Monday, January 24, 2022

NFL insider notebook: Browns appear stuck with Baker Mayfield for another year, plus Week 18 picks

Just more than a month ago I wrote in this space about the five options the Cleveland Browns had with Baker Mayfield. You can read the full post here, but the long and short of it was no matter how the season ended, he’d likely be back for 2022 playing under the fifth-year option.

As terrible — and, in fairness, injured — as he looked Monday against the Steelers, I still believe that’s the more likely option.

After speaking with sources around the league about what the Browns could do with Mayfield after he finished his fourth season with zero fourth-quarter comebacks or game-winning drives, a market issue began emerging.

The Browns would need a veteran QB to want to be traded there. That vet would need to be convinced of his receiving weapons. Cleveland’s receiving weapons are far from convincing and I don’t see how they markedly improve in three months by free agency.

Jarvis Landry just turned 29 and put together his worst career year. Whatever draft capital the Browns have in 2022 would be set away in a trade for said QB. And the free agent market for wide receivers will be bottom heavy. Davante Adams may get franchised. Chris Godwin is coming off an ACL. JuJu Smith-Schuster is coming off a shoulder injury. Michael Gallup just tore his ACL.

Are you really going to attract Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson to Cleveland with this group of receivers, even if you boast a fantastic offensive line and running game? Market forces, plus the sunk cost of Mayfield’s fifth-year option, could make it so the Browns have little choice but to move ahead with the former No. 1 overall pick for another season.

Baalke backlash not swaying Khan

Jaguars owner Shad Khan severely underestimated the fan reaction — nay, revolt — over his intention to retain GM Trent Baalke. But I’m told Khan remains steadfast in his decision to retain Baalke as general manager of the team moving forward.

As I wrote last week, the Jaguars were putting out feelers around the league for a No. 2 to pair with Baalke; a sort of director of player personnel or assistant GM. There’s been a lukewarm reaction. Baalke isn’t trusted or well-liked around the league based off his time in San Francisco, and there is initial discomfort in jumping over to work with him.

I’m told inside that building Baalke has been great to work with. Last year he kept showing up to the building every day even when there was no clarity on if he still had a job.

If there’s a perception/reality gap, the Jaguars have to handle that in the interview process with candidates. One personnel exec told me the decision to retain Baalke showed Khan not being tapped into the football world.

“It’s all about who your network is,” that executive told me. “If you can’t expand your network into the people you’re trying to hire, how do you know the truth?”

Black Monday could come early

For coaches and GMs on the hot seat, don’t be surprised if Black Monday begins Sunday evening.

Team owners opted against firing their coaches and GMs in the final two weeks of the regular season to get a jump on searches, but the schedule falls so that many of these men on hot seats could be out of a job before “Sunday Night Football” is complete.

The Vikings and Giants all play at home Sunday. There are no flights back home that have to be taken here. The Vikings especially may decide there’s no need to wait until Monday to do the inevitable with Mike Zimmer.

Jets winners when it comes to trades

The New York Jets have pulled off being so bad across different head coaches and GMs that they were able to convince other NFL teams that their good pieces would be great pieces if they could just get out of New York.

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after reflecting on the Jamal Adams and Sam Darnold trades, anyway. Their bad was so bad that NFL teams figured they could salvage these players and shine them into the stars worthy of the trade compensation given up.

The Jets won both trades and it’s not even close. For Darnold, the Panthers gave up a 2022 second, 2022 fourth and 2021 sixth. He has seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions for the Panthers this season, and they’ve already picked up his fifth-year option.

The Seahawks got Adams and a 2022 fourth while sending away two firsts, a third and safety Bradley McDougald. Adams has not been the missing piece to returning Seattle’s defense to the Legion of Boom era.

To pull off such heists, you have to be bad. I mean, really bad. An average team with those players would have never gotten that sort of return. But give credit to GM Joe Douglas: he leveraged the perception of the team against the true value of those player assets and got an inflated return.

Week 18 picks

I went 12-4 last week, though I feel like it should be 13-3. I have no recollection of picking the Panthers to beat the Saints and I can’t believe I did that. Oh well, my overall record is now 173-82-1. Let’s finish out strong here in Week 18, even if we’re not entirely sure who’s playing this week.

Steelers at Ravens

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

The Steelers still have a glimmer of hope to reach the playoffs, and that’ll be enough for them.

The pick: Steelers

Bears at Vikings

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET

TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)

I’ll take the Vikings starters in this one.

The pick: Vikings

Chargers at Raiders

Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET

TV: NBC | Stream: fuboTV (click here)

Wouldn’t we all sort of love to see these two teams kneel the clock out? Because the Colts will beat the Jags, we won’t be able to see it. The better team wins here.

The pick: Chargers

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