The Browns’ involvement in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes appears to have cost them their relationship with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
On Thursday morning, the Browns were told that they would not be acquiring Watson. As such, the team planned to move onto their Plan B — sticking with Mayfield as he enters the final year of his contract.
However, the Browns apparently didn’t account for the possibility that Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, might request a trade away from the team. That’s exactly what he did on Thursday, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.
#Browns QB Baker Mayfield has requested a trade, per sources.
Cleveland has been hoping to move forward after its Deshaun Watson pursuit and offered to fly to Texas to meet with Mayfield. But from the QB’s perspective, the bridge is burned and it’s time to move on now.
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 17, 2022
As a result, the Browns may have to move on to Plan C at the quarterback position.
Where does Cleveland go from here? They have several options at the quarterback position, but the one they are pursuing appears to be a longshot.
MORE: Why Baker Mayfield requested a trade away from the Browns
How the Browns responded to Baker Mayfield’s trade request
The Browns had an unusual response to Mayfield’s trade request. They flat-out denied it.
According to ESPN’s Jake Trotter, the Browns are “not accommodating [Mayfield’s] request” to be traded. Instead, they are hoping to stick with him as their starter in 2022, which was their plan if they couldn’t acquire a high-end upgrade like Watson, per NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo.
The #Browns have been informed they’re out of the running for Deshaun Watson, a source says. The team still views Baker Mayfield as their quarterback going forward. They told Mayfield’s agents at the Combine they’d only explore top-tier QBs such as Watson.
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 17, 2022
Apparently, Cleveland doesn’t see any high-end upgrades on the quarterback market. Or at least the Browns don’t see any that would prompt them to move on from Mayfield.
However, they may not have a choice but to trade Mayfield. The quarterback indicated that he believes the relationship between the two sides is irreparable, as he told ESPN.
“It’s in the mutual interest of both sides for us to move on,” Mayfield said, per Adam Schefter. “The relationship is too far [gone] to mend. It’s in the best interests of both sides to move on.”
With that said, Mayfield could force the Browns’ hand by refusing to play for them. It’s unclear whether he would actually do that, but Cleveland may want to begin poking around the quarterback market in case Mayfield takes that path.
IYER: Ranking Baker Mayfield’s best landing spots if traded by the Browns
Browns QB options if Baker Mayfield is traded
If the Browns are unable to convince Mayfield to play for them, they will have to fish for scraps on an already weak quarterback market. That said, there are still a few quality quarterbacks and some players with upside that they could consider.
Trade for Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan wasn’t expected to be available for most of the 2022 offseason. However, with the Falcons very much in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes and Atlanta’s restructured deal with Ryan falling through (at least for now), they could soon change their tune.
Ryan, 36, isn’t the same player who won the MVP in 2016 and led the Falcons to the Super Bowl, but he is still a rock-solid veteran quarterback. He has averaged 4,516 passing yards, 27.4 touchdowns and 12.4 interceptions per season since 2011.
The Browns may view Ryan’s consistent production and veteran poise as an upgrade over Mayfield. However, if they want him, he will be expensive. Ryan is set to have a cap hit of just under $48.7 million in 2022. So, if Cleveland targets him, it will need to open up some cap space on top of the $16.2 million it has free already.
Trade for Derek Carr
The possibility of the Browns acquiring Ryan is greater than that of them acquiring Carr. The Raiders and new coach Josh McDaniels seem committed to building around Carr after he helped Las Vegas reach the playoffs last season.
Still, McDaniels and Co. could change their minds, especially if they look around the AFC West. That division is a juggernaut, and though the Raiders made the playoffs last year, they will have trouble doing the same in 2022. After all, they have to face Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Russell Wilson twice each in division play.
If the right offer comes along for Carr, perhaps the Raiders would consider pulling the trigger to accelerate their roster growth. That’s not a given, the Browns will be interested in Carr if the Raiders do part with him, as Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reports.
Carr completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 4,804 yards, 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He helped guide the Raiders to a wild-card berth despite the team’s numerous off-the-field issues, including the resignation of coach Jon Gruden.
Trade for Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo is widely known to be available. The 49ers have 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance waiting in the wings to take over for Jimmy G, and that is expected to happen in 2022.
As such, it would be shocking if San Francisco didn’t offload Garoppolo and his $27 million cap hit for an asset.
The Browns would be a logical landing spot for Garoppolo if they have to part with Mayfield. Garoppolo isn’t a flashy quarterback, but he is a steady player who can help a team win when he is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. He has issues with late-game turnovers and negative plays, but he still has a 38-16 career record as a starter, including the postseason.
Garoppolo completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 3,810 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions during the regular season last year. He is a steady performer and comes with solid playoff experience. The Browns may value that if they can’t land either of their other top targets.
MORE: Latest news, rumors about potential Deshaun Watson trade
Sign Jameis Winston
Pursuing Winston would be a swing-for-the-fences move for the Browns. Winston has struggled with turnovers during his career — notably posting a whopping 30 interceptions with the Buccaneers in 2019 — but he was more accurate as a starter for the Saints last year.
Winston beat out Taysom Hill for New Orleans’ starting job and made seven starts in 2021. He posted a 5-2 record and while his 59 percent completion rate was nothing to write home about, he generated 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and just three interceptions before suffering a torn ACL.
It doesn’t seem like Winston’s injury will impact his availability ahead of the 2022 NFL season. It is fair to wonder, however, how he will do outside of Sean Payton’s offense, where he found success. That said, he has a strong arm, so if he continues to develop, he could effectively replace Mayfield’s production.
Sign Marcus Mariota
Signing Mariota is another flier that could be worth taking for Cleveland. He posted 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions during his second NFL season in 2016, but over the last five years, he hasn’t performed as well due to nagging injuries.
Mariota has spent the last two seasons as a backup for the Raiders. He was used in certain packages for his mobility and completed 18 of 30 passes for 230 yards, a touchdown and an interception during his time in Las Vegas.
Mariota may not have as much upside as the other options on this list, but at his best, he is an accurate quarterback with good mobility who avoids turnovers. At the very least, he could be a good stopgap for Cleveland if it has to move on from Mayfield.
Draft a rookie to pair with Case Keenum
If the Browns spend their first overall selection — No. 13 overall — on a quarterback, they would effectively be starting over at the position. That’s probably not something that the team wants to do considering that they have a well-built roster that is ready to compete now.
Still, it remains a possibility. If the Browns are forced to trade Mayfield and strike out on their other top quarterback options, they may draft a player like Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett to compete with Keenum for the starting job.
Keenum has won as a bridge quarterback before when he was in Minnesota, so Cleveland could do worse. Still, rolling with an unproven rookie and a journeyman to get back to the playoffs in a division featuring the reigning AFC champions doesn’t sound too appealing.