Continuity, comfort have Browns' Baker Mayfield poised for 'huge jump' in 2021

BEREA, Ohio -- Turmoil and turnover marred Baker Mayfield’s first three NFL offseasons.

He became just the third quarterback in NFL history to have four different head coaches over his first three seasons with the same team.

Instead of building off what he’d learned the year before, Mayfield had to spend those initial offseasons learning new offenses while adapting to new playcallers and coaching staffs.

Those days, however, appear to be over. Mayfield, finally, has continuity around him.

Coming off last year’s playoff run, the Browns return the entire coaching staff from last season, including Kevin Stefanski, who was named NFL Coach of the Year in part for helping Mayfield get back on track by placing him in a heavy play-action scheme that suited his skill set. The rest of the staff returns, as well, including offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who once coached Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and helped Mayfield refine his footwork and regain his confidence.

On top of that, all 11 offensive starters are back, as well as every top reserve who played a key role off the sidelines.

For those reasons, Mayfield seems primed to take another leap off last season, when he reestablished himself by finishing in the top 10 of QBR while leading the Browns to their first postseason victory in 26 years.

“I think we have to have a true identity rolling into this year where we can grow as the season goes on,” Mayfield said at the outset of training camp. “You don’t want to peak early. You want to be good, but you want to continue to get better each week.

“I think that continuity is going to help us with that.”

Above all, it should help Mayfield.

Mayfield, at times, had weathered the tumult surrounding him. He thrived after the Browns fired coach Hue Jackson in the middle of the 2018 season, breaking the NFL rookie record with 27 touchdown passes on the way to finishing second in the Offensive Rookie of the Year voting behind New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley.

But in 2019, Mayfield struggled under coach Freddie Kitchens as Cleveland finished a disappointing 6-10, resulting in the Browns firing both Kitchens and general manager John Dorsey, who’d selected Mayfield with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft.

Out of that chaos, though, owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, along with chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, finally unearthed the stability the franchise had desperately lacked since rejoining the NFL in 1999.

Stefanski and Mayfield meshed immediately, dating back to their dinner meeting in Mayfield’s hometown of Austin, Texas, a month before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country and turned the NFL offseason into a virtual one. That rapport carried over into the season, and has only grown from there.

“I actually know what he looks like now [without] the mask,” Mayfield said of his second training camp with Stefanski. “It’s just different now. ... Being with Kevin and being able to have those conversations, there’s a lot more communication going on now than there was last year -- not that we were lacking any -- but it’s just a lot more accessible now.”

Stefanski has worked wonderfully in tandem with general manager Andrew Berry, who in his first offseason last year transformed Mayfield’s offensive line, signing All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin, then using the 10th overall pick in the draft on Alabama left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.

Buoyed by arguably the most improved offensive line in the league, the Browns finished sixth in offensive efficiency, with Mayfield flourishing behind the protection. In fact, from Week 7 to Week 15, as he settled into Stefanski’s system and the offense jelled around him, Mayfield ranked third in QBR, trailing only two of the past three league MVPs, Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.

“In the last seven or eight games last year, he really played well,” Van Pelt said. “I think he now feels that. He understands what that looks like and how he has to operate within the system to be successful.”

Mayfield sat out Cleveland’s preseason opener in Jacksonville, and is expected to sit out Sunday’s preseason game against the New York Giants. But Thursday, in a joint practice with the Giants, Mayfield picked up where he left off last season, completing passes all over the field in scrimmage situations. Then, to cap off the practice, he drove the Browns down the field in a two-minute situation, before finding Rashard Higgins for a 19-yard touchdown as the clock expired.

“We are trying things that are pretty challenging offensively -- how we want to run routes, certain looks and formationally how we are setting things up,” Mayfield said of the second year in the offense. “We are trying to challenge ourselves each practice. Our guys are handling it correctly, and we are just getting better.”

But, Mayfield cautioned, the true test will come once the season begins.

“Last year, none of that matters,” Mayfield said. “But we are much further along because everybody is not learning [the offense] for the first time. That’s a key part. ... Now, I’m truly hoping to make a huge jump, taking care of the ball and being efficient.”