Baker Mayfield has room to grow after historic rookie year

There are many ways to sum up the impact of Baker Mayfield's rookie season with the Cleveland Browns.

Perhaps the best comes in the words of a team captain and leader.

“You’ve got to find that franchise quarterback in this league,” Browns guard Joel Bitonio said, “and I think we’ve found that.”

The feeling is shared throughout the organization.

Gone are the days of wondering who will start the following season’s opener or what quarterback will be drafted when. Instead, the Browns can concentrate on building a team and hiring a coach attracted to the job precisely because Mayfield is on the roster.

“He’s what our team’s going to run on for hopefully the next 10 or 15 years,” Bitonio said.

That’s a lot to throw on a 23-year-old, but in his rookie season, Mayfield seemed ready for all challenges. One sight stands out. When head coach Hue Jackson was fired, Mayfield stood at an interview and listened as the theory was presented to him that he might have to be the one to pick up the Browns by their bootstraps. Was Mayfield ready for that challenge?

He answered without hesitation: “Bring it on.”

Mayfield then went out and won five of eight games, and he was within one completed pass of beating the Baltimore Ravens in the season finale to win six of eight. In doing so, he also set a league record for rookie quarterbacks with 27 touchdown passes.

“He’s still a rookie,” Cleveland general manager John Dorsey said the day after the season ended. “There’s still a lot of nuances of the National Football League. He threw three interceptions [against Baltimore]. He can still work on those little things, understanding certain things, but he also broke an NFL record, so you applaud him for that.

“You would hope that he can grow exponentially [in year two] and by year three he is what we all thought he’d be.”

Mayfield offered his assessment.

“For me, there’s a lot of room for improvement,” he said, “and that’s promising for our team going forward.”

One way to evaluate Mayfield’s impact is in the passel of statistics that help illustrate the season he had.

The record for touchdown passes by a rookie had been held by Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson. Mayfield’s 3,725 passing yards ranked sixth all time among rookies. But that total came in 13 starts, three fewer than the five quarterbacks ahead of him. Consider average passing yards per game and Mayfield passes Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz and Manning to rank first at 286.5 yards per game.

Mayfield threw at least one touchdown pass in each of his 13 starts. He trails only Kurt Warner (23) and Brad Johnson (15) for the most consecutive starts to an NFL career with a touchdown pass.

He also is the first Browns quarterback to throw a touchdown in 13 consecutive starts since Frank Ryan did it in 14 games in 1966.

Mayfield had the first-, second- and fourth-best passing yardage games by a rookie in Browns history, and his 63.8 completion percentage was fourth in Browns history among all quarterbacks -- 0.9 percentage points behind all-time great Otto Graham.

He set team records for passing yards by a rookie and ranked fifth in team history in touchdown passes.

Three rookies were at the bottom of the league in passer rating -- Sam Darnold was 30th at 77.6, Josh Allen 31st at 67.9 and Josh Rosen last at 66.7. Mayfield? He ranked 19th at 93.7. According to Pro Football Reference, that rating is the highest for a rookie since the Browns joined the NFL in 1950 (minimum 100 passes).

While doing all of this, he gained the respect of his teammates -- who now look to him as the Browns' unquestioned leader -- and of his coaches. With the game on the line in Baltimore, interim coach Gregg Williams eschewed a 56-yard field goal try to win the contest and instead went with Mayfield.

“We put it in Baker’s hands,” Williams said.

In September, Drew Brees raised plenty of eyebrows when he said of Mayfield: “I think he can be a lot better than me.”

Brees wasn’t joking or pandering either.

“He has all of the tools,” Brees said on a conference call with the Cleveland media. “He is more athletic. He probably could run around better. He has a stronger arm. He has all of the tools.”

The screech in the background comes from the Browns, who want to put the brakes on casting a bust in Canton just yet for Mayfield.

“Obviously, he knows he needs to improve on some stuff, and he’s working at that,” Bitonio said. “I already know he’s going to come back better next year. But he’s a guy you want in your corner, and I’m happy he’s here.”

Where do the Browns and Mayfield point to for improvement?

There is the usual growth that takes place from one year to the next, especially from the rookie year to the second campaign. Add in that Mayfield accomplished all he did without a single first-team rep in the offseason, training camp or preseason. In his second year, Mayfield begins as the unquestioned starter, which should allow him to gain more cohesion with his teammates from the get-go.

Another area that needs to be addressed: his play against the better teams.

He lost four of five games against playoff teams (falling to the Chargers, Chiefs and Texans and splitting two with the Ravens) and had a passer rating of 76.4 and completion percentage of 59.3. In those five games, he threw eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

With Freddie Kitchens as coordinator, Mayfield had a passer rating of 83.1 and went 0-3 against Kansas City, Houston and Baltimore, with six TDs and seven interceptions.

In the games against non-playoff teams, he feasted, especially with Kitchens. Including the Jets game, during which he took over just before halftime, Mayfield went 6-3 against the Jets, Raiders, Bucs, Steelers, Falcons, Bengals (twice), Panthers and Broncos, with a passer rating of 107.6, 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.

With Kitchens as his coordinator, his rating against the doormats was 127.8, and Mayfield had 13 touchdowns and one interception. Those four teams finished the season a combined 26-38 (Atlanta, Carolina, Denver and Cincinnati twice), and Mayfield was 5-0 against them.

Making too much of this is silly. Good teams are good for a reason: They make other teams struggle when they play them. It would be natural that any quarterback’s numbers might drop against better teams, and the fairest comparison would require comparing every quarterback in the NFL against good teams and losing teams to what Mayfield did, then see how far Mayfield's numbers deviate from the norm.

However, the numbers also can’t be discarded. If the Browns continue to improve as it seems they will, the competition will become more intense -- and in the playoffs every team will be good.

It’s something to be aware of -- and something Mayfield can grow from.

The Browns exude zero concern that Mayfield will not use everything that happened this past season in a positive way. His presence and play and Cleveland's in-season turnaround have the Browns just as excited as their fans about what is to come.

As Cleveland safety Damarious Randall said: “Watch out in 2019.”