Baker Mayfield contract: Why Browns are paying most of QB's 2022 salary after trade to Panthers

Baker Mayfield contract: Why Browns are paying most of QB's 2022 salary after trade to Panthers

From the outside looking in, it seems the Cleveland Browns held out as long as possible to trade Baker Mayfield. 2018’s No. 1 overall pick was traded to the Panthers for a fifth-round draft pick in 2024 that can convert to a fourth-rounder based on playing time, as the Panthers continue to try to figure out their situation at quarterback.

The more curious aspect of the deal, however, was the payment structure. NFL teams will sometimes absorb cap relief for the team a player is dealt to, but it’s far more common in the NBA, NHL, or MLB than it is in football. The Panthers will reportedly pay Mayfield $5.5 million this year rather than his full $18.9 million. The Browns are absorbing $10.5 million of his salary and Mayfield negotiated a pay cut that he can reportedly earn back via incentives.

There are a myriad of reasons why the Browns would do this, and they mostly come down to leverage. The Panthers, meanwhile, already have a quarterback with Mayfield’s exact same initial cap hit on their roster in Sam Darnold.

Both quarterbacks are on the fifth-year option of their rookie deals and will be free agents after the season.

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Baker Mayfield contract: Why did the Browns pay part of 2022 salary?

The Browns had minimal leverage in the Mayfield situation, and the teams they were negotiating with knew it. Upon trading for Deshaun Watson, it was abundantly clear Mayfield and the Browns were heading for a split.

Mayfield posted what amounted to a good-bye to Cleveland and its fans, and even as talks of Watson’s suspension heated up, he showed no interest of returning to the fold to play out the rest of his contract. Mayfield reinforced this by not showing up for team activities.

For the Panthers, the money was undoubtedly a non-starter. They already had Darnold on the same cap hit, and that would have tied up about $38 million — that’s between Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford money — in Darnold and Mayfield.

In addition, Mayfield spent portions of last season injured (and playing through injuries), which visibly hampered him on the field.

All of this was under the perfect storm of the Browns entering an extremely busy quarterback market incredibly late in the game. Russell Wilson had already been dealt and the Matt Ryan deal happened extremely quickly after the Falcons failed to land Watson.

All things told, the Browns could only ask for so much for Mayfield if they truly wanted to deal him, and they hardly had a choice but to do so unless they wanted him to walk for nothing after the season.

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What’s next for the Browns?

Even with the $10.5 million on the books for Mayfield, the Browns are in a team-friendly quarterback position. They only have $1 million tied up in Watson this season before the time to pay the piper (depending on his suspension status) comes up next year. 

Jacoby Brissett is on a one-year deal worth $4.65 million this season. So for their three “top” quarterbacks, the Browns are paying just about $16 million this year. Plenty of room to build around short-term.

Mayfield’s contract comes off the books next season, and of course is he plays this season how he does will ultimately determine what his market looks like next year.