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Since being drafted first overall in the 2018 NFL draft, Baker Mayfield has had an up-and-down start to his pro career.
He entered the league with a bang, breaking the NFL record for passing touchdowns as a rookie with 27 despite not starting the first three games of the season. His sophomore season was one to forget though, as he posted a troubling 22-21 TD-INT ratio while both he and the Cleveland Browns regressed despite sky-high expectations.
In his third season, Mayfield struggled at the start causing many to wonder if the Browns whiffed on yet another quarterback. However, Mayfield rebounded exceptionally, posting a 15-2 TD-INT ratio in his last eight games. Once again, the expectations for Mayfield and the Browns are high. At BetMGM, the Browns are +1600 to win the Super Bowl. Mayfield is +3500 to win the MVP.
What Baker Mayfield has going for him
It's naive to think the success of a quarterback isn't dependent on a myriad of factors. Strong coaching and play-calling, good protection and a solid stable of weapons will always help a quarterback. Fortunately for Mayfield and the Browns, they check off those boxes.
This season will mark the first time in Mayfield's career where he has continuity at head coach and offensive coordinator. After enduring the likes of Hue Jackson and Freddie Kitchens early in his career, the importance of that cannot be overstated. Kevin Stefanski won the Coach of the Year award in his first season with the Browns. A big reason for that is the growth Mayfield showed throughout the season as he got comfortable in Stefanski's system.
Cleveland also has one of the league's best offensive lines, if not the very best — they return all five starters from last season. Like most quarterbacks, Mayfield performs much better in clean pockets. Additionally, the offensive line makes the dynamic running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt even more dangerous. In turn, this opens up play-action and bootleg opportunities for Mayfield, which is a key component of Stefanski's offense and an area in which Mayfield thrives.
One of the more intriguing storylines in the league this season is the return of Odell Beckham Jr. Earlier in his career, Beckham was considered one of the best wide receivers in the game. Still just 28 years old, Beckham will look to regain that form as he returns from an ACL tear that he suffered in Week 7 of last season. With Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Chubb, Hunt and Austin Hooper, Mayfield has plenty of weapons to utilize.
Fact or fiction: Is Mayfield just a game manager?
The most common narrative surrounding Mayfield is that he's a glorified game manager with a low ceiling in a run-first offense, but that's not entirely accurate. With an elite offensive line blocking for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, it's no shock that the Browns love pounding the rock. They would be silly not to take advantage of one of their biggest strengths.
Last year was Stefanski's first season with the Browns and his first time working with Mayfield. Due to the pandemic, much of their offseason work was done virtually. They had a shortened training camp, no preseason games and restrictive protocols in place. However, as the season went on, Stefanski clearly grew more comfortable with the idea of putting the game in Mayfield's hands. Over the last five games of the regular season and in the Browns' two playoff games, Mayfield threw the ball an average of 37.6 times per game. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen averaged 37.7 attempts per game in 2020, and few are classifying the Bills as a run-heavy offense.
Mayfield took advantage of the increased responsibility. From Week 7 on, ProFootballFocus graded Mayfield as the league's second-best quarterback behind only Aaron Rodgers, who won the MVP. He was one of only three quarterbacks to have four games graded at 90 or better.
So the low-ceiling and game-manager arguments don't seem to hold much weight. Mayfield had many memorable performances that showed that there's still untapped potential. Mayfield had a five-touchdown game against the Bengals in Week 7 and then a four-touchdown first half against the Titans in Week 12. In a Week 13 classic on "Monday Night Football," Mayfield put 42 points on the board against the Ravens. In his first-ever playoff game, Mayfield threw for three touchdowns as the Browns put 48 points up against the Steelers. Not very "game manager" of him.
Checking the Boxes
Outside of Adrian Peterson in 2012, every NFL MVP winner since 2007 has played the quarterback position.
Not only is the MVP usually a quarterback, he's almost always the quarterback of a team with a great record. Since 2012, the MVP's team has won at least 11 games during the regular season. The Browns are coming off an 11-5 season in 2020, Stefanski has had his first normal offseason to put his imprint on the team and the Browns overhauled their defense to improve that side of the ball. It's certainly feasible that the Browns improve on their already impressive 11 wins. BetMGM has their win total set at 10.5 wins.
While someone like Patrick Mahomes might seem like an obvious pick to win the MVP, it's worth noting that for the past three seasons, a sizable preseason long shot has taken home the award — Mahomes in 2018, Lamar Jackson in 2019 and Aaron Rodgers in 2020 were all going off at 25-to-1 or better before their MVP campaigns.
With Mayfield going off at 35-to-1 at BetMGM to win the MVP, he fits all three of the above criteria. If the Browns take another step and become true Super Bowl contenders like many expect, Mayfield will be driving the bus. I have no issue with taking a shot on the boisterous fourth-year quarterback at these odds.