BEREA, Ohio -- On the first day of free agency, the Cleveland Browns set a franchise record for spending on only three players. The Browns, in fact, shelled out $63 million in guaranteed money to tight end Austin Hooper, right tackle Jack Conklin and backup quarterback Case Keenum.
Despite the new front office and coaching staff, the message was clear. Even after quarterback Baker Mayfield's disappointing second season, the Browns believe in him as their quarterback of the future. And they backed that up, immediately splurging on three players to complement him on the field or support him off it -- underscoring their preeminent goal of putting Mayfield back on the track to becoming the franchise quarterback he seemed to be on during a sensational rookie season in 2018.
The Browns shored up Mayfield's frontside protection by signing Conklin, the top free-agent right tackle on the market who was fabulous for the Tennessee Titans in pass protection last season. They landed Mayfield a reliable pass-catching target in Hooper, who was the best tight end available after totaling 75 receptions for the Atlanta Falcons last year.
And they brought in Keenum, a well-respected veteran and fellow undersized quarterback out of Texas, who operated an Air Raid offense in college. He has the wisdom and demeanor Mayfield could utilize to reach another level.
In terms of guaranteed money, Conklin ($30 million) and Hooper ($23 million) cost more than any other free agent the Browns had ever signed, save for guard Kevin Zeitler ($32 million in 2017). As a backup quarterback, Keenum wasn't cheap either, with $10 million guaranteed.
But if those three signings can help Mayfield rediscover his rookie self, it will be money well spent.
To see that happen, the Browns first had to shore up an offensive line that struggled in 2019 to protect Mayfield, who was sacked 40 times. In the AFC, only Houston dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked more.
The Browns took a big step forward in improving their protection last week by signing Conklin. Last season in Cleveland, Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard both ranked outside the top 40 tackles in pass block win rate. That played a part in Mayfield's accuracy and decision-making taking a precipitous turn for the worse.
Conklin, in contrast, was the NFL's top right tackle in pass block win rate. Now, the Browns boast three offensive linemen who were top three at their positions in pass block win rate last year, as Conklin joins center JC Tretter and Pro Bowl left guard Joel Bitonio.
The Browns stand to bolster their offensive line even more. With the 10th overall pick in the NFL draft -- loaded at offensive tackle, headlined by Alabama's Jedrick Wills, Iowa's Tristan Wirfs, Louisville's Mekhi Becton and Georgia's Andrew Thomas -- Cleveland has a prime opportunity to select its blindside protector of the future and add to its young core.
A better offensive line should lead to a better Mayfield, for a variety of reasons. With upgrades to both bookends, Mayfield should have more time in the pocket to develop a rhythm. He should have more confidence in his pocket holding up, as well, to stand and deliver the throws to Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry downfield.
A better offensive line should also do wonders for Cleveland's play-action attack, a staple of head coach Kevin Stefanski's offense in Minnesota. Even with Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb finishing second in the league in rushing, the Browns inexplicably ranked 29th in pass block win rate in play-action last year, according to ESPN Stats & Info research. With Conklin teaming up with Bitonio and Tretter up front, the Browns should feature an even stronger running game to take more pressure off Mayfield while setting him up for success in play-action.
Which leads to Cleveland's other marquee offensive signing.
Calling plays for Minnesota, Stefanski utilized multiple tight ends on the field 57% of the time, the highest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Info research. By adding Hooper, the Browns are equipped to do the same, especially if former first-round pick David Njoku has a bounce-back season after an injury-plagued and ineffective one last year.
In 2019, Mayfield had limited success in multiple tight end sets, posting a QBR of 62, compared to a 49 QBR out of all other personnel packages. Cleveland, however, targeted tight ends only 69 times, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Info research.
That should change in a big way in 2020, as Hooper gives Mayfield the critical weapon he lacked off play-action and in red-zone situations, two areas the Browns struggled with last year. Mayfield thrived in college at Oklahoma with 2017 Mackey Award winner and current Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews at his disposal. Next season, Hooper will step into a similar role, operating over the middle of the field, down the seam, from play-action and off rollouts. That figures to be favorable matchups, especially with Beckham and Landry demanding so much defensive attention out wide and Cleveland creating mismatches for him in two tight sets.
Browns bolster O-line with Conklin signing
The Browns and OT Jack Conklin agree to a three-year, $42 million deal to fortify Cleveland's offensive line and provide Baker Mayfield with more protection.
Hooper said in weighing his free agency options, he saw potential in Cleveland. He also saw the potential in partnering with Mayfield, in light of facing him two seasons ago.
"Playing against Baker live, seeing his arm, seeing his competitive spirit, the way he can rally the boys around him, that's what sold me on him, before I was even a free agent," Hooper said Tuesday in a teleconference with reporters. "I knew what he was about for a couple of years now. So when the opportunity presented itself ... I couldn't turn it down."
The Browns are also excited about the partnership of Mayfield and Keenum in the quarterback room. Keenum, 32, has 62 career starts and experience in the system the Browns will be running, going 11-3 as the Vikings starter in 2017. As one league source, who coached Keenum in the past, put it, "Case will be incredible for Baker" as a mentor and sounding board.
"Case is somebody that's seen it all and been through it all in his time as an NFL quarterback. The experiences he brings can be great for our team as a whole," Stefanski said. "He understands as a backup how it's your job to support the starter and be ready to play in a moment's notice. Bottom line is, we're adding a really smart, tough football player in that room."
The Browns are banking that will buoy Mayfield off the field, while Conklin and Hooper give him a boost on it. And all the money Cleveland just committed will pay off in the form of a franchise quarterback.