Super Browns? Why 2021 is Baker Mayfield’s best chance to end Cleveland’s drought

BEREA, Ohio — If not now — when? With Baker Mayfield leading the offense and Myles Garrett the defense, now is the time for the Cleveland Browns.

After playing the role of the NFL’s lovable losers for generations, the Browns are jokes no more. In fact, they might never have a better opportunity to make a Super Bowl run.

Can the Cleveland Browns hoist a Lombardi in 2021?

They have a competent, likable coach in Kevin Stefanski.

Stud running back Nick Chubb is +850 to win the rushing title. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry have at least one more chance to relive their LSU glory. The offensive line could be the best in the league.

But the Browns don’t intend to win only shootouts this year. The defense underwent a much-needed talent transfusion, giving Garrett all kinds of help. Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Newsome II, Troy Hill, Malik Jackson, and Takkarist McKinley are all new and expected to play significant roles.

Is Baker Mayfield the QB to lead the Browns to a Super Bowl?

The Browns have playoff pedigree, winning their first postseason game in 27 years last winter. And they have, at least for now, the most valuable asset in sports — a star quarterback on his rookie contract. Baker Mayfield is owed just $5 million this year between base salary and roster bonus.

And while he gets a nice bump next year — $18.9 million in guaranteed salary, courtesy of the fifth-year option — Mayfield will still be grossly underpaid if the Browns don’t extend him by then.

Whenever they eventually do pay Mayfield, the Browns will have to significantly reprioritize a payroll that currently has six players with eight-figure cap obligations (Beckham, Landry, Mayfield, Jack Conklin, and J.C. Tretter).

Fellow 2017 first-rounder Josh Allen helped reset the quarterback market Friday when he agreed to a six-year, $258 million contract with a staggering $150 million guaranteed. You can be sure that Mayfield’s agent, Tom Mills, took notice and will want something similar for his client.

So we repeat — if not now for the Browns, when?

They reached the AFC’s Divisional Round in 2020 but have even higher hopes this time around.

The biggest takeaway from that 11-5 2020 season?

“We can be in any game,” Conklin said. “There’s not a team out there that we can’t hang with and beat.

“I think the biggest thing always is just taking care of the ball,” he added. “That’s the big thing we want to cut down on. Pre-snap penalties and turnovers. I think you saw a big difference between the first eight games and the second eight games, the difference in how we took care of the ball, and that goes the whole way down to the line. Just protecting better and locking up the front seven.”

Mayfield made big strides in ball security in 2020. His interception rate was a microscopic 1.6%, and his QBR was 72.2, ranking 10th in the NFL. Mayfield ranked second in completed air yards (7.4 per play) and sixth in air yards per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats.

“It is Year 2 in the system for Baker so it is fine tuning on all the things that we have been building upon going back to last year,” Stefanski said. “That is true of really all of our returning guys — building off of what you did last year and some of the hard work that you put in. Then as you get into Year 2, 3, or 4, the nuance of all of these things starts to become even clearer.”

Expectations for the Browns and Mayfield are sky-high (and palpable)

There are no nuances when it comes to Browns fans’ expectations, however. Last year’s playoff success simply whetted their appetite. Cleveland hasn’t made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since Bernie Kosar was under center.

But after posting an underwater point differential in 2020 — Cleveland was one of just three teams to reach the postseason last year despite scoring fewer points than it allowed — there’s a real chance of win/loss regression in 2021.

The Browns, who have the league’s ninth-hardest schedule, could actually have a better team and yet lose more games.

“We have talked about it with the team before — obviously, we have talked about it in this setting — every year stands on its own merit,” Stefanski said. “You have to show up every day to compete, and that is where our focus is.”

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