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CLEVELAND (AP) — The Browns aren't ready to throw Baker Mayfield away just yet.
The quarterback's subpar season didn't cost him his starting job, with general manager Andrew Berry saying Tuesday the Browns “fully expect” Mayfield to return as their quarterback after an injury-plagued 2021.
Mayfield played most of the season with a torn labrum in his left, non-throwing shoulder, and the injury contributed to him regressing and the Browns (8-9) missing the playoffs. He’ll have surgery on Jan. 19.
Mayfield's shaky season — and the team's hesitancy to sign him to a long-term extension — fueled speculation the Browns might go in another direction at quarterback.
That's still possible. It is the unpredictable NFL after all, and things can change in a heartbeat or with one phone call.
But Berry at least temporarily kept the polarizing QB on top of the depth chart.
“We fully expect Baker to be our starter and to bounce back,” Berry said on a Zoom call. "We're looking forward to Baker obviously getting healthy in the offseason and then putting good work through the spring and with his coaches for having the type of season that we know he can have moving forward.”
Mayfield first got hurt while trying to make a tackle in Week 2, and played most of the season with a protective harness that prevented his shoulder from popping out.
Berry reiterated coach Kevin Stefanski's stance that the Browns were comfortable with the decision to keep playing an injured Mayfield because he was medically cleared and performed up to standards in practice.
“We felt good about the information that we had throughout the year and on hand,” he said. "The reality of it is we all wish that we and everybody across the team were able to perform better and allow us to reach the playoffs this year.”
Mayfield finished just 6-8 as a starter with 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, including seven in his last three games. He ranked near the league's bottom in several statistical categories, including completion percentage.
It's not fair to lay all the blame for Cleveland's slide on Mayfield, but that comes with the position.
Berry said part of the rationale for sticking with Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, is familiarity.
“I think it's easy to forget this point of year that what we've seen with Baker over the past several years," Berry said. “We've been with Baker for a long period of time. We know his work ethic, we know his drive and we've seen him as a talented passer in this league. We are looking forward to him getting healthy and continuing to make improvements.”
In a way, the Browns don't have much of a choice.
They've already invested in Mayfield, exercising his $18.9 million contract option for next season. So unless they have a trade in mind or are convinced they can find a significant upgrade in free agency, Mayfield may be the Browns' best option.
Berry hasn't approached Mayfield's agent about a long-term extension with the QB, who led the Browns to the postseason and their first playoff win since 1994 last season. Berry said he's not concerned about Mayfield potentially playing next season without a contract beyond 2022.
Berry dismissed the notion Mayfield would be a “lame duck.”
“I don't know that I would categorize it that way," he said. "You have a number of players across positions that are entering the final years of their deals. That is not something that is really top of mind for me.”
After being sacked nine times in a Jan. 3 loss at Pittsburgh, Mayfield chose to sit out Sunday's season finale against Cincinnati. He also missed two other games — one to rest the shoulder, one after testing positive for COVID-19.
Berry believes a healthy Mayfield will be better and that the 26-year-old fits what the team needs in a leader.
“Baker's team oriented. He's a competitor. He's super tough,” Berry said. “He truly wants what's best for the team and really to take the steps that he needs to improve to become the quarterback that we know that he can become.”
NOTES: Berry said the team will undergo a thorough evaluation of “everything” in coming weeks to improve. However, he remains confident in Stefanski calling plays despite the team's offensive struggles. “That's one of his strengths,” Berry said. ... Berry confirmed the team has given permission for front-office executives Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Glenn Cook to interview for Chicago's GM opening. “I'm just glad they're interviewing for an NFC team so that I can root for them if they get it,” he joked.
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Tom Withers, The Associated Press