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Making sense of a potential Baker Mayfield for Sam Darnold trade

Andrew Buller-Russ

We get it. The Cleveland Browns don’t want anything to do with Baker Mayfield anymore after trading Deshaun Watson. As much as his potential suspension could blow back in their faces, they’d rather move on from Mayfield than keep the status quo. That isn’t quite the case for Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers, but they too, can’t be thrilled with their quarterback situation heading into the 2022 season.

Is it possible the best solution for both of these teams is to just swap the former first-round picks for one another? Here’s why a Mayfield for Darnold trade may be the best option for both teams heading into the year.

Matching salaries

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Both players have fully guaranteed salaries for the 2022 season before becoming free agents the following year. As is, both players have very little trade value for this same reason. No one really wants to commit nearly $19 million of their payroll for an unproven QB.

Darnold quickly wore out his welcome in New York after just three seasons and Mayfield’s time has run its course after four years at the Dawg Pound.

For now, the Panthers are set to enter the year with Darnold as their starter once again, and that may be the better this late in the offseason barring an obvious improvement, but maybe they’ve grown fed up with Darnold and would be more open to giving Mayfield a shot?

A trade wouldn’t change either team’s salary cap situation, making it an easy and clean swap. But it’s also possible the Browns offer to pick up some of Mayfield’s cost, being that they have plenty of cap space yet with over $40 million available.

Related: Cleveland Browns reportedly willing to cover $9 million of Baker Mayfield contract

Current locker room discontent

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch

Both the Browns and Panthers have to be disappointed in their 2021 performances, falling short of the playoffs. The Browns feel they’ve addressed the QB position since, but Watson playing a full season seems like a longshot, which only creates an even bigger need internally.

The Browns can’t afford to part ways with Mayfield, have Watson get suspended for a large chunk of the year, if not in its entirety, and roll out Jacoby Brissett while still claiming they have the playoffs in their sight. Not with a straight face anyway.

And they can’t keep Mayfield on the roster for several reasons. From last season’s odd exchange that led to Odell Beckham Jr.’s release to their refusal to offer him a long-term extension, a divorce has long been in the works. The day they made the decision to hand Watson a fully guaranteed $230 million contract is the day Mayfield’s employment with the Browns ended.

Maybe it would be different if Mayfield was Case Keenum or Brissett who’s long been viewed as a backup QB, but this is the No. 1 pick from the 2018 NFL Draft, and someone they were still touting as their franchise QB just a year ago. Their best bet is to allow Mayfield a chance to show his skills elsewhere.

Related: NFL execs expect Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo to be released, link them to Seahawks and Panthers

A second chance (third for Darnold) provides renewed hope

A case could be made for Darnold to have a more consistent year with a bounceback performance in 2022. Darnold got off to a hot start a season ago with the Panthers before injuries ultimately did their season in. Maybe getting Christian McCaffrey back, along with a new offensive coordinator in Ben McAdoo in addition to another year building chemistry with his receivers, maybe Darnold can take a leap forward.

Not so much for Mayfield, who currently doesn’t have a path to playing time with the Browns. Joining literally any other team puts Mayfield either a snap away from being the starter, or immediately having a chance to compete for the starting role.

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If Mayfield landed with the Panthers, he’d be their top option from the beginning, but there’s very little motivation for the Panthers to make that deal, as sticking with Darnold is the far easier move that won’t shake up the chemistry so much. Especially if Robbie Anderson really doesn’t want to catch passes from Mayfield.

Still, some team will be willing to jump on the chance of Mayfield becoming a long-term starter, hoping he can improve upon his performances from his first four seasons. At 27 years old, Mayfield still has a lot of room for growth as a quarterback. Maybe he just needs a fresh start.

Related: Cleveland Browns reportedly had conversations about Baker Mayfield staying in 2022