Is Baker Mayfield on the verge of breaking out in Year 3 — or going down as a bust?
Anyone notice we haven’t heard from Baker Mayfield in awhile?
Wednesday, that changed.
In a nearly 20-minute video press conference with reporters, the Cleveland Browns quarterback, heading into his 3rd season under center, answered an array of questions about working out during the pandemic, connecting with the Browns’ new coaching staff, and his personal expectations heading into the 2020 season.
The video conference was highlighted by this Mayfield quote:
“I have a different approach to this year. Everybody that’s been interviewed on our team has hit the nail on the head over and over about it’s just time to work. It’s time to do our thing instead of talking about it. This is the first media thing I’ve done just because there’s no need to be talking about it. It’s just time to go do it. And right now, it’s kinda moving in silence, which is fine with me. It’s how I used to do it before getting on a bigger stage. So I’m happy to get back to those roots, get back to the fundamentals so I can accomplish our goals when the season comes around.”
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) May 28, 2020
How measured and frankly, un-Baker-like.
We’ve become somewhat accustomed to a different version of Baker Mayfield, the one who posted this photo promoting his new underwear line a few months before taking his first NFL snap:
Excited to announce my partnership with @PSDunderwear! Giving away 500 free pairs today. Tiger not included 😂. Give them a follow and shop my collection! https://t.co/Xy4RsMtas1 pic.twitter.com/6lt56PeWjw
— Baker Mayfield (@bakermayfield) August 21, 2018
Or, the one who scoffed at the New York Giants selecting Daniel Jones with the 6th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Mayfield’s newfound silence and humility are a stark departure from last year’s litany of spicy media features that made him a polarizing figure on the heels of his electric rookie season. In one of many boisterous offseason interviews, Mayfield drew ire for trashing the Giants’ controversial first-round draft pick.
“I cannot believe the Giants took Daniel Jones,” he told GQ Magazine. “Blows my mind.”
— New York Post (@nypost) May 28, 2020
And even though we love Tiger-Bentley, Draft-Hater Baker, third year Baker – the one that avoids offseason interviews and seems to be focused solely on winning – is a good look, too.
However, we’re left asking ourselves, why such a sudden change of approach for Mayfield? Could it be that year three is the most important of his young career?
Is it possible that if Mayfield – with a talented Cleveland cast around him – doesn’t break out and take the Browns to the playoffs this season, he could be labeled just a bust?
Mayfield’s rookie and sophomore seasons were full of ups and downs.
In his first year, Baker joined an 0-16 Cleveland team and led the Browns to 7 wins in his 14 appearances, starting 13 games that season.
In those 14 games, he threw for 3,725 yards (266.1 per game) and a rookie record 27 TDs, completing 63.9% of his passes in the process. And even though he threw 14 INTs and won only 1 of his first 6 starts, Mayfield finished the season strong, winning 5 of 7 starts, and the Browns ended the year 7-8-1 overall and 3-2-1 in the AFC North, which is even more impressive considering Cleveland was one year removed from going 0-16.
Mayfield’s rookie year was so promising that Pro Football Focus thought Baker should have won Offensive Rookie of the Year over New York Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley.
— PFF (@PFF) February 6, 2019
However, with elevated expectations coming into his second season, Mayfield and the Browns took a step backward.
In 16 starts, Mayfield threw for 3,827 yards (239.2 per game), 22 TDs and a whopping 21 INTs, 2nd most in the NFL behind Jameis Winston. He completed only 59.4% of his passes – the 2nd worst percentage in the NFL – and the Browns finished the season 6-10 overall and 3-3 in the division.
At the conclusion of last season, after a season-ending loss at Cincinnati in which Mayfield threw 3 interceptions, Baker expressed his disappointment in his turnover-prone sophomore campaign.
#Browns QB Baker Mayfield: “Taking care of the ball. The amount of interceptions I had…quite embarrassing for me to say the least.”
— 92.3 The Fan (@923TheFan) December 29, 2019
So, what is year three going to look like for Baker? Better yet, what does year three need to look like for Baker?
For some – including Colin Cowherd – Mayfield needs to immediately right the ship this season or there might not be many more seasons in Cleveland for the former No. 1 pick.
“I am predicting he’s gonna have a very good year … I’m predicting that Baker Mayfield makes the playoffs … But there’s an old saying in our business, ‘You’re gone before you know you’re gone.’ If you take out the four games against the Cincinnati Bengals, Baker Mayfield’s a bust … He’s gonna get another year, but he better know he’s on the clock.”
"Kevin Stefanski got Christian Ponder to the playoffs. He's not going to wait a second for Baker Mayfield to grow up."@ColinCowherd reacts to latest comments from the Browns QB: pic.twitter.com/e1uyon0BXe
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) May 28, 2020
ESPN’s Max Kellerman agrees that Mayfield has bust potential heading into year three, but also points out that he’s seen Baker operate at a high level in his first two seasons, which gives him hope that Mayfield can turn it around.
“Baker is on the verge of being considered a bust, but I don’t think he’s going to be a bust … When I’ve seen a guy operate on an elite level that early in his career in the NFL, I have to believe there’s something there. I have not given up on Baker yet. I think given the right situation he can be an excellent quarterback because I’ve already seen it for over half a year. All that said, it is a crucially important season for him … We have to see improvement from Baker Mayfield this season. A lot of pressure.”
On Wednesday’s video conference, Mayfield addressed the idea of facing added pressure heading into the 2020 season, given his overall record of 13-17 in his first two years and 35 picks thrown in 30 games.
“There’s no doubt – year three is always a big year with these contracts … Everybody knows that. I’m not gonna put any added pressure on myself. There’s no need for that because if I win, good things will happen. Good things will happen for our team and the guys around me, and that’s the most important part. If I play better, our team’s gonna do better. I put that pressure on myself. It doesn’t matter what year it is. I have to play better each year.”
Year 3 is certainly a big year in terms of contract negotiations, and Nick Wright thinks that this season will be make or break for Mayfield and could ultimately lead to him not getting extended by the Browns, or potentially, being out of Cleveland.
“Year three for a first round pick, when after this year they decide if they’re gonna pick up your fifth year option, and the GM who drafted you is gone and you’re gonna be on your fourth different head coach, damn straight it’s a big year [for Baker] … I understand that every year is a critical year, but it’s a different type of pressure if … this is the year that will potentially determine if you get a brand new contract … There’s no one in management tied to Baker.”
"Damn straight it's a big year for Baker. Baker Mayfield, after that great rookie season, could be a guy who you wonder if he's going to even get a second contract with the Browns if this year doesn't go well." — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/9RsiSRqVDY
— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) May 28, 2020
As Wright points out, the Browns are a management carousel, specifically when it comes to coaching.
Since 2010, eight different men have served as head coach in Cleveland, and since Baker’s rookie season – once the 2020 season begins – he will have taken direction from four different head coaches: Hue Jackson, Gregg Williams, Freddie Kitchens, and now, Kevin Stefanski.
On Wednesday, Baker said he won’t use the lack of coaching consistency as an excuse.
“It is what it is. Coming out of the draft, I always thought I was able to adapt to whatever system I was gonna be in. To be a smart player is something I pride myself on. It could be an excuse if I want it to be but there’s nothing wrong with getting knowledge from different guys that have coached around and been around great players … I know I haven’t had the success that I truly want to accomplish down the road, but if I can combine all this and play within the system that I’m in now, that’s when good things happen … It’s the combination of knowledge.”
This new Baker sure is smooth.
There are several folks out there that still believe in Baker’s ability to turn it around in Cleveland, including Stefanski, a rookie head coach who served as offensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings last season.
In Stefanski’s estimation, Mayfield is taking the proper steps to have command over his third offensive system since 2018.
“He’s doing a nice job in the [virtual] program … He’s spending a lot of time virtually with [offensive coordinator] Alex Van Pelt, and we’re just teaching him the system. He’s a really bright football player … He knows that he has to improve off of last year … We want to get guys who are eager to take a step forward and Baker completely understands that, and I think he’s a very determined and driven person … [As quarterback], you get a lot of the credit and you get a lot of the blame, and that’s just the nature of the beast. He understands that completely and I think he’ll be ready to go.”
"I've been very impressed with how smart Baker is."
New @Browns coach Kevin Stefanski says Baker Mayfield is off to a great start under the new regime.
— SiriusXM NFL Radio (@SiriusXMNFL) May 19, 2020
As Cleveland Browns beat writer Mary Kay Cabot explains it, Stefanski might just be the key to Baker having a bounce-back year.
Mayfield, who recently hosted nine teammates in his hometown of Austin, Texas for throwing sessions, has gone back to basics after tumbling to second-last in the NFL in several key categories last season such as rating (78.8), interceptions (21) and completion percentage (59.4).
But most experts expect him to rebound in a big way in Kevin Stefanski’s run-oriented, play-action based scheme, one that resulted in Kirk Cousins finishing fourth in the NFL with a 107.4 rating last year en route to a 10-6 record and playoff berth.
— Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot) May 27, 2020
Under Stefanski, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins had a banner year, arguably the best of his career.
While he didn’t eclipse 4,000 passing yards for the first time as a full-time starter, his passer rating of 107.4 was a career-high and his 69.8 completion percentage was the 2nd-best of his career. In addition, his 6 interceptions were the fewest of his career when playing at least 15 games and it marked the first time he threw less than 10 picks in his five years as a full-time starter.
Most importantly, Cousins led a team to 10 wins for the first time, posting a 10-5 mark in his 15 games played. He led the Vikings to the playoffs, earning his first playoff win in his second playoff appearance.
Stefanski’s addition to the mix has Cleveland.com columnist Doug Lesmerises high on Baker’s chances to make a success out of the Browns this season.
Stefanski called an offense in Minnesota that ranked sixth in points per drive (the Browns were 20th) with talent that Cleveland can match. He utilized two tight ends a lot, a formation in which Baker Mayfield has found success. I’ll take Mayfield over Cousins, and the rest of the skill is similar.
If Kevin Stefanski could do it with Kirk Cousins, he should be able to do it with Baker Mayfield. https://t.co/Z0pheMyC0x
— Doug Lesmerises (@DougLesmerises) January 12, 2020
One note that should be pointed out is that under Stefanski in 2019, Cousins attempted 162 fewer passes than he did in 2018, which undoubtedly contributed to his increased completion percentage and drop-off in interceptions.
Going back to Baker, Shannon Sharpe believes that Mayfield’s new approach of remaining quiet, and focusing more about what’s happening on the field rather than what’s happening off of it, will equal success for him in the future.
Sharpe kept it simple.
Shannon: If Baker can keep his mouth closed and work, he can have a bounce back season. pic.twitter.com/4VWTpsuc1h
— UNDISPUTED (@undisputed) May 28, 2020
Into the 2020 season we go with all eyes on Baker, who officially has one promising season and one not-so-promising season under his belt.
What do we expect from Mayfield’s third year?
As the kids would surely do, we’ll let emojis do the talking.
Baker Mayfield's PFF passing grade by season
2018: 79.9 – 11th
2019: 71.5 – 19th
2020: 🤔 pic.twitter.com/GfEMiWCDx1
— PFF (@PFF) May 28, 2020