Cleveland Browns: Predicting When Baker Mayfield Starts in 2018

No team wants to screw up a top investment from an NFL Draft, especially the No. 1 overall selection. Some may recall how the 2005 San Francisco 49ers, who had gone 2-14 the year before, rushed then-rookie quarterback and No. 1 overall pick, Alex Smith, into the fray prematurely and without a proper supporting cast.

That didn’t go so well.

After a winless effort in 2017, the Cleveland Browns want to make sure their top investment from this year’s draft, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, is inserted at a time best suited for both his own development and the long-term success of the franchise.

Before the draft, Mayfield noted he wouldn’t play the role of a backup and would “push” whoever was ahead of him on the depth chart. For now, that quarterback is Tyrod Taylor — the offseason pickup by the Browns who helped lead the Buffalo Bills to their first playoff appearance since 1999.

Taylor is a qualified quarterback. But he’s a bridge to Mayfield, nothing more. Teams don’t use top-five or top-10 picks for backups.

Cleveland Browns, Baker Mayfield, Tyrod Taylor
(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

So that prompts the question: When do the Browns elect to make the switch from Taylor to Mayfield?

It might not even happen this year. Sure, the Browns made some notable offensive upgrades this season, landing wide receiver Jarvis Landry and running back Carlos Hyde. That should help head coach Hue Jackson’s squad be more balanced and potent, giving Taylor competent weapons over an offense that finished dead last in scoring a year ago.

But if Taylor falters, or if Jackson feels as if the switch to Mayfield is mandated, it’s possible the rookie takes over in 2018.

If it happens this year, one needs to look at Cleveland’s upcoming schedule:

Browns 2018 Schedule
Week Date Opp
1 September 9 preview Pittsburgh Steelers
2 September 16 preview @ New Orleans Saints
3 September 20 preview New York Jets
4 September 30 preview @ Oakland Raiders
5 October 7 preview Baltimore Ravens
6 October 14 preview Los Angeles Chargers
7 October 21 preview @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
8 October 28 preview @ Pittsburgh Steelers
9 November 4 preview Kansas City Chiefs
10 November 11 preview Atlanta Falcons
12 November 25 preview @ Cincinnati Bengals
13 December 2 preview @ Houston Texans
14 December 9 preview Carolina Panthers
15 December 15 preview @ Denver Broncos
16 December 23 preview Cincinnati Bengals
17 December 30 preview @ Baltimore Ravens
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 8/4/2018.

Once Jackson makes the switch, it’s impossible to go back, barring injury. The 49ers’ starting, not starting, then starting Smith back in the mid 2000s was detrimental to his development. Cleveland can’t afford the same mistake.

Mayfield could earn the job out of training camp and the preseason. But with back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, this doesn’t seem like the best of ideas. At least not with the Steelers to reign supreme in the AFC North and the Saints suddenly elite defense looking to pick up where it left off a year ago.

Making a switch in Week 3 against the rebuilding Jets could make sense, and the Oakland Raiders defense isn’t particularly great either. At the earliest, Mayfield sees the field here.

But one of the arguments against that would be the Browns having to face the Los Angeles Chargers, who boast arguably the NFL’s top pass-rushing duo in edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, in Week 6. This doesn’t bode well for Cleveland’s offensive line, which Pro Football Focus ranked 14th entering 2018 last month. Not surprisingly, PFF noted the Browns’ projected tackles — Shon Coleman and Chris Hubbart — as the biggest concerns here.

Cross that idea off the list.

Back-to-back road contests in Weeks 7 and 8 also make for an unlikely scenario. It’s doubtful Jackson would start Mayfield on the road this early, even if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ pass rush (ranked dead last in 2017) isn’t exactly formidable. Even if Jackson was to fathom the idea, forcing Mayfield to start in Pittsburgh in Week 8 isn’t totally suitable either.

Week 9, however, seems a lot more suitable.

It’s a home contest against the Kansas City Chiefs, who also feature a young quarterback assuming starting roles this season, Patrick Mahomes. Mayfield won’t be too concerned with that, however, rather worrying about how effective Kansas City’s pass rush is.

According to PFF, it’s not very good — No. 26 entering this season. The Chiefs’ top pass-rusher, Justin Houston, did have 9.5 sacks last year, so he’s a threat. But there isn’t exactly a lot of edge threats outside Houston.

Starting against the Chiefs would have a few merits. First, it would be a direct comparison between Mayfield and Mahomes, which should be exciting enough for Cleveland fans. On top of that, the Browns stay home the following week and face the Atlanta Falcons, who will be looking to get former first-round pass-rushers Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley going this season.

After that, Cleveland’s bye.

That bye week would give Jackson and Mayfield ample time to review the quarterback’s first two efforts during the regular season, providing adequate preparation for the rookie’s first two road games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans the following two weeks.

So if Jackson is going to make the switch from Taylor to Mayfield this season, look for it to happen in Week 9 on Nov. 4 versus Kansas City.

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