Baker Mayfield Is One of Free Agency's Biggest Winners for Fantasy Football
As the free-agency dominoes fall, it's easy to pinpoint some of the big winners.
David Johnson goes from buried on the depth chart to potentially being a featured back for the Houston Texans. Josh Allen has another toy to play with now that Stefon Diggs is in town. And you can bet Kyler Murray's going to enjoy chucking it to DeAndre Hopkins.
Some of the smaller moves can fly under the radar, though. That can allow players to benefit from free agency without generating a ton of buzz, inflating the cost tied to acquiring them.
Early on in free agency, that winner seems to be Baker Mayfield.
The moves haven't been as big as landing Odell Beckham last year, but with Austin Hooper and Jack Conklin now in town, the Browns have filled some needs and added more weapons to the offense. At quarterback in fantasy football, we want efficiency; Mayfield's expected efficiency just went up thanks to these moves.
Last year couldn't have gone much worse for Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns. He finished 32nd in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back out of 42 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. NEP is the efficiency metric we use to track the expected points added or subtracted on each play throughout the year, and Passing NEP includes deductions for expected points lost on plays like sacks, incompletions, and interceptions. Those were plentiful for Mayfield.
Mayfield's 21 picks were second-most in the NFL. The team lost 82.83 expected points due to those interceptions, up from 55.52 on 14 picks his rookie season. That's going to make it tough to post high-end efficiency numbers.
Mayfield did a better job of avoiding sacks as the season went along, getting the ball out in a hurry, but there was still a major falloff from his rookie season. Given the team traded guard Kevin Zeitler in the offseason, this wasn't a major surprise.
|Season||Mayfield's Sack Rate|
We know from research by Dr. Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus that quarterbacks own their pressure rates, and Mayfield seemed to be skilled in that department as a rookie. That would seem to imply that he could swing back up now that he has some reinforcements up front.
Conklin is a player known more for his run-blocking than his pass protection, but he got much better marks there than the incumbent starter at right tackle, Chris Hubbard. The Browns also still hold the 10th overall pick, a prime spot to address left tackle, meaning this could quickly flip from a weakness back into a strength.
There are also some signs that new head coach Kevin Stefanski's system is one conducive to lower sack rates. Under Stefanski, Kirk Cousins used play action on 31.4% of his drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus, the fifth-highest mark among quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs. This helped the Minnesota Vikings hold the eighth-best team wide sack rate despite having a worse offensive line than what the Browns are now projected to roll out this year.
If Mayfield were to get back to being a positive in the sack department as he was during his rookie season, it would do wonders for his efficiency. Sacks kill drives, lowering the player's expected touchdown total. That matters when we're talking fantasy football, even if you don't directly lose a point for it as you do for an interception.
The addition of Hooper should help with the picks, as will a return to health for Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
As a rookie, Mayfield threw to Landry 120 times. Only two of those passes (1.7%) were intercepted. Last year, despite adding Beckham to draw coverage elsewhere, Mayfield's interception rate when targeting Landry spiked to 5.9%. It's possible Mayfield was due for regression after his plus marks as a rookie, but he should also be due to swing back the other way now.
Last year, Matt Ryan added 0.35 Passing NEP per attempt when targeting Hooper, the eighth-best mark among 26 tight ends with at least 50 targets. Mayfield added a respectable 0.31 Passing NEP per attempt while targeting tight ends last year, and that was with his primary options being Demetrius Harris and Ricky Seals-Jones. Hooper should be an upgrade in that department.
Having Beckham, Landry, and Hooper out there catching passes should lead to some stabilization in Mayfield's efficiency numbers, which is what we want in fantasy football. Volume's great, but with how touchdown-dependent the position is, we need guys who can move the ball and find the end zone. Add in a potential reduction in sack rate, and Mayfield's stock is on the rise.
That's before we even mention the schedule discrepancy. Last year, Mayfield's average drop back came against the league's 14.0-ranked pass defense, based on numberFire's metrics, the second-toughest mark for any quarterback with at least 200 drop backs. If you look at the average pass defense ranking for Cleveland's opponents next year (an imperfect method for projecting schedules), they have the third-easiest schedule for 2020. Although this method is highly flawed, it does at least show the road projects to be easier this upcoming year than it was in Mayfield's sophomore campaign.
We can see the impact of this in early season-long projections via numberFire's JJ Zachariason. His system has Mayfield pegged for 25.1 passing touchdowns and 14.6 picks, deviations from 22 and 21, respectively, last year. If Hooper and Conklin (along with healthy seasons from Beckham and Landry) can move the needle even more than expected, Mayfield could be in for a big-time rebound.
Even with the down year, Mayfield is still the ninth-ranked quarterback in March dynasty startup drafts on DynastyLeagueFootball.com. He's not some massive bargain by any means.
But we also have to look at some of the names around him. The aforementioned Allen is going two slots higher, and his efficiency was on par with Mayfield's in 2019, though the perceptions of the two are wildly different. Allen gets a boost up thanks to his rushing, and adding Diggs certainly helps, but it's still a tough sell to have Allen as the preferred fantasy option between the two.
Mayfield's also right ahead of Aaron Rodgers and Daniel Jones. Rodgers is 12 years older than Mayfield, and Jones had massive fumbling issues in his lone year as starter with the New York Giants. Even if the cost on Mayfield isn't low, it's still easy to like him relative to the other players in his range.
In dynasty leagues, the manager with Mayfield on their roster dealt with some major pains this past season. Even if they're accounting for some regression, it's possible they'll overlook all the factors working in Mayfield's favor.
At the end of the day, this is a player who was the first overall pick two years ago, flashed as a rookie, and will have a better situation this year than he had in 2019. It is in our best interest to go out and at least make inquiries on Mayfield now before all of these recent gains are seen on the field.