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Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals

Who will be the Browns starting QB?

Cleveland currently has two starting caliber signalcallers

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Some articles are written to inform. Others give out facts, statistics and various quotes in order to be educational; while other articles are strictly someone’s opinion. Many are written for entertainment purposes.

This article has a single goal in mind: create conversation.

Baker Mayfield was the first player taken in the 2018 NFL draft. He was drafted as the future starting quarterback despite the franchise’s trade for Buffalo Bills veteran Tyrod Taylor during the off-season. In Week 3 on a Thursday night game against the New York Jets, the Browns were down 14-0 in the second quarter and faced a third-and-12. Jets linebacker Avery Williams beat right tackle Chris Hubbard and sacked Taylor. In addition to the loss of yardage, Taylor was injured.

On the following series, Mayfield supplanted the bruised Taylor. Under Mayfield’s guidance, Cleveland came back and won 21-17 thus ending a 19-game winless streak. From that game on, the young buck never gave up his role as the starting quarterback. Taylor only appeared in one other game and then was allowed to sign with the Los Angeles Chargers in the off-season. All the while, Mayfield had a tremendous rookie campaign and broke the record for most touchdown passes by a rookie with 27.

Last year as the full-time starter, Mayfield’s season was below-average. He was 14th in the league in total passing yards, the 16th most touchdown tosses, 18th in average yards per completion, 21st in the category of yards per game, 24th in pass attempts per game, and was the 7th most sacked starting quarterback while he threw the second most interceptions.

Despite his “sophomore slump” Mayfield will enter 2020 training camp as the Browns’ starter.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys
Case Keenum #8 of the Washington Redskins
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

But something significant occurred this past off-season: Cleveland signed an NFL starting caliber QB to the roster during the free agency period. Casey Keenum has been an NFL starter and has also played the backup role. And while every NFL club wishes to have two starting quarterbacks on their roster, it rarely happens because of financial reasons. You don’t buy a Mercedes to sit in the garage when you are driving a Bentley.

Newly hired head coach Kevin Stefanski and freshly-minted GM Andrew Berry did not draft Baker Mayfield – they inherited him.

On the flip side, both of these men agreed to sign Case Keenum. Coincidence? And both of these men agreed to their positions with the Browns organization knowing full well Mayfield’s status as the starter under center.

Keenum has several items in his toolbox that Mayfield doesn’t. As the starting QB for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017, Keenum’s team posted a 13-3-0 season. Conversely, Mayfield is still looking for his first winning season. Keenum has quarterbacked an NFL team into the playoffs. Mayfield has not. Keenum has won a playoff game. Again a zero for Mayfield. Keenum has taken his club to the conference championship game. Mayfield has watched the conference championships from home.

On his checklist, so far Mayfield has boxes unchecked in all of these categories.

And one more item in which Keenum holds an advantage: he was once Stefanski’s starting quarterback.

Keenum already knows the new coach’s system, the audibles, the checkdowns, the language, the signals and the playbook. Add the fact that this year’s off-season has been basically a wash with Mayfield having to learn a new offense. While Mayfield will be busy asking questions in the quarterback room, Keenum will be finishing Stefanski’s sentences.

So the question looms: is there a possibility of a quarterback competition in this year’s training camp?

Before we answer that question, let’s ask the experts here at DBN to ponder this state of affairs.

Q: Was Case Keenum signed as the backup, or as competition for the starting position?

On the surface, you may brush off this question as training camp fodder. Mayfield was the first overall selection in the college draft. The Browns could have had any of the five highly-rated quarterbacks that year, and yet chose Mayfield.

Rufio:

Keenum was signed to be the backup. I think he is clearly a step up from what we’ve had in that if he had to play after a season-ending injury or fill in for a few games (fingers crossed on both) we wouldn’t write the games off as instant losses. But Baker is our franchise player.

Matt Wood:

Keenum is a back-up. More importantly he is a backup with experience in this offense. With the possibility of a shortened off-season having someone that can be in the ear of Baker 24/7 is even more important. Keenum was well-liked in Minnesota and performed really well. I don’t view him as some sort of competitor for the starting job, I view him as a ‘break in case of emergency’ type of QB for the Browns that can be a coach on the sideline as Stefanski coaches the team. I love the signing.

Thomas Moore:

Keenum is clearly in town to serve as a backup to Mayfield and an insurance policy in case Mayfield were to get injured. His biggest value is going to come Monday through Saturday as he can help Mayfield process Stefanski’s system and be there to help Mayfield navigate something that he may not have seen before. That would be true under normal circumstances, but given that no one really knows what training camp and the preseason will look like, it is even more valuable this year.

Okay, fair enough. The DBN writers seem to agree that Mayfield is the incumbent, and that Keenum is a valuable asset ready to come in just in case of an injury. And the consensus appears to be that Keenum is strictly an NFL backup at the quarterback position.

But what do the numbers say?

Keenum went 31-11 in high school and won a state championship. He was a four-year starter at the University of Houston where he was twice named the Conference USA Offensive Player-of-the-Year, placed eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting, named Two Time First Team All-Conference USA, Second Team All-American, and was a Two Time Sammy Baugh Trophy winner. He threw for over 5,000 yards three of those four years and ended up tossing 19,217 yards with 155 touchdowns and a 63.4 pass completion average. He broke six NCAA quarterback records including the only quarterback in college football history to have three 5,000 yard seasons.

Despite his college success, Keenum went undrafted in 2012 and signed with the Houston Texans. He has had stints with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams, Vikings, Denver Broncos, and Washington Redskins before inking his Cleveland contract this off-season.

Reese’s Senior Bowl
Baker Mayfield #6 of the North team throws the ball during the Reese’s Senior Bowl
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Mayfield finished high school with a 25-2 record and also won a state championship. He was a walk-on with Texas Tech and eventually transferred to Oklahoma.

In college, he won the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, the Walter Camp Award, the Davey O’Brien Award, was AP Player-of-the-Year and named the Big 12 Offensive Player-of-the-Year in 2017, Two Time First Team All-American, Three Time First Team All-Big 12, and named to the NFL’s All-Rookie Team.

Now, on to the NFL and both of these men’s accomplishments.

NFL seasons/starts – Mayfield: 2/29; Keenum: 8/62

Pass attempts – Mayfield: 1,020; Keenum: 2,091

Pass completions – Mayfield: 627; Keenum: 1,304

Total yardage – Mayfield: 7,552; Keenum: 14,368

Completion average – Mayfield: 7.4; Keenum: 6.9

Completion percentage – Mayfield: 61.5; Keenum: 62.4

Touchdowns – Mayfield: 49; Keenum: 75

Average touchdown passes per start – Mayfield: 1.69; Keenum: 1.21

Interceptions – Mayfield: 35; Keenum: 47

Average interceptions per start – Mayfield: 1.21; Keenum: 0.76

Fumbles/lost – Mayfield:13/5; Keenum: 33/12

Sacks – Mayfield: 65; Keenum: 120

Rushing yards – Mayfield: 272; Keenum: 428

Rushing average – Mayfield: 4.1; Keenum: 3.3

Q: In 2017, Keenum was the starting QB for the Vikings and had a banner year. Stefanski was the QB coach for Minnesota. Is this a plus or a minus for Case?

Matt Wood:

Plus. Keenum is a perfect fit for this kind of offense. If for some reason Baker would be injured, Keenum can come in and operate the offense at 100%. In theory, you don’t miss anything. It’s pretty much the perfect setup - again in theory. At the end of the day there is a reason that Keenum wasn’t made the long-term starter in Minnesota. He is limited. He is a back-up quarterback - albeit a good one.

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Thomas Moore:

In can only help and is a plus. Even though Stefanski was not running the offense that year in Minnesota, it seems reasonable to expect that he carried through some of the same language and concepts when he did take over as offensive coordinator with the Vikings. Having a background with Stefanski will help Keenum process the offense quicker and be there to help Mayfield do the same.

Rufio:

Plus. It is the reason Keenum is on our roster. Not only is he capable of winning NFL games, but he also has a familiarity with our system. And in the NFL, relationships matter (as they do in every aspect of life). As a backup your job is to support the starter as much as possible; which includes understanding the system and how to deal with what you are going to see from defenses from week-to-week. But you also can ideally step in and win a game or two. Stefanski has worked with Keenum and is probably confident in his ability to do those things. If he wasn’t, why else would we have signed him?

What about Keenum’s sensational 2017 season?

Glad you asked.

In March of 2017, Keenum signed a one-year deal with the Vikings to be the oft-injured Sam Bradford’s backup. The wait did not take long as Bradford had an MRI performed after opening week and was down for Week 2 with a knee injury. A month later, Bradford was placed on IR.

The Vikings’ head coach then and now is Mike Zimmer. Stefanski, who had been employed by Minnesota since 2006, had just been elevated to QB coach. Keenum was his star pupil and now, was thrust into the starting role. He did not disappoint.

Although the Vikings lost two of three of Keenum’s first starts, they ripped off eight straight wins and sat at 10-2-0. When the streak ended 31-24 at Carolina, Keenum had tossed for 2,703 yards with 16 touchdowns with a mere five interceptions. He was a good game manager yet could lay 369 yards and three scores on Tampa Bay or 304 yards with four touchdown passes on the road against the Washington Redskins.

The NFL’s three best clubs that year all ended the season with 13-3-0 records: New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, and the Vikings. Minnesota was the first team to clinch a playoff spot and then the first to clinch a division. They clinched a first-round bye and had their best season since 1998. They also had the chance to become the very first NFL club to play in a Super Bowl as the host.

Keenum finished the regular season second in the league in passing completion with 67.6%, 12th in touchdown passes (22), eighth in fewest interceptions thrown (7) and 26th in most sacks taken plus had the eighth-highest QB rating beating out more familiar names such as Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning.

Divisional Round - New Orleans Saints v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Remember the last play of the Vikings-New Orleans Saints divisional playoff game where the Saints’ defensive back whiffed on the tackle of receiver Stefon Diggs in front of a frenzied Minnesota home crowd? The end result was a Keenum 61-yard touchdown pass. But in the NFC Championship Game the following week, the Vikings were manhandled by the Eagles 38-7. Keenum was 28-48 for 271 yards, a touchdown and two picks in that championship game.

At season’s end, was Keenum voted All-Pro? No. Did he get a nod for the Pro Bowl? Again, no. Was he a Top-5 quarterback? Negative. Did he play exceptional or even great? Sorry. But his reality was cast as a very good quarterback who managed his team advantageously in a very successful playoff year and made minimal mistakes.

For Keenum’s very good efforts and success, Minnesota then signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to that historic $83 million all-guaranteed contract in free agency. And once again, Keenum moved on. Which brings us to another thought.

Q: Neither Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski nor Browns GM Andrew Berry drafted Mayfield. Is this a plus or a minus for Baker?

Thomas Moore:

Neither. As long as Mayfield plays the way he can, he is QB1 regardless of who drafted him. This team spent almost three decades searching for a quarterback - they are not going to dump one just because they did not turn in the pick when he was drafted.

Rufio:

I don’t think it is really either a plus or a minus. I do think the fact that he was a first-round pick AND the first overall pick is a plus for him, though. This is something that has been discussed for a long time in “analytic” circles, but quarterbacks drafted earlier tend to get more commitment and more chances to play - which tends to help them succeed. The Haslams, and to at least an extent Paul DePodesta, had to feel invested in Baker and he had to have been a part of the discussions with any new GM or coach. They have seen up close what he can do when the world isn’t burning around him. And as much as DePodesta might understand the idea of sunken costs and being objective about the roster, it would still have to be a tough pill to swallow to give up on Baker – and potentially an even tougher thing to sell that idea to your boss.

And from Berry/Stefanski’s point of view, Baker has to be a part of the reason that you took this job. Stefanski was in Minnesota forever and had other opportunities if he wanted them. Berry is young and up-and-coming, so it isn’t like he was desperate. Haslam hasn’t seemed like the best guy to work for thus far, and he has been in charge of one dysfunction after another. If you are taking the Browns’ job, you have to be confident that you can make it work with your colleagues and that you can field a winning team without a huge rebuild. Or you have to be desperate - which I don’t think either guy was.

Matt Wood:

I see it as a push. Baker is the unquestioned quarterback of the Browns. This isn’t a Colt McCoy-type project or roll of the dice like DeShone Kizer. He was the top pick of the draft for a reason. In the past I would be much more concerned if the starter was cemented in as much as Baker is, or should Keenum is a back-up. More importantly, he is a backup with experience in this offense.

Q: Okay then. What does Keenum have to do to win the starting job?

Rufio:

Honestly, he probably has to watch Baker Mayfield get hurt. When Baker is on his game and playing in a system that functions, he simply has arm talent and the type of quick, on-your-toes decision making that Keenum simply lacks. There is no contest when you watch them on tape. Keenum has been a part of winning teams, and there is something to be said for a guy who understands his role and can play it. But Baker can take this team places that Keenum simply can’t.

Matt Wood:

Have Baker Mayfield disappear from the roster or Earth. I think there is a greater chance of him being abducted by aliens than him being traded.

Thomas Moore:

Slice Mayfield’s hamstring when he is not looking? Keenum is not winning the starting job.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Q: What does Mayfield have to do to keep the job?

Matt Wood:

Exist. In all seriousness I think he has to adapt a bit to what Stefanski does/wants. BUT, I do think that the offense will be tailored to Baker’s strengths. This isn’t a round hole/square peg deal; this was a coach that works well with what Baker seems to do best. Multiple TE’s, quicker passing, etc. This really is a Baker Mayfield type of offense.

Thomas Moore:

Show up and play the way he is capable of. Mayfield had a down year in 2019, some of which was his fault and some of which was not. But there is no reason to overthink this. Just put in the work, line up and play.

Rufio:

Baker has to be a professional, show up and do what the coaches ask him, and really internalize the system as much as he can. He needs to avoid injury. He needs to play like he can and has every year of his life except for last year. That’s really it. His talent and desire to win will show if he is just the best version of himself that he can be.

And where does the offensive line fit into the equation?

The new structure of the offensive line can only improve whichever player is the quarterback. Center J.C. Tretter is a solid rock performer. With Joel Bitonio on his left, the two have been superstars even during unsettling times. Now that the Browns have ousted both of their starting tackles and instead inserted free agent Jack Conklin and the newly-drafted Jedrick Wills, Jr., the receivers should have more time to complete their routes and the pocket will remain a viable option for longer.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 14 Alabama at South Carolina
Alabama Crimson Tide offensive lineman Jedrick Wills Jr. (74) holds off the defender
Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The most aggravating aspect for a quarterback is to have a defender chasing you, grabbing you constantly or the continuance realization that one may appear at any moment. If the Browns can solve the right guard spot - which they have numerous viable options already on the roster - this unit can finally hold its own and help this talented offense succeed.

Q: On opening day, who will be the Browns starting QB?

Thomas Moore:

Unless he gets injured, it will be Mayfield.

Rufio:

Baker, easily.

Matt Wood:

Baker Mayfield.

Poll

What say you? Who will be the Browns starting QB on opening day?

This poll is closed

  • 86%
    Baker Mayfield
    (688 votes)
  • 9%
    Case Keenum
    (75 votes)
  • 4%
    Another player
    (33 votes)
796 votes total Vote Now

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