If the Browns could’ve landed Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, they probably would have. But according to multiple sources, general manager Andrew Berry continues to indicate he doesn’t view any of the other quarterbacks who could be had via trade or free agency as worthwhile upgrades over Mayfield, when healthy. That list includes Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo and free agent Mitchell Trubisky.
Deshaun Watson conceivably could be the one wild card. But a grand jury will hear evidence Friday in the case involving Watson, who faces allegations ranging from harassment and inappropriate behavior to sexual assault during massage sessions. A decision on criminal charges could come as early as Friday. In light of that, any NFL ownership would have a difficult time justifying a Watson trade.
And so, Berry met with Mayfield’s agent during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last week to reaffirm privately what both he and coach Kevin Stefanski have repeatedly said publicly since the end of the season -- Mayfield is their guy.
Mayfield is entering the final year of his rookie contract. And even before his disappointing, injury-plagued 2021 season, the Browns had refrained from engaging Mayfield’s camp on any extension talks, according to multiple sources. As a result, Mayfield will be a free agent after the season. If he bounces back, the Browns could franchise tag him, revisit an extension, or both. If he struggles, they could cut ties.
The Browns, however, remain bullish that a healthy Mayfield could bounce back and rekindle the 2020 form that saw him quarterback Cleveland to its first playoff victory in 26 years.
Mayfield underwent surgery on Jan. 19 to repair the torn labrum in his non-throwing left shoulder he suffered in Week 2 against the Houston Texans, which hampered him throughout the 2021 season.
He has been rehabilitating the shoulder in his hometown of Austin, Texas, this offseason and is ahead of schedule in his recovery, sources said; Mayfield, in fact, could begin playing catch again in the next couple of weeks.
The surgery revealed plenty of damage, as Mayfield continued to play through the labrum tear, even after reaggravating the injury in Week 6 against the Arizona Cardinals, which forced him to sit out a game. Mayfield’s rehab, however, has been bolstered, sources say, because of how strong the shoulder was around the injury, due to the strengthening exercises he maintained during the season to keep playing.
Though it remains unknown when exactly Mayfield will be fully cleared, he is still hoping to convene what likely will be a revamped receiving corps for another training stint later this offseason at Lake Travis -- his high school alma mater in Austin -- similar to the one he hosted last summer.
With the quarterback question seemingly settled, the Browns have work to do to remake a team around Mayfield that finished 8-9 and missed the playoffs. Here's what to watch for from Cleveland as the NFL offseason heats up:
The Browns will be on the hunt to improve Mayfield’s wide receiving corps, which was also a massive disappointment last year. Cleveland didn’t have a single wideout top 600 receiving yards, and Jarvis Landry had more than 35 receptions.
Landry, who has a $16.6 million cap hit with no guaranteed money left on the final year of his deal, seems unlikely to be back, barring a drastic restructuring of his contract. Though Landry did tweet last month that he would “like to stay” in Cleveland, all signs have been pointing to the two sides moving on.
Releasing Landry would leave Cleveland with arguably the worst wide receiver group -- featuring Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz and Ja'Marcus Bradley -- in the league. Which is why upgrading the receiving room figures to be priority No. 1 for Berry.
The big name to watch here is Amari Cooper.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter recently reported the Dallas Cowboys are “likely” to release Cooper, whose $20 million base salary becomes guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year, March 20. The Cowboys, however, will be looking to trade Cooper before then, which gives Cleveland the opportunity for a preemptive strike. ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer suggested a midround draft pick might get a deal done.
If the Browns don’t trade for Cooper before he’s released, look for them to be a player to sign him. Cooper, 27, is a proven No. 1 wideout, something the Browns desperately need to add to their offense in the wake of the Odell Beckham Jr. debacle.
Cleveland also was rumored to be interested in Mike Williams and Chris Godwin, according to sources. But with Williams signing a new deal with the Chargers and Tampa Bay tagging Godwin this week, Cooper appears to have emerged as a top target.
Adding Cooper and a blue-chip rookie receiver like Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson (who went to the same high school, Lake Travis, as Mayfield), USC’s Drake London or Arkansas’ Treylon Burks via the No. 13 overall pick in the upcoming draft would transform Cleveland’s receiving corps and potentially equip Mayfield with the weapons to deliver a bounce-back season.
The case for some vets
The Browns do have other veterans under contract besides Landry that they’ll need to make decisions on. ESPN analyst Jeremy Fowler recently reported Cleveland is planning to keep tight end Austin Hooper even after franchise tagging David Njoku. Hooper is set to make $9.5 million this year, but releasing him would result in more than $10 million of dead money against the cap.
It’s far more likely the Browns will move on from backup quarterback Case Keenum, who has a $1 million bonus due on the third day of the league year (March 18). The organization remains enamored with Keenum, but he’s expensive for a backup quarterback.
Cleveland could opt to elevate third-stringer Nick Mullens to backup quarterback. Mullens performed admirably in his one start on Dec. 20 in a narrow loss against the Raiders amid a COVID-19 outbreak in Cleveland, and sources say Mayfield and Mullens have become tight in recent months. But, if they do release Keenum, the Browns could be inclined to at least look around for other backup quarterback options.
Center JC Tretter is the other veteran who could become a cap casualty. Tretter has been battling knee injuries the past couple of seasons, which have kept him from practicing regularly. The Browns also drafted his potential replacement two years ago in Nick Harris. Tretter, who doubles as the NFLPA president, is entering the final year of his deal, with no guaranteed money remaining and an $8.3 million cap hit. The Browns could get out from under his deal with just $1.63 million in dead money.
What the Browns do here hinges heavily on whether they believe Harris is ready to take over.
Clowney and the D-line
After the season, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney expressed a desire to return to Cleveland on the heels of a banner year playing opposite All-Pro Myles Garrett. The Browns, however, are increasingly pessimistic that they’ll be able to re-sign him after landing him on a one-year, prove-it deal last offseason.
If Clowney does bolt, Cleveland’s defensive line would be a major question mark outside of Garrett. Defensive tackle Malik McDowell is unlikely to return after an offseason arrest, and Cleveland’s other starting defensive tackle from last year, Malik Jackson, is a free agent.
Dallas' financial crunch, however, could pay off for the Browns defensively.
Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is another name to watch. He reportedly is looking for a new contract from Dallas, which could prompt the Cowboys to split with him as well. Lawrence missed 10 games last year with a broken foot. But he's also a two-time Pro Bowler, who could help ease the sting of losing Clowney.
As for defensive tackle, the Browns could look to patch together a rotation similar to the way they did last offseason. And if the top receivers are off the board when Cleveland drafts in the first round, somebody like massive Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis could be an option, too. The Browns could use another young cornerstone talent upfront alongside Garrett.
On the flip side, the Browns are set in the secondary after a terrific season there collectively. But they’re unlikely to bring back Ronnie Harrison, which could put them in the market for a third safety, alongside starters John Johnson III and Grant Delpit.
On the other side of the ball, D'Ernest Johnson had a fabulous season for the Browns last year as their No. 3 running back, twice rushing for more than 100 yards. Even though the Browns have Pro Bowler Nick Chubb and former rushing champ Kareem Hunt in their backfield, they’re expected to tender Johnson before the Wednesday deadline, per a league source.
The Browns have also expressed an interest in bringing back wide receiver Rashard Higgins, who, after a standout 2020 season, was in and out of the receiving rotation last year. Higgins, however, is expected to pursue his options in free agency elsewhere first.