This year, the biggest NFL offseason storyline involves the Cleveland Browns' quarterback situation as the club has question marks with two of its signal-callers.
While the Browns don't have any control over the outcome of the league's investigation into allegations of sexual assault or misconduct against Deshaun Watson, which resulted in 24 civil cases (20 of those settled) with two more to be filed, Cleveland holds the cards for Baker Mayfield's future. With that said, one scenario has some impact on the other.
The Browns should be proactive in sorting out their quarterback plan for the 2022 season because the conclusion of Watson's disciplinary hearing may put them in desperation mode.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson could come to a decision on Watson's case within the next few weeks:
"Robinson has no track record of ruling on cases involving NFL players, though one source said her decision could come within a week but also might take until training camp. The NFL hopes for clarity on this case before training camp begins in late July."
According to Andrew Beaton of the Wall Street Journal, the league will push for "an indefinite suspension that would last no shorter than one year."
Jacoby Brissett, whom the Browns signed to a one-year deal in March, will likely take over the huddle as a fill-in starter if necessary, per ESPN's Jake Trotter (h/t Bleacher Report's Rob Goldberg).
However, last week, Trotter floated out the idea that the team might try to acquire a quarterback in exchange for Mayfield:
"If Watson is in fact suspended, look for offseason addition Joshua Dobbs to join the active roster. But while Cleveland could ride the bulk of the season with Brissett as its starter in the event of a Watson suspension, the Browns could also look for another quarterback trade -- Baker Mayfield for Jimmy Garoppolo, anyone? -- to help the team tread water while Watson is out."
Cleveland may need a new starter for an entire year, and if that's the case, the coaching staff may want to see Brissett in a training camp battle for the starting job.
Whenever Watson takes the field, he'll undoubtedly start. The Browns signed him to a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million extension after they acquired him from the Houston Texans in March, but his uncertain short-term future creates some urgency to clear up question marks for the upcoming campaign, which leads us back to Mayfield.
Despite Mayfield's recent struggles, he still has trade value because of the position and his flashes of promise while healthy.
As the primary starter, the 27-year-old helped lead Cleveland to the playoffs and a wild-card road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2020 campaign. Through 60 outings (59 starts), he's thrown for 14,125 yards, 92 touchdowns and 56 interceptions with a 61.6 percent completion rate.
After a solid 2020 campaign, Mayfield struggled through most of the 2021 term with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. Nonetheless, he's played well enough to warrant a second chance to start elsewhere.
Mayfield has clearly checked out of Cleveland. He requested a trade in March while the team pursued Watson.
"It's in the mutual interest of both sides for us to move on," Mayfield said to Schefter. "The relationship is too far gone to mend. It's in the best interests of both sides to move on."
In hindsight, Mayfield is 100 percent correct, and the team can still recoup a middle-round draft pick for the signal-caller, which is far better than cutting him without a return.
Pro Football Network's Aaron Wilson doesn't foresee the Browns and Mayfield letting bygones be bygones while the team tries to resolve its quarterback matters for 2022.
"A scenario of trying to mend fences with Mayfield and have him play one more season for them after effectively rejecting him as their guy is considered all but impossible to accomplish," Wilson wrote.
Remember, Mayfield appeared on the Ya Neva Know podcast with Mike Stud and said that he felt the Browns disrespected him (h/t ESPN's Field Yates):
Field Yates @FieldYates
Appearing on the Ya Never Know podcast, Baker Mayfield is asked by Mike if he feels disrespected by how the organization handled his situation. He says he does feel disrespected and has no idea where he’ll play next. Full answer below: <br><br>Show link: <a href="https://t.co/ZkUTfnyalX">https://t.co/ZkUTfnyalX</a> <a href="https://t.co/9pjfbdNx8n">pic.twitter.com/9pjfbdNx8n</a>
Head coach Kevin Stefanski said the club has a "unique situation" with Mayfield and suggested that the Browns need to "see how it plays out."
Without a sign of reconciliation in sight, the Browns must move on, as Mayfield said months ago. If Cleveland plays its cards right, the team can come to terms on a deal with the Carolina Panthers, who have one of the league's worst quarterback situations.
Panthers general manager Scott Fitterer told Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio that Sam Darnold is the "No. 1 guy" for the starting job after his abysmal 2021 campaign, throwing nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions with a 59.9 percent completion rate through 12 contests (11 starts).
Darnold will compete with PJ Walker, who's thrown for two touchdowns and eight interceptions in nine games (two starts) in his career, and rookie third-rounder Matt Corral. At this point, undrafted rookie Davis Cheek isn't on the training camp battle radar.
The Panthers don't seem comfortable with their quarterback room. They're doing their "due diligence" on Mayfield, per CBS Sports' Josina Anderson.
If Carolina wants an upgrade at quarterback, it may have some competition for Mayfield. According to Anderson, the Seattle Seahawks have also done a deep dive on the Browns signal-caller and would consider extending him on a new deal.
IG: JosinaAnderson @JosinaAnderson
I’m told the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Seahawks?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Seahawks</a> still have a high-level of interest in acquiring QB Baker Mayfield and behind-the-scenes are open to contractually extending him, per league source. I also know that the process of collecting information and insights into Mayfield is still ongoing.
With Geno Smith and Drew Lock competing for the Seahawks' starting job, Seattle may push harder for Mayfield if the coaching staff doesn't like what it sees out of the two unestablished quarterbacks through training camp.
While the Panthers and Seahawks can also consider Jimmy Garoppolo, he's coming off shoulder surgery (on his throwing arm) from March (h/t NFL Network's Mike Garafolo) and has yet to throw in the San Francisco 49ers' offseason program. Mayfield, who underwent surgery in January, is further along in his recovery.
As the Seahawks' front office lurks in the background of the Mayfield trade chatter, the Panthers need to act fast if they want him to take over for Darnold, whose career production has trended in the wrong direction over the past two years.
Furthermore, Rhule has a 10-23 record as the Panthers' head coach going into his third term on the job. He's in a more dire situation than Seahawks' lead skipper Pete Carroll, who has a Super Bowl title and led his team to the playoffs in nine of the last 12 seasons.
Cleveland may be able to get a better package deal from Carolina because of the team's timeline under a first-time head coach who's gone 5-11 and 5-12 in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
The Browns and Panthers shouldn't let $4-6 million thwart an agreement that can work for both sides. The MMQB's Albert Breer appeared on The Rich Eisen Show and highlighted a financial barrier that's possibly held up a deal between the two clubs:
On one hand, Breer believes Cleveland would pay $9-10 million of Mayfield's $18.9 million salary to facilitate a trade, but Carolina might want the Browns to pay about $14-15 million.
The Panthers already have Darnold on his $18.9 million fifth-year option term, so it makes sense that they don't want to pay a significant amount for Mayfield, who's also on his fifth-year option campaign with the same salary. Perhaps a Mayfield-Darnold swap would work out if Carolina doesn't want both signal-callers on the books with sizeable salaries.
Right now, the Browns and Panthers list first and second across the league in cap space with $42.1 million and $25.1 million in cap room, respectively. The clubs have some flexibility to work through the financial hoops.
With Watson in jeopardy of missing several games and Mayfield disgruntled, the Browns should try to find clarity at the position before training camp, specifically whether the team will bring in competition for Brissett or not. On top of that, Cleveland could fall deeper into desperation if Seattle cools on Mayfield.
From the Panthers' perspective, they can bend a little on their financial stipulations for acquiring Mayfield with about $25 million in cap space. That's a fair price to pay with a head coach on the hot seat and a struggling quarterback as the front-runner to start in 2022. Mayfield would be a clear-cut upgrade over Darnold, and he could save Rhule's job with wideouts DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson and running back Christian McCaffrey as his primary pass-catchers.
It's time for the Browns and Panthers to end their staredown and strike a deal.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.