ENGLEWOOD — Baker Mayfield forced the Broncos to pay attention. Their coaches landed the less-than-enviable Senior Bowl gig. It provides great insight into future draft picks, but is a sobering reminder of a lost season.
In Mobile, Ala., coach Vance Joseph and his staff received an inside look at Mayfield. It didn't take long for them to realize Mayfield was special, worthy of their interest in the upcoming draft. Without prompting, Mayfield gathered fellow quarterbacks an hour before practice to work on footwork drills and taking snaps under center.
"Baker, he was a great guy to be around," Joseph said. "Very confident. He’s a winner, and he has a big arm and he plays to that.”
As the Broncos debated for several months whether to select a quarterback in the first round, Mayfield remained near the top of their list along with USC's Sam Darnold. Ultimately, the Broncos chose free agency, signing Case Keenum. Mayfield was no longer an option, and it didn't matter anyway, as the Browns chose him first overall. An uneven start, due to the dysfunctional coaching situation with Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, fanned criticism of the pick. Through his first five games, Mayfield completed 58.3 percent of his passes -- 6.6 yards per attempt -- with eight touchdowns and six interceptions. He was sacked 20 times as the Browns slumped to a 1-5 record. Over this last five games with Freddie Kitchens calling plays, Mayfield has blossomed. He has connected on 73 percent of his throws with 11 touchdowns and four picks with a 114.3 passer rating, while taking three sacks.
The Browns are 3-2 during this stretch as they arrive in Denver as a three-point underdog. The Broncos must win to keep their meager playoff lighthouse flickering. The Browns are looking to change their culture, to carry momentum into next season with what they believe is finally their answer at quarterback.
"Baker is a good dude. And he's competitive," said Broncos rookie star Phillip Lindsay of the former Heisman Trophy winner at Oklahoma. "I have always liked Baker, even in college. I am looking forward to talking to him after the game. But during the game, he's going to have to watch out for (Bradley) Chubb and Von (Miller). They are not playing around. It's that time for us to go out there and get a win."
Mayfield benefits from accuracy, mobility, and finally in Cleveland, having weapons around him. Rookie running back Nick Chubb has 760 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, and Jarvis Landry owns 69 catches with three scores. He will face a Broncos secondary that is pieced together with duct tape and chicken wire. Chris Harris Jr. remains out with a broken filbula, and told Denver7 he believes he can return for the season finale. That leaves Bradley Roby as the long healthy corner with rookie Isaac Yiadom limited with a shoulder issue, Tramaine Brock returning from a rib injury and Jamar Taylor in his second week with the team.
Last week, Mayfield steered a win over Carolina, completing 18 of 22 passes for 238 yards and a touchdown. The Broncos know what to expect from him. Now the question is simple: can they stop him?
"Outside of his talent, he is an exciting person to be around. As far as his football abilities, it’s obvious he’s playing at a high level. He’s pushing the ball down the field and he’s making plays with his legs also," Joseph said. "That’s surprising to me that he’s making so many plays off-schedule, down the field. That makes him dangerous.”