BEREA, Ohio – Good luck trying to ask anyone around here about Baker Mayfield without hearing a similar refrain.
Before you can even complete the full sentence asking a player, coach, front office exec or random staffer about the first-overall pick, the response starts coming, somewhat rapid fire, by the time you get to "Mayf," and generally sounds something like this: He's everything we could have ever hoped for and more. It's fairly unanimous, and, perhaps, somewhat knee-jerk, given all of the mishaps and maladies and, frankly, failure around here developing a competent young quarterback since the Browns franchise re-entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. Of course, none of these sins rest upon the shoulders of new general manager John Dorsey, the man responsible for making the bold selection of Mayfield with the top pick, but when the head coach has been a big part of it and the owners have deep quarterback stains to bear as well, its not surprising that people throughout the team headquarters are openly gushing about the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
"Baker Mayfield has been everything I thought a quarterback should be for our organization thus far," Hue Jackson said after the kid looked crisp during Sunday's lengthy practice. "He is doing the things that we want him to do, the way we want him to do it and he is exceeding those things because he is putting in the time. He does not have a pride or [arrogance] any kind of way."
Not that I blame them. When you have one win over two NFL seasons – a truly remarkable accomplishment in this era of diluted talents (especially in the AFC) and "parity" and all of that – you'd best be as positive as can be, especially about the future face of the franchise. And nothing I've seen in my two days here leads me to cast a discouraging eye about what I've seen from Mayfield on the field or around the facility (of course, whatever happens in the RV the quarterbacks are cohabitating in parked behind the practice fields stays in the RV, so none of us our privy to such playbook studying, film consumption or general hijinks.
"What RV?" Taylor deadpanned at one point, looking to downplay the brewing camp subplot before adding, "its just something for us to be able to relax and get away."
There is plenty to be excited about when Mayfield runs outside the picket and slings the ball into a tight window, or lofts a deep pass down the sideline or expertly executes a sneaky RPO, holding the ball 'til the last second and delivering an effective head tilt or body fake. All of that is great. But let's clear something up real quick. He's not as accurate, productive, effective, nuanced, mature or composed as Tyrod Taylor is – it's not really a fair fight – and for an organization as desperate for some wins and a fanbase so starved for a modicum of a consistently professional football, there really is no decision to be made here for Week 1. Several people whispered to me how effective they believe Taylor will be in this offense, and they weren't talking about in August.
Especially after the recent debacles with Johnny Manziel and Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan and, most notably and recently, DeShone Kizer just last season, there isn't any overly-compelling reason to start Mayfield right away, Taylor is more than prepared, and accomplished enough to lead this team out of the winless abyss, and for all of the talk about a quarterback competition with the Browns I frankly don't expect there to be much deliberation necessary to reach a conclusion come September. It'll be Taylor, with the real question being: For how long.
Taylor clearly has chemistry with the starting receivers and particularly with a gaping hole at left tackle right now (more on that below), all the more reason not to throw the top pick in the deep end right away. Taylor's touch on the fades at practice has been precise, he doesn't get rattled or turn the ball over (something all almost all young QBs do and something that derailed Cleveland a year ago), and with a daunting early schedule, I simply can't see the Browns not going with the veteran regardless of what transpires in the preseason games (barring injury, of course).
You can see the difference most clearly when things aren't crisp. Mayfield, when he misses, tends to miss big, with receivers having to sky for balls or sideline out passes skipping hard into the stands or the ball falling five feet in front of the receiver. That's the stuff that will end up with players going off on a cart and the ball going back the other way on a pick six. Overall, there is genuine enthusiasm about the gains being made by Mayfield, particularly in his accuracy. "I think that he is seeing the offense unfold a little bit better," Jackson said.
Most importantly, there is universal praise for the esprit de corps in the quarterback room (and in the RV they share), and Mayfield's willingness to adopt the work ethic of the veteran quarterbacks and more or less live in the vicinity of the film room.
"He spends a lot of time here in the building," Jackson said. "To me, he and Tyrod probably should just sleep here. These guys are here 24/7 doing everything that they need to do, along with Drew. That is good for that group."
Mayfield said: "it's a great quarterback room to be in. It's not very common to be in one like this … I've been blessed to be in this situation."
- The quarterback situation gets all the national attention, for obvious reasons, but within the facility attention is most squarely on the offensive line. Specifically, who – or what combination of players – will try to fill the void left by the retirement of future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. It won't be an easy fit in the locker room or on the field. First crack is going to third-year lineman Shon Coleman, a former third-round pick who has ideal size at 6-5, 310, but plenty of questions about him (I don't see this working out). Coleman has a tendency to hold and is far from a proven commodity. There are at least three other candidates including former first-round bust Greg Robinson who suffered a concussion in camp, and I can't but help but wonder if this will be a revolving door. "Whoever the guy is, we'll make a decision and we'll work with that guy," offensive line coach Bob Wylie said. With Taylor looking the part of starting QB, this is the real position battle to keep an eye on and one that could undermine some of the gains they have made with the skill position players here. The last resort, Wylie said, would be moving their best lineman, Joel Bitonio to left tackle. If A was the first option at tackle "that would be Z," Wylie said, though he also didn't rule it out. Thomas, for his part, opined that he does not believe rookie Austin Corbett has the chops for left tackle, but I suspect he gets a long look there anyway.
- Dez Bryant isn't a natural fit here and, frankly, if you are the veteran receiver you might as well wait for other options. The Browns have a modicum of interest at the right price, I'm told, with Josh Gordon out indefinitely (more on his situation later), but this wouldn't be a lucrative deal for Bryant and if he is in a "prove-it" situation he may as well wait for a contending team with a more established offense to come calling when the inevitable injuries strike around the league. I'm told the Browns have yet to reach out to the veteran receiver and nothing is imminent.
- Browns seem willing to wait a while for Josh Gordon if need be. Most organizations would have cut the ties a long time ago.
- Jarvis Landry earned some headlines for declaring that he believes the Browns could be a Super Bowl team – trust me, that is not a widespread rallying cry here – and there is a sense of things finally turning around in Cleveland, but don't expect to hear too much more of that talk. Landry is affable and prone to hyperbole, though there is certainly no harm in aiming high after being down for so long. "No one is going to take seriously anything we say until we go out and do it," veteran guard JC Tretter said. Count me among those who believes six wins isn't out of the question if the offensive tackle spot is solidified. Landy told me: "If you aren't in this to win a Super Bowl, then what are you playing for? It's July. I would think everyone's goal is to win the Super Bowl. Am I supposed to be saying I hope we go 7-9?" Hard to argue with that.
- Whilie it's already pretty clear Taylor is in line to be the starting quarterback, it's a lot different vibe than in years past where sometimes three quarterbacks could stake a claim to the gig. A year ago reps were being split among Deshone Kizer, Brock OSweiler and Codey Kessler, for instance, and while Mayfield will certainly get some looks, less may be more in this instance. "The more reps you get with one guy … is better for you," Tretter said, speaking from the line's perspective. "Anytime you get the consistency with one guy."
- Jackson no longer carrying the entire load of basically being the offensive coordinator, play caller, and quarterback coach should pay some dividends. The offense is in good hands with Todd Haley now running the show and the diversification of duties should allow Jackson to focus on game-day decision-making and management, which has been a significant issue contributing to the 1-31 mark the past two seasons.
- It's impossible not to be taken aback by just how huge and ripped tight end David Njoku is, with the long arms and reach of a dominant defensive lineman. His potential is massive … but he seems to have the hands of a defensive end, too. He had at least three easy drops in Sunday's practice and just struggles for consistency. Haley has a knack for maximizing tight ends, so we'll see.
- Dorsey loves to take character risks, and rookie receiver Antonio Callaway fits that mold after a brief and very checkered college career. He's getting regular starting reps with Gordon yet to report to camp, and he has some definite skill and wiggle. "He belongs," one member of the front office said. Keeping him out of trouble could be a chore, but it's the kind of challenge Dorsey seems to relish.
- Corey Coleman looks better than I have ever seen him look, but the recent first-round pick is also already battling soft tissue problems. He's been injured seemingly since he entered the league. Jackson credited him for battling through it to practice this week, but you have to wonder how long that continues. If it does, maybe he finally contributes.
- Was taken aback to see 2017 top pick Myles Garrett – with one year in the league – among those given a "veteran's" rest day just a few days into camp. The Browns are going above and beyond to try to guard against injury, but man, seemed like a stretch. With him and linebacker Jamie Collins off the field the offense flourished.
- The Browns have a crowded backfield for sure with Carlos Hyde signed in free agency and Nick Chubb drafted atop the second round, but don't sleep on holdover Duke Johnson. He has been underutilized here and GM John Dorsey kept him around on a new contract for a reason. Le'Veon Bell caught 85 passes in Haley's offense in Pittsburgh a year ago and with Hyde a recurring injury risk and Chubb coming off a college injury, I have a feeling Johnson could get more action than many predict. If its even primarily as a third-down back I could see him catching a lot of passes from Taylor and then eventually Mayfield late in the season. Either way, he should be a great fit.
- Coaches are quietly high on corner Terrance Mitchell (a free agent Dorsey knew well from Kansas City) and linebacker Genard Avery, a rookie from Memphis.