Do you know who Orson Charles is?
I didn’t, at least not until last Friday’s preseason game. Turns out he’s a backup tight end for the Cleveland Browns, whose notable moment of the night came when he dropped a sure-fire first down pass from rookie QB Baker Mayfield.
That felt like a really mean way to introduce a column, but it helps illustrate the point I’ll attempt to make.
For all intents and purposes, Mayfield has proven he can move the ball while playing alongside guys who likely won’t make the final roster. He’s shown this both in training camp and during two preseason games. It wouldn’t hurt for Cleveland to let him start getting some reps with the first team offense, even if it’s only on the practice field.
However, coach Hue Jackson is having none of it, flatly turning down the suggestion during yesterday’s press briefing. As a result, you can’t help but worry the Browns are starting to stunt the growth of their rookie quarterback.
I want to make it crystal clear I’m in no way arguing the Browns need to start Mayfield, or for them to even create another quarterback competition. Tyrod Taylor should still open the season as the starter, nothing the rookie does beforehand will change this.
What I’m saying, though, is Mayfield has at the very least earned first team reps just to see how he performs. He’s proven he can move the ball with third string wideouts behind a backup offensive line. There’s no harm in giving him some time with guys he’d eventually play with should he end up taking the field at any point this year.
I’m not saying he’s ready to start. He’s not, and that’s to be expected. Part of making sure he’s as close to fully prepared as can be when the time comes, though, is making sure he has at least some feel for the first team offense.
At least that’s my opinion. The Browns, especially Jackson, wholeheartedly disagree.
“No. No. No. And I’ll tell you why,” Jackson said when asked about this yesterday. “We are learning a new system and I think Tyrod needs every rep with the ones.”
While this (partly) makes sense, I can’t help but think the real reason Cleveland’s coach shot such an innocent suggestion down is a fear of how this would be perceived.
Jackson is asked about Mayfield daily. In every instance, he comes off as very careful about his compliments, always being sure to remind everyone Taylor is his starter. From his perspective, giving Mayfield first team practice reps could be viewed by NFL media as him shifting his narrative, pulling back on his support for the veteran while opening the door for the rookie to steal the starting job.
That said, Jackson needs to realize there’s a difference between saying “he’s ready to take a few snaps with the starters” and “he’s ready to start.” Cleveland’s coach could easily dismiss the matter as nothing worth noting, just giving his rookie a chance to work with the first team in practice.
Instead, it seems Jackson has become so agitated with questions about Mayfield that he’s restraining his growth. Where last year he felt forced to fast-track rookie DeShone Kizer, he’s now doing the exact opposite with Mayfield without realizing there’s a healthy middle-ground here.
We know Taylor is the starter. That’s been hammered home. More importantly, he’s done absolutely nothing to lose the starting gig. There’s no viable threat of a competition which would come from Mayfield getting some practice time in with the first team, something Jackson could insist repeatedly if asked about such a thing.
Yet, instead of just letting Mayfield run a few plays a day with starting-caliber players, instead of giving him a chance to develop even the slightest bit of chemistry with the first-team offense, his ceiling has been set as leader of the backups.
Mayfield was drafted to be Cleveland’s quarterback of the future. As a result, one of the team’s priority focuses is his continued growth. He’s made significant progress in quick fashion, and could continue this trend with some daily work with players who’ll be consistently taking the field come the regular season.
Unfortunately, Jackson has no interest in this, and it sure feels like his fear of giving an inch with Mayfield could end up slowing the rookie’s progress.