CLEVELAND — Has Baker Mayfield played his last game for the Cleveland Browns?
It may be a while before we have a definitive answer, but as of Tuesday night, that possibility has never seemed more realistic.
Amid rumors and speculation surrounding his future with the team, the Browns quarterback broke his long social media silence with a message to Cleveland fans. The post comes just hours after club officials met with Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson to discuss a possible trade.
Without mentioning Watson or anyone with the Browns' front office, Mayfield acknowledged his current tenuous status, writing "I have no clue what happens next." However, he also reaffirmed his love for Cleveland, adding the community "will always be a part of [my wife] Emily and my story."
"I have given this franchise everything I have," Mayfield said. "Whatever happens.. I just want to say thank you to the fans who truly embraced who I am and the mentality that aligned so well with this city's hard working people."
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Mayfield has given the Browns something they haven't had since returning to the league in 1999: Stability at the quarterback position. In four seasons as the starter, the Oklahoma product has has put himself top five in franchise history with more than 14,000 yards and 92 touchdowns, and in 2020 led Cleveland to its first playoff victory in 26 years.
But Mayfield has also been inconsistent, leaving some to wonder if he has the ability to truly take the Browns to the next level. Those issues were never more apparent than this past season, when the 26-year-old threw for only 17 TDs against 13 interceptions as part of a disappointing 8-9 campaign.
Supporters of Mayfield have pointed to a torn labrum suffered in Week 2, and the signal-caller underwent surgery for the injury immediately after the season ended. At least publicly, the Browns' brass threw its support behind their QB1, but Tuesday's meeting with Watson's camp proves they are at least exploring other options at the position.
A three-time Pro Bowler, Watson has emerged as one of the NFL's most electric young players since arriving in Houston, but did not play at all in 2021 amid a trade request and allegations of sexual assault by upwards of 20 women. A grand jury declined to indict Watson on criminal charges, and even though civil litigation is still pending, several teams have already reached out to the Texans about acquiring the fellow 26-year-old.
According to the Associated Press, the Browns and other clubs first had to present a trade package to the Texans, and if it was approved, only then could they meet with Watson. The QB has a no-trade clause built into his $156-million contract, and could make a decision within days between Cleveland, the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints.
Should Watson and the Texans decline their offer, the Browns could pivot to drafting a quarterback or taking a second look at other veterans on the market, such as San Francisco's Jimmy Garroppolo. Of course, they could also run it back with Mayfield in 2022, but while his letter did not close the door on a fifth season on the lakefront, it certainly felt like more of a "goodbye" than a rallying cry.
"I can only control what I can," he said, "which is trusting in God's plan throughout this process."