The bill comes due. Always. It's as true in the NFL as anywhere else in life. And for three teams, a whopper of a decision looms on the horizon: extending the young quarterbacks from the Class of 2018.
Given that the Ravens' Lamar Jackson has already led Baltimore to the playoffs three times and won the league's Most Valuable Player award, it's a no-brainer that he will receive a megadeal. And sure enough, he and the Ravens have begun negotiations. After topping 4,500 passing yards and leading the Bills to a 13-win regular season and a berth in the AFC Championship Game, Buffalo's Josh Allen is also cruising toward a massive extension.
The situation is less clear with the first quarterback taken in the 2018 draft. Baker Mayfield rebounded from a shaky second season to throw for 3,563 yards in 2020 while leading the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff berth since 2002 and first postseason victory since 1994.
That success has given Cleveland's long-suffering fanbase a level of optimism regarding the future that hasn't existed on the shores of Lake Erie since the Browns rejoined the league in 1999. It has also potentially set up Mayfield for a bonanza.
But there's no huge rush to re-up the 26-year-old. The Browns would be wise not to let enthusiasm and optimism get the best of them. The smart play with Mayfield is to be patient—let him show that his career will be less 2019 and more 2020.
As a matter of fact, it's the only play.
Mayfield's agent, Jack Mills, told Tony Grossi of TheLandOnDemand.com that he and his client don't see any reason to wait. They are willing to talk turkey now:
"We're not going to be dragging it out. I think there's been enough contracts done for quarterbacks lately that give us a pretty good idea of what the market is. And, of course, we know that the [salary] cap isn't going up this year but it's going up next year and next. We pretty much know what's coming on down the road and what's been done. We don't have any particular reluctance about doing a deal."
In March, Browns general manager Andrew Berry also made it clear that the franchise believes in Mayfield as the long-term answer under center, per Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk:
"Baker, over the past year, has shown an enormous amount of growth, and I think that's both on the field and then, quite honestly, off the field as well. So, we are excited. He's going into his first offseason where the coaching staff, offensive system is exactly the same not to mention that there's been very little turnover on the offensive side of the ball, and we're excited about him continuing to make strides under Kevin [Stefansk]'s tutelage in this offense because we think he's a very talented player. We think he's very skilled, and he really embodies the characteristics that we want in our program. So, we're excited about his potential this upcoming year and he's been hard at work this entire offseason."
Given that seeming agreement between player and team, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler recently speculated on SportsCenter (via Matt Howe of 247Sports) that Mayfield might actually be the first of the Class of 2018 signal-callers to receive a second contract.
"Some people around the league believe that this could get done the soonest. Because [Lamar Jackson] and [Josh Allen] are top-five to -seven quarterbacks. They're considered high-end guys. Where Baker is still working his way into that, maybe more of a different market, could be easier to get done. The Browns have made it clear, they want to keep their core intact the best they can. … In a perfect world, they'd love to try to keep all those guys. I suspect that they will chip away on a deal with Mayfield in the coming months."
That would be a mistake—if only because of its potential enormity.
Simply put, there's no real reason for the Browns to feel pressured to get a deal done now. After Cleveland picked up Mayfield's fifth-year option, he's under contract until at least the end of the 2022 season. Another year could easily be tacked on via the franchise tag.
Yes, his 2020 campaign was solid. He completed 62.8 percent of his passes for 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. He also posted a passer rating of 95.9 and a QBR of 72.2—almost 18 points higher than the season before.
But just as Mayfield's 2020 numbers are laudable, his struggles the year before can't be ignored. After setting a rookie record for touchdown passes with 27 in 2018 (which Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers broke last year), Mayfield struggled the following season. His completion percentage dropped below 60 in 2019, and all that stopped his 21 interceptions from leading the league were Jameis Winston's 30.
Even if you blame the ineptitude of then-head coach Freddie Kitchens for part of those struggles, it can't be denied that Mayfield flat-out did not play well two years ago.
Once the Browns put pen to paper and extend Mayfield, that's it. The two are married for at least the next few years. The team will also have to get creative about extending other key contributors such as running back Nick Chubb (who will hit free agency in 2022) and cornerback Denzel Ward.
A contract that pays upward of $40 million per season tends to chew up cap space.
Yes, extending Mayfield could offer the Browns a little more flexibility against the salary cap with which to sign those players. And if the Browns wait until 2022 and the quarterback balls out this season, the size of that deal will only grow.
But there are ways around the former. And the latter is more than worth the financial cost if Mayfield can demonstrate that he is absolutely "the guy" for the Browns in the long term.
It's not like we haven't recently seen the consequences of extending a quarterback too early. In 2019, Carson Wentz got a four-year, $128 million extension from the Eagles after three seasons. The player drafted just before him in 2016, Jared Goff, got $134 million over four years from the Los Angeles Rams.
Fast forward two seasons, and both quarterbacks are on new teams. The Eagles ate the largest dead-cap hit in NFL history ($33.8 million) as part of the trade that sent Wentz to Indianapolis. Unloading Goff for Detroit's Matthew Stafford cost the Rams two first-rounders.
And Goff had already led the Rams to a berth in the Super Bowl.
This isn't to say that Mayfield will experience the same regression that Goff and Wentz did. Or that he isn't the long-term answer under center in Cleveland. Or that he won't get an extension that sails past $35 million per season.
But there's just no need for the Browns to crack open the checkbook. Not yet. Whatever financial flexibility a new deal might afford the franchise isn't worth the possibility that the team could have an abomination of a deal pulling it back toward mediocrity if Mayfield can't back up 2020's successes.
There's one move that makes sense for Berry. One play that gives the Browns the best chance to have success in the short term and maintain it in the long term.
Let Mayfield show there is no doubt that he's the quarterback the Browns have sought for over two decades. Let him prove it.
And in the meantime, hurry up and wait.
Salary-cap figures via Spotrac.