In several respects, Garoppolo’s and Mayfield’s situations are similar. Each had shoulder surgery this offseason. Each has a relatively high salary teams have, so far, been reluctant to absorb in a trade. And each is on the outs with his team because he has already been replaced.
Garoppolo, who has been the 49ers‘ starter since late in the 2017 season, has known since last year’s draft he’d have to step aside for No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance. Mayfield, who has been the Browns‘ starter since early in his 2018 rookie season, found out with the rest of us in March that Cleveland was trading with Houston for Deshaun Watson, who faces 24 civil lawsuits alleging inappropriate behavior and sexual assault during massage sessions.
Is it possible both Garoppolo and Mayfield begin the regular season with the 49ers and Browns, respectively? Sure. It’s hard to find people in league circles, however, who believe they will.
As mandatory minicamps continue through next week — with both Garoppolo and Mayfield excused by their teams from attending — we took a straw poll of league executives, coaches and agents to find out what people think will happen. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve been told, ending with a consensus on the most likely landing spots for each:
Mayfield played hurt for most of last season and had surgery in January to repair a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder. His health hasn’t been an issue as the Browns have tried to unload him, however. If he still had the starting job in Cleveland, he’d be on track for Week 1 and might even take part in the offseason program.
Garoppolo’s injury, which came as a surprise near the end of the 49ers’ playoff run, was more significant, mainly because it involved his right (throwing) shoulder. He had the surgery in early March and was told at the time he’d need at least 16 weeks before he would be able to throw a football, which is about three weeks away. As you might expect, the fact no one has been able to see Garoppolo throw this offseason has had a major impact on teams’ potential interest in a trade.
San Francisco general manager John Lynch said at the owners meetings in March he’d been having active trade talks with other teams before the decision was made for Garoppolo to have surgery. Once that happened, the 49ers decided their best course of action, rather than release him or trade him for peanuts, was to wait out his recovery and re-engage teams in trade talks later this summer. That’s where things stand now.
“The Garoppolo situation has been less messy, other than the surgery,” one NFL team executive said. “That makes you think, once he’s healthy, San Francisco has the better chance to get something done.”
Mayfield was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. Last April, coming off a promising 2020 season, the Browns made the decision to exercise the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. After that, they were bound to pay him a fully guaranteed $18.858 million in 2022. Even if they were to release him, they’d have to pay him all of that money.
The Browns have been reluctant to release him for that reason, but interested teams have balked at the idea of trading something of value and taking on that entire salary. The Panthers engaged Cleveland in trade talks for Mayfield prior to and during the NFL draft in late April, but they wanted the Browns to pay a chunk of the salary as a condition of the trade, according to sources. The two teams could not agree on the size of that chunk, so no deal was struck. If the Browns were to release Mayfield, they’d still be on the hook for the money, but the Panthers or any other interested team could sign him and pay him significantly less. More on that possibility in a moment.
The 49ers acquired Garoppolo in a 2017 trade deadline deal with the Patriots, then signed him to a long-term contract extension after his promising finish to that season. We are now entering the final year of that contract, with Garoppolo scheduled to make $25 million in salary and bonuses in 2022. His deal includes a $24.2 million salary and an $800,000 roster bonus, the latter of which may already have been paid by the team.
An acquiring team would take on a $24.2 million salary if it traded for Garoppolo right now. Unlike Mayfield’s 2022 salary, however, Garoppolo’s is not guaranteed. An acquiring team could, potentially, work with Garoppolo on a contract extension that knocks down the salary number in exchange for guarantees. Again, we’re a ways away from that due to the health issue. But if trade talks for him pick up, that possibility exists to help smooth the path to a potential deal.
Could Garoppolo or Mayfield be on their current rosters when the season starts?
It’s possible, but not likely. As mentioned above, Garoppolo’s salary is not guaranteed. Any veteran who’s on a roster in Week 1 and is subsequently released can recover his entire salary via termination pay. That means, if he’s on the 49ers’ roster in Week 1, Garoppolo’s salary effectively becomes guaranteed. It would make it a lot tougher for the Niners to move him at the late October trade deadline and a lot tougher for them to release him if they couldn’t.
As it stands now, San Francisco could cut Garoppolo and take on only $1.4 million in dead money against its salary cap. If it waits until after Week 1 to cut him, that number would jump to $26.4 million.
Mayfield’s situation is different for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the guaranteed money. If the Browns really want to be stubborn and hold out for maximum trade value, they could keep him into the season and take this up until the trade deadline. Again, they have to pay him anyway, so that $18.858 million is going to hit their cap whether they keep him or cut him.
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If Cleveland believes a better market for Mayfield will develop in September or October, it could keep him. And if there’s a chance to repair the relationship between the team and the player, it might not be a terrible idea to keep him. Watson could be suspended by the NFL under the personal conduct policy as a result of the lawsuits against him. The Browns signed Jacoby Brissett to be the backup and play if Watson cannot, but a healthy Mayfield is undoubtedly a better option should Watson miss significant time.
Problem is, it doesn’t sound as if the relationship between Mayfield and the Browns is salvageable. Of the people I talked to for this story, the overwhelming majority believed there’s no chance Mayfield will ever play for the Browns again.
“He’s done with them, and they’re done with him,” one source said. “That was true once he found out they were trying to trade for Deshaun.”
Indeed, Mayfield was posting farewell-ish messages on social media prior to the Browns’ acquisition of Watson in March, and he told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, “The relationship is too far gone to mend. It’s in the best interests of both sides to move on.”
While the contract structure makes it more likely Mayfield remains with his current team once the season opens, the personal issues between Mayfield and the Browns might mean he’s done there for good.
How much say do the QBs have in all of this?
Garoppolo’s contract included a no-trade clause for the 2021 season only, and the Niners now have the right to trade him to any team they choose. That said, the relationship between Garoppolo and the 49ers has remained solid, and the two sides spoke after the season ended about trying to work together to help him get to a place he might want to go. Those things were said at a time when they all thought they could get Garoppolo traded quickly. But with almost all of those musical chairs now occupied, he might not get much input.
Mayfield also has no contractual power over his situation, but it’s possible there’s something he could do to move things along. A couple of the people surveyed for this story suggested that Mayfield, if he wants to force the Browns to trade or release him, should show up for mandatory minicamp and in August for training camp. As long as he’s away from the facility, he’s not putting any pressure on the Browns to do anything but wait for a better offer. But if Mayfield were to show up and make things uncomfortable in the building, they might find themselves in a position like the one Odell Beckham Jr. put them in last October, when they ended up releasing Beckham once OBJ (and his father) made it clear he no longer wanted any part of the place.
The Browns announced Wednesday, however, that Mayfield would be excused from mandatory minicamp as part of a “mutual decision,” which indicates (a) he’s not planning to show up as a means of hastening a trade and (b) the relationship between Mayfield and the Browns is irreparable.
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Garoppolo has said and done all the right things since the Niners drafted Lance, and his excused absence from mandatory minicamp next week indicates he and the team remain on the same page about the best way to handle his situation. Either one of these guys could try to flex his leverage and force the team to release him (making him free to sign anywhere) by showing up and making things uncomfortable for the team. So far, neither has.
Bottom line: Where will they end up?
The majority of the people to whom I spoke for this story believe both players will likely end up being released. A couple of people thought Garoppolo might still draw trade interest, provided an acquiring team could work out something to knock down the salary or spread it out over a couple of years.
The most popular destination for Garoppolo among those to whom I spoke was the Panthers. The most popular landing spot for Mayfield in our straw poll was the Seahawks. They don’t seem interested in trading for him, but could, if he gets released, sign him to a low-cost deal and add him to a quarterback room that includes Geno Smith and Drew Lock in the wake of the Russell Wilson trade.
As of now, those teams and the Falcons are the three spots in which Mayfield or Garoppolo might be able to show up at camp and compete for a starter’s role. The Browns and 49ers likely hope other teams’ situations change and the market widens. Perhaps a quarterback suffers an injury at the position, and they can do something like the Eagles did in 2016 when they sent Sam Bradford to the Vikings right before the season when Teddy Bridgewater got hurt. Perhaps a team that feels good about its quarterback situation gets into camp and that changes, then revisits the idea of a trade. It’s impossible to forecast where such a change might occur, but here’s a partial list of outside-the-box suggestions I got when I made my calls:
Lions. Former Browns general manager John Dorsey, who selected Mayfield at the top of the 2018 draft, is now part of the Detroit front office. He’s not the GM, but if he were to stump on Mayfield’s behalf, is it ridiculous to think Mayfield could come in and compete with Jared Goff? Or replace Goff after this year?
And then we’ll leave you with this idea, which was floated to me by one mischievous observer but doesn’t sound completely off the wall:
“Why not trade them for each other? San Fran saves some money, Cleveland gets a better backup option than Brissett. Baker gets to work with Kyle [Shanahan] for a year and be next year’s [Mitchell] Trubisky.”
Who says no?