Baker Mayfield has been here before.
Almost a decade ago, the quarterback defied the odds to reset his college career when he transferred from Texas Tech to Oklahoma.
Now, he has a similar opportunity in the NFL.
On Wednesday, the Carolina Panthers acquired Mayfield from the Cleveland Browns after months of trade discussions. Mayfield greased the wheels for the trade to be completed by bridging the money gap, agreeing to forego $3.5 million of his $19 million fully guaranteed contract for the 2022 season, which he can earn back through performance incentives, according to multiple sources. The Browns will eat $10.5 million of the contract, while the Panthers will pay $4.85 million. In return, Carolina will send back a 2024 fifth-round pick, which will turn into a fourth-rounder should Mayfield win the starting job and play in at least 12 games for the Panthers this season.
To do that, he’ll first have to beat out Carolina incumbent Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft. The New York Jets selected Darnold two spots after Mayfield was picked first.
After a disappointing tenure with the Browns, punctuated by an injury-riddled, drama-filled final season in 2021, the odds seem long Mayfield can reclaim some of the promise he flashed in 2020, when he became the first Browns quarterback in 26 years to win a playoff game.
Then again, the odds were stacked against Mayfield nine years ago, as well.
In 2013, Mayfield became the first walk-on true freshman in college football history to start a season opener for a Power 5 program. Not only that, he thrived initially, quarterbacking Texas Tech to a surprising 5-0 start. But then he suffered a knee injury. When Mayfield returned later in the season, coach Kliff Kingsbury kept the quarterback competition open.
By the end of the season, Mayfield and Texas Tech were, to borrow a phrase that Mayfield used just last week to describe his relationship status with the Browns, “ready to move on — on both sides.” Kingsbury, meanwhile, had secured a verbal commitment from a hotshot quarterback recruit out of Whitehouse, Texas, by the name of Patrick Mahomes.
Mayfield went searching for a new opportunity. And though he would be named the Big 12 co-offensive freshman of the year, his options proved to be limited. Even Houston Cougars coach at the time Tony Levine called ESPN directly to deny rumors of their interest (which Mayfield had floated).
With few options, Mayfield shot for the stars. He enrolled at Oklahoma, the program he grew up rooting for in Austin, Texas. He didn’t have an invitation or a scholarship. And then-Sooners head coach Bob Stoops didn’t know for sure Mayfield was even in Norman until well after he had moved into a freshman dorm.
Weeks later, Mayfield earned a scholarship. A year later, he beat out incumbent Trevor Knight to win Oklahoma’s starting job. And by the end of his decorated college career, Mayfield became the first former walk-on to win a Heisman Trophy while leading the Sooners to three Big 12 championships and two playoff appearances.
The NFL, of course, isn’t college football. And there’s been nothing to suggest through four years in the league that Mayfield will become a Pro Bowl passer.
Yes, the constant upheaval in Cleveland — four different head coaches in four years — didn’t help Mayfield’s development. Playing through the torn labrum to his left (non-throwing) shoulder last season contributed to his demise in Cleveland, as well. But there’s a reason why Carolina was the only team that showed interest in trading for Mayfield, even for a single Day 3 draft pick.
Mayfield might never become a star quarterback in the NFL. Then again, he’s been here before. Cast aside. Written off — yet holding an opportunity to reset his career to find success as a starting quarterback.
Mayfield beat the odds before. Maybe, just maybe, he can do it again in Carolina.