Imagine visiting your favorite gourmet steakhouse with a friend.
You order a nice cut of beef, perhaps a filet mignon or a juicy ribeye. When the final bill comes, your friend kindly agrees to pay for the tab. All you have to do is leave the tip for the server.
This is essentially what the Carolina Panthers are doing in their trade for Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.
However, when looking at how the Panthers have searched for a quarterback in recent years, it’s a little more complex.
The money owed to Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold in 2022
The Panthers are due to pay $4.85 million of Mayfield’s 2022 salary, while the Cleveland Browns will pay $10.5 million. Mayfield agreed to convert the remainder of his $18.8 million salary into incentives (about $3.45 million) to facilitate the deal to the Panthers.
In exchange for Mayfield, the Panthers gave up a 2024 conditional draft pick, which will be either in the fourth or fifth round. Mayfield would have to play 70% of the Panthers’ offensive snaps for the Browns to get back a fourth-round pick. Otherwise, it will be a fifth-round pick.
Considering the earning power of NFL starting quarterbacks, a one-year flier on Mayfield is a bargain. Spotrac.com shows the average salary for an NFL quarterback is about $7.25 million per year. The top 10 highest-paid quarterbacks have an average annual salary of $49.4 million this season.
Sam Darnold, selected by the New York Jets with the third overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, is due to make about $18.86 million this season. The approximate $23.71 million owed to Mayfield and Darnold combined is still less expensive compared to what many teams pay a single starter.
The Panthers have been searching for a suitable quarterback since Cam Newton was released in March 2020 after his first stint with the team.
Before the 2021 season, the Panthers acquired Darnold in a trade with the Jets in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2021 draft, and a second-rounder and fourth-rounder in 2022. The Panthers also picked up Darnold’s fifth-year option for the 2022 season, which is the final year of his rookie contract.
In March 2020, the Panthers signed Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million contract, only to trade him to Denver a year later.
Newton returned for a second stint in the 2021 season to fill the void left when Darnold was injured and to muster fan support. The Panthers front office had to do something to keep fans coming to Bank of America stadium, especially considering star running back Christian McCaffrey has played in only 10 games combined over the last two seasons due to injuries.
The Panthers traded up in the 2022 NFL Draft to select Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral in the third round.
The Mayfield vs. Darnold training camp battle means Corral won’t get as many practice reps with the first-team and second-team offenses.
Spotrac.com shows Panthers’ approximate $25.54 million allocated to their four quarterbacks — Mayfield, Darnold, Corral and P.J. Walker — ranks 10th in the NFL. Plus, the team traded away draft capital to get those four quarterbacks.
The fallout between Baker Mayfield and the Browns
Mayfield’s four-year tenure with the Browns changed forever in Week 2 of the 2021 season during the 31-21 win over the Houston Texans. In the second quarter with the game tied at 7-7, Mayfield overthrew a pass intended for rookie receiver Anthony Schwartz and it got intercepted by safety Justin Reid.
On the interception return, Mayfield tried to tackle Reid, injuring his left, non-throwing shoulder on the play. It was a costly decision by Mayfield. Several reports indicated Mayfield continued to play most of the 2021 season with a torn labrum and fracture in his left shoulder. Mayfield, who wore a shoulder harness for the remainder of the 2021 season, was never quite the same player. He had surgery to repair the shoulder near the end of last season.
It’s unclear why Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, general manager Andrew Berry or head coach Kevin Stefanksi didn’t force a hurt Mayfield to sit in favor of established veteran Case Keenum. It’s also surprising Mayfield decided to gut through the pain for almost the entirety of the 2021 season.
In 2018, Keenum won a playoff game as the starting quarterback for the Vikings when Stefanski served as the team’s interim offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
It’s worth noting that a different Browns regime had drafted Mayfield in 2018: Former general manager John Dorsey now holds a front office role with the Detroit Lions and former head coach Hue Jackson is now the head coach at Grambling State University. Jackson had a 3-36 record as head coach of the Browns from 2016-2018.
Mayfield played for four different head coaches in Cleveland: Jackson, interim head coach Gregg Williams, Freddie Kitchens and Stefanski.
Perhaps Mayfield wanted to play through injury last season to try to continue the success of the 2020 Browns team, which broke a playoff drought that dated back to the 2002 season. At the time, it was the NFL’s longest active playoff drought.
Mayfield had several significant contributions to a Browns franchise that has undergone quarterback hell:
In the opening week of the 2021 season, the Browns nearly upset the Kansas City Chiefs. If not for a dropped snap by punter Jamie Gillan, the Browns likely would have knocked off the defending AFC champions. Remember, the Chiefs were the same team to knock the Browns out of the playoffs the season before.
Midway through the 2021 season, Mayfield had a falling out with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. The star receiver’s father shared a YouTube video on his Instagram page that was critical of Mayfield’s play. Specifically, the video highlighted the plays where Mayfield threw incomplete passes to an open Beckham.
There were reports of a divided Browns’ locker room between players siding with Mayfield or Beckham.
In November 2021, the Browns waived Beckham, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams and won a Super Bowl.
In addition, Mayfield had his own rift with coaches and the front office. Ahead of the Browns’ Week 14 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, Mayfield hinted at internal discord with the Browns franchise in an interview with the NFL Network’s Kurt Warner.
The turmoil continued in the offseason when a report surfaced claiming the Browns front office wanted “an adult” at the quarterback position.
However, what does it say about Mayfield that the Browns would rather deal with the uncertainty of Deshaun Watson’s ongoing fallout from his sexual assault and sexual harassment allegations? Instead, the Browns chose not to let Mayfield play out the final year of his rookie contract.
The Browns have never won the Super Bowl. They last won an NFL championship in 1964 in the pre-Super Bowl era before the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
It appears Watson will miss at least six games of the 2022 season. And that suspension could be extended as the NFL announced Wednesday it would appeal judge Sue L. Robinson’s initial ruling. Robinson’s punishment — in her first case since being jointly appointed by the league and NFL Players Association — fell short of the indefinite suspension of at least one year sought by the league.
With Mayfield gone, it’s likely the Browns start the 2022 season with journeyman Jacoby Brissett at quarterback while Watson serves a suspension of some sort. Brissett finished his college career at NC State, completing 765 passes for 5,268 yards in two seasons (2014-15).
Going into the 2021 season, it’s likely Mayfield sought a contract extension with a similar average annual salary to that of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who is due to receive an average of $43 million per year through the 2028 season. Like Mayfield, Allen was also selected in the 2018 draft.
While Mayfield has never had the same on-field success as Allen, the former Heisman Trophy winner played well in the back half of the 2020 season.
Some may point to the success of the Browns’ running game led by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but several of Mayfield’s lower passing totals came during games with poor weather conditions at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. In 2020, Mayfield played in several games with cold temperatures, snow and even hail.
Despite how the rest of the league valued Mayfield this offseason, there is a reason he starred in so many Progressive insurance commercials. In some stretches, he played well for the Browns to warrant his presence in said commercials.
What the oddsmakers say
The 2022 season is a make-or-break year for third-year Panthers head coach Matt Rhule.
Oddsmakers list Rhule at +300 as the favorite to be the first NFL coach fired this season. It means a winning $100 bet on Rhule would result in a $300 profit for a $400 net payout.
Rhule has explained how Darnold and Mayfield will split times with the first and second teams to open training camp.
“We really wanted our guys to have the ability to work with the same receivers for the entire day,” Rhule said on July 27.
Oddsmakers list Mayfield as the heavy favorite to start for the Panthers in Week 1. He’s listed at -1500, which means a $1,500 bet would win $100 for a net payout of $1,600.
Also, Darnold has never played a full season in his first four years in the NFL, including when a fractured scapula injury in Week 9 of the 2021 season forced him to miss five games. The Panthers made a major upgrade on their offensive line in the offseason when they selected N.C. State offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu with the sixth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Some may point to Darnold’s lack of success and attribute it to the dysfunction within the Jets organization. Others may say Darnold is still “seeing ghosts” behind center.
However, Darnold and the Panthers started last season 3-0, with a 19-14 Week 1 win over the Jets, Darnold’s former team. The Panthers then went into a tailspin, losing four games in a row. The season was lost by the time Darnold returned in Week 16.
This season the Panthers open their regular season against the Browns, Mayfield’s former team. The Sept. 11 game at Bank of America Stadium will be must-watch television, especially if Mayfield is the starter.
Oddsmakers predict the Panthers will finish third in the NFC South division behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints. Here are the projected over/under win totals:
Perhaps the competition between Mayfield and Darnold will bring out the best in each. However, the lucrative contract both players seek is only possible for one of them, and that’s if the starter plays well. The backup will be holding a clipboard on the sidelines.
The question becomes: Will the Panthers improve enough in 2022 for Rhule to remain the coach? Time will tell.
The Panthers will first need to determine who is best under center. If they can’t stay sizzling through the season, the franchise could clean house at season’s end.