The Baker Mayfield dilemma refuses to go away, and as the NFL enters the one true "quiet phase" of their season, a story about an embattled QB and a team who just fully guaranteed $230M to another one - will only gain steam.
But who really holds the leverage in this particular scenario? It's easy to look at this from a contractual angle, and assume that the $18.8M fully guaranteed to Baker Mayfield gives him all of the power here. But a recent ESPN article, and subsequent response, brings to light an item that I've been reluctant to approach with this disagreement yet - the Personal Conduct clause.
In short, the rumors are starting to swirl that this situation may be approaching a point at which the Browns may be able to build a case to prove that Mayfield's "antics" are violating the conduct clause in his contract. Should this be adjudicated, the $18.8M guarantee on the contract could potentially be voided, offering Cleveland a free out (no dead cap or cash to release him outright). It's an ugly path to take, and frankly it seems a weak case to be made from the outside looking in as well - but it's not something that should be ignored completely.
What Haven't They Just Accepted a Low-Ball Deal?
Yes, the Browns are in a financial pinch here, with the league's highest cash payroll, and a whopping $71.2M cash currently allocated to their QB room (Watson, $46M; Mayfield, $18.8M; Brissett, $4.65M; Dobbs: $1M).
But it should also be assumed that Deshaun Watson stands to miss games in 2022 due to suspension. So while paying Mayfield $1.05M per week on the active roster is costly, it may provide Cleveland the best chance to win ballgames early on.
Furthermore - and potentially offering even sooner relevance, the NFL unfortunately sees a few prominent players lost to injury in training camps each year. As we saw with Teddy Bridgewater/Sam Bradford just a few years ago, it only takes one team in panic mode to turn an awful situation into an easy sell.
Where Does this Wind Up?
While the right move might be to hang on to Mayfield, both for Watson protection and to wait out the best possible trade opportunity, the social media/player empowerment age will likely not allow things to hold out that long. Now that the "conduct" clause has reared its head, Baker and his people need to tread lightly with their disdain for the situation, but Odell Beckham Jr. likely paved the path for how to get off this team - both from a stirring the pot and a financial compromise standpoint.
OBJ agreed to forfeit $3M of his guarantee in order to gain his release from Cleveland at the trade deadline last year. He went unclaimed on waivers, signed an incentive loaded deal with the Rams, and moved on with his career.
Will Baker choose the same path? Cleveland likely has a strong handle on what other teams are willing to pay Baker for 2022, based on trade & split salary discussions they've had this winter. Is the next step to simply ask Baker to chop off what he'll likely earn elsewhere, and outright release the 27 year old QB?
Possibly, but if he wants to start football games in 2022, mending fences with Cleveland, and using Deshaun Watson's suspension as a "final showcase" to the rest of the league may actually be his best career move.