Joel Bitonio reminds everyone that Baker Mayfield ‘did a lot for this franchise’; calls Deshaun Watson ‘a special football player’

CANTON, Ohio — Nobody had Baker Mayfield’s back — or backside — more than left guard Joel Bitonio over the past four years, and he’s not about to let him get sacked now while on the trading block.

“Baker was my guy,” Bitonio said after practice at Tom Benson Stadium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the second day of mandatory minicamp. “I still remember the Thursday night Jets game when he came into the game and helped lead us to victory and that honestly was one of the more special moments in my career just because it had been so long since we won games.

“He’s a tough guy and he played his heart out for us and I’ll always respect that. He’s still a friend of mine. We text occasionally and I think like everybody else, he’s kind of waiting it out to see where he’s going, but Baker did a lot for this franchise. He won a lot of games, he was a great player for us and I’ll always be a friend.”

Bitonio, who skipped the voluntary offseason program and spoke for the first time this offseason, always stood up for Mayfield even during the rough seasons of 2019 and 2021 when he took heat locally and nationally. He watched Mayfield rally and lead the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020 and to the AFC Divisional round against Kansas City. He’s watched him argue with Colin Cowherd and Rex Ryan, shotgun beers and lead the Browns out of the doldrums. He also watched him lure the younger fan base that had never experienced winning.

“He’s always had that chip on his shoulder and I’m sure it’s continued to get bigger and bigger,” Bitonio said. “A team’s going to give him a chance. I know the contract situation is working itself out but he’ll get a chance to play. Quarterback is such a scarcity in the league that he’ll get a chance to play and perform again.”

Bitonio could tell how much Mayfield was hurting last season from the torn left labrum and other ailments. He never let on publicly knew, but those closest to him he wasn’t himself. Ultimately, he had surgery Jan. 19 is on schedule to be able to start the season.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” Bitonio said. “It’s the NFL and sometimes you have bad injury luck and for him, he obviously had a hurt shoulder, hurt enough to get surgery, and I’m sure it affected him. I didn’t have that conversation with him, how much it’s affecting you. I don’t know those details and what goes on behind closed doors. I go out there and play with the guys, but injuries affect them and that was definitely a part of it.”

The Browns excused Mayfield from mandatory minicamp in a mutual decision between his camp and the club, which prevented him from being fined more than $95,000 for the three days.

Meanwhile, they’re still trying to trade Mayfield, and the Carolina Panthers are still a possibility. The two sides have remained in contact since talks broke down during draft weekend, and if they can agree on the money and draft pick compensation it will get done. To this point, the Panthers have wanted the Browns to pick up the bulk of Mayfield’s guaranteed $18.86 million contract.

Nothing is imminent, league sources tell, but it’s still on the table. As for the Browns swapping Mayfield for the Panthers’ current starter Sam Darnold, it’s unlikely to happen. Darnold is under contract this season for the same fifth-year option amount as Mayfield.

While Bitonio still supports his close friend and expects him to succeed, he understands the Browns trading for Deshaun Watson and giving him the fully guaranteed $230 million contract over five years.

“He’s a heck of a football player,” Bitonio said. “I’ve played against him. He’s gotten the best of us, I think a couple of times that I’ve played him in my career, and he’s a heck of a player. He does some things on the field that are really special, really unique. I crossed over with him at the Pro Bowl a couple of times and had the trip to the Bahamas where I got to know him. All that stuff is in court and they have legal battles to go through, but in this NFL, you’re trying to get better. You’re trying to find ways to win, and Deshaun Watson is a special football player.”

Watson, who has 24 pending civil suits against him, is awaiting word from the NFL on a suspension. A league source said the Browns expect to hear something by the end of the month, and Bitonio confirmed an air of uncertainty over the team.

“[A suspension is] definitely a potential,” he said. “I can’t really control much with it, so I try not to worry about those things. And we’ll go into the season, I think we have really good quality backup quarterbacks that have played a lot of football in Jacoby [Brissett] and Josh [Dobbs]. It’s one of those things that it might happen, it might not, we don’t know. And we can’t truly worry about it, but if it does, I think we have the right character in the room to handle that adversity.”

Bitonio, ever the optimist, believes this team can go the distance.

“We have good leadership,” he said. “Andrew Berry and Coach [Kevin] Stefanski kind of start if off and you lead from the top down and I think there are players with experience on this team. I’ve seen what not to do a few times and so hopefully we can turn that into what to do and we won a playoff game before with a lot of these guys and there are players from winning programs that have been here. We do have the guys, we have the coaches and we have the experience now to make a charge for this.”

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