QBs facing competition from rookies, rookie QBs who might start later in the season, or, like Mayfield, a borderline starting-caliber system QB in Jimmy Garoppolo, who is on his way out.

Mayfield looks like a better option than most of the veteran QBs—in both dynasty and redraft. Mayfield has approximately equaled or outperformed Trubisky, Garoppolo, and Darnold over the past two years. Garoppolo, Darnold, Trubisky, and Mariota are already on their second or third teams. With the possible exception of Garoppolo, all seem destined to be backups or mentors for the rest of their careers. There is at least a chance Mayfield could get another starting opportunity somewhere down the line. 

Trubisky, Mariota, and Darnold all have rookie prospects sitting behind them on the depth chart. For Trubisky, it’s a first-round pick, Kenny Pickett. The Falcons’ Desmond Ridder and the Panthers’ Sam Darnold were taken in the third round. Their franchises have no pressure to rush them into starting lineups. So these three have the most guaranteed value in 2022, but they have very little value beyond 2022.

Why take Trubisky in the 16th round when he is arguably the most likely to lose his starting job and hasn’t thrown more than 20 TD passes since 2018? His offense has better weapons than Darnold and Mariota, but not any better than Mayfield or Garoppolo, should they start with their current teams. In the near term, Mayfield probably has the most sleeper potential in 2022 if he can avoid injury and gel with Cooper, and play closer to his 2020 self. 

But if you are drafting a QB this low, you are not expecting them to start for your fantasy team. In that case, Pickett—or one of the other rookies going later—has the best upside, especially beyond 2022.

Is Cooper Being Overdrafted?

Cooper falls in the fifth round of NFFC’s draft database.

That draft position is fairly consistent with Dynasty Nerds’ consensus rankings. Cooper is WR16, three spots behind DJ Moore, but he’s far ahead of Amon-Ron St. Brown in our rankings and ahead of Jerry Jeudy, Mike Williams, and Elijah Moore, who all cluster in the bottom half of the 20s.

Cooper has a QB upgrade in 2023 and beyond, but he most likely has a QB downgrade in 2022, whether for six games or longer. Still, I question whether Cooper might be overdrafted, even considering Watson will be playing an entire season in 2023 (barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances). Cooper has been declining gradually in fantasy scoring rank and PFF grades over the past several years.

Young WRs are coming up. Moore returns to a Jets team that appeared to have improved on both sides of the ball in the draft, and QB Zach Wilson enters his second year. Jeudy sees a massive upgrade at QB with Russell Wilson joining the Broncos. Marquise Brown joins a Cardinals offense that scores more points through the air, and he stars as the number one WR in the first six weeks of 2022 with Hopkins suspended. St. Brown outscored Cooper in his rookie season, with a considerably worse QB helming his team, and he’ll likely see a QB upgrade in a year or two (but he also faces increased competition for target share).

Even a Cooper who might be on a downtrend will provide steady production for the short-term future. But some of the young WRs could present better upside.

Warm Up the Popcorn

Mayfield’s career has been predicated on his explosive potential. A state champion three-star recruit, he turned down lesser scholarship offers to walk-on at Texas Tech and started his first game as a true freshman. After feeling slighted by a QB competition later that year, he filed to transfer to his childhood favorite, Oklahoma, without making arrangements with Sooners coaches. He fought (and lost) an appeal against NCAA rules that forced him to sit out a year, but his case ultimately led officials to change the rules. Mayfield planted the OU flag at the center of Ohio State’s Horseshoe. He won the Big 12 championship. He was the only walk-on to ever win the Heisman. Mayfield set the record for rookie TD passes (since broken by Justin Herbert). He won the Browns’ first playoff game in thirty years.

Most analysts would have to have limited trust in the Browns’ passing game under Mayfield, but he has proven his skeptics wrong before.

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