For years, Browns fans were hopeful the team could deliver on its talent and make the playoffs. That hope increased greatly when Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was taken first overall in the 2018 draft. That first season, Mayfield took over as starter after three games, going 6-7 in his 13 starts and setting a then-rookie record with his 27 touchdown passes.
That season, Mayfield completed 63.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,725 yards and being named Rookie of the Year. As Offensive Coordinator Freddie Kitchens took over as coach and Odell Beckham, Jr., came over from the Giants, expectations for year two were sky high. But it took the Browns a while to come together, and Mayfield hit a bit of sophomore slump. He completed 59.4 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,827 yards and 22 TDs with 21 INTs. The Browns, despite the weight of expectations, finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs.
Finally, in 2020, it all came together. Under new coach Kevin Stefanski, Mayfield started all 16 games, guiding the team to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth. The team won its first playoff game against the Steelers before falling short against the Chiefs in the divisional round. Despite the success as a team, Mayfield threw for the fewest yards in his career, with 3,563 yards and 22 TDs. He finished as QB17 on the season.
The Browns are again looking like contenders in 2021, and Mayfield seems to have found himself in Stefanski’s offense. Expectations are again high for the Browns, but will that translate into reliable success for fantasy players?
Odell Beckham, Jr.
One of the big questions when it comes to Mayfield’s potential as a fantasy QB1 is around the Browns’ biggest pass-catcher, Beckham. Beckham spent his first five seasons with the Giants, catching 390 passes for 5,476 yards and 44 TDs. When he was traded to the Browns, with Mayfield coming off an electric rookie season, most expected fireworks. Their first season together, those fireworks didn’t come. Beckham saw 133 targets, catching 74 for 1,035 yards and four TDs. Mayfield finished as QB19, while Beckham finished as WR25.
In 2020, Beckham was limited to six and a half games before a knee injury cut his season short. He saw 43 targets, catching 23 for 319 yards and three TDs. During the first six full games Mayfield and Beckham played together, Mayfield ranked as QB26. The Browns went 4-2 during that stretch and won their seventh game where Beckham was injured to start 5-2.
Those early numbers with Beckham combined with how the Browns finished the season led many to believe that Mayfield and the Browns’ offense was better without the star receiver. While Mayfield did finish as QB19 from Weeks 8 to 17, it wasn’t an astronomical jump. The Browns went 6-3 over that stretch, about on par with where the team was with Beckham.
In addition, the Browns averaged 364.4 yards per game during the team’s first seven contests and 373.5 in Weeks 8 to 17. It was a modest increase, one goosed by a trio of shoot outs in Weeks 12 to 14 against the Jaguars, Titans and Ravens. In the small sample size, it’s tough to say conclusively the Browns were a better offense. Or that Mayfield is a better fantasy quarterback without Beckham, who has long been a premier pass-catcher.
What will we see from Mayfield in 2021? In his three years in Cleveland, Mayfield has never finished higher than QB16, which he did in his rookie year. In 2019 he finished as QB19 and as QB17 last year. However, a stretch during the back half of 2019, as the Browns’ offense found itself during a closing stretch that saw the team go 4-4. Mayfield finished as QB9 during that stretch from Week 10 to the end of the season. Jarvis Landry was WR3 during that stretch, while Beckham was WR25.
As Mayfield enters his fourth season, for the first time he’ll have the same coach and system he had the prior year. In other words, there won’t be a learning curve as he begins the season. He will have a full off-season and pre-season in addition to the core cast returning from 2020. But it is a run-first system.
During Mayfield’s stretch as QB9 in 2019, Nick Chubb was RB15 and Kareem Hunt was RB17. In 2020, Hunt finished as RB11 while Chubb, who played in just 12 games, finished as RB11. If healthy for the full season, Chubb figures to be a Top 10 back in 2021. That aligns with Stefanski’s work in Minnesota before coming to the Browns. In 2018, Kirk Cousins finished as QB13 then finished as QB18. In 2018, Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray combined for nearly 1,200 rushing yards and eight TDs, while in 2019, Cook finished as RB6.
Mayfield is currently going at an ADP of QB21. That makes sense given a new rookie class and Mayfield’s past finishes. But I think it’s too low, making Mayfield a value. He has potential to finish Top 12, but I like him more as a high-end QB2 rather than the low-end QB2 where his ADP sits. Cousins’ 2018 season feels instructive, as he passed for 4,298 yards and 30 TDs. Without the learning curve to start 2021, and with a full season of Beckham in the lineup – I think this is the year Baker cracks 4,000 yards and meets or surpasses his passing TD total from his rookie season.
With those potential numbers, Mayfield is a strong bet to finish between QB13 and QB16. In 2020, Derek Carr was QB13 with 4,103 passing yards and 27 TDs. That feels like the kind of attainable stat line we should expect from Mayfield in 2021, making him a good return on investment at his current price.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus 2 Canton Network.