The three-pronged quarterback extravaganza at the top of the 2018 NFL draft has not unfolded as planned. Southern California’s Sam Darnold has made an array of both NFL throws and head-slap interceptions, and he has sent signals he will consider returning to college. Josh Allen remains a wild card because of the competition he faces at Wyoming and the offensive line he plays behind, and if anything, he has regressed. Josh Rosen has flashed brilliance for UCLA, especially on intermediate throws, but has also been prone to interceptions and is now hurt, again.
But the most significant change in the 2018 quarterback prospect derby may be the performance of a fourth passer, forcing his way into the conversation as a potential first-round pick. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield has emerged not only as the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy, but also as a quarterback who could land in the first round in April.
Mayfield, overlooked entering the year because of his size and the system in which he plays, has barged into first-round consideration and up draft boards. He makes up for his height — he’s listed as 6-foot-1 — with surprising arm strength, unmatched production, off-the-charts intangibles and athleticism suited for the direction NFL offense is headed.
“His game is not supposed to mix,” said Fox analyst Joel Klatt, who was in the broadcast booth for Mayfield’s 598-yard performance Saturday against Oklahoma State. “Normally, you get a guy that is such a good player outside the structure of the offense and a good improviser, normally those players are not as efficient. Usually, you’re either a gunslinger or you’re efficient. For some reason, this kid has married the two together in a way that is really unique.”
Pro Football Focus has graded Mayfield as its best NFL quarterback prospect for the past two years. Mayfield, per its tracking, has made the lowest percentage of missed throws and grades at an elite level on accuracy on deep throws.
Mayfield is hurt slightly by Oklahoma’s offense, which features few tight-window, NFL-style throws. And Big 12 defenses tend to sit back in coverage, which allows Mayfield to indulge one of his weaknesses — holding the ball too long. But as much as PFF analyst Steve Palazzolo wanted to downgrade Mayfield, he kept seeing play after play on film that supported Mayfield.
“We try to be so data-driven and trust our numbers and all that stuff,” Palazzolo said. “The gut is, he’s just not a guy I want to doubt.”
NFL evaluators will likely have little variance in how they grade Darnold, Rosen and Allen. Klatt predicted scouts and executives would be split, but that Mayfield’s rise up draft boards could mimic that of Patrick Mahomes, a uniquely gifted passer whom the Chiefs traded up to take with the 10th pick. Mayfield may not be seen universally as a surefire prospect, but if enough teams become enamored, he could be plucked early.
“I could see those type of guys falling in love with Baker, and those guys spent time around [Brett] Favre,” Klatt said. “They seek Baker’s ability to improvise and play with unnatural confidence, and they see Favre. That’s what Andy Reid saw in Mahomes, so he moved up and got him. The Brett Favre tree of coaches, the [former Packers coach Mike] Holmgren tree, those ones that will love Baker Mayfield.”
Mayfield’s arm strength, often a presumed weakness because of his size, is actually an asset. “When I watch his tape, you see back-foot throws that go 55, 60 yards in the air,” Klatt said, and he easily makes out-route passes to the wide side of the field. Mayfield can generate power on even those throws from awkward, unconventional positions. If a traditional pocket quarterback throws like a pitcher, Klatt said, then Mayfield has the footwork and body control to throw like an infielder.
Mayfield’s best comparison, including in some uncanny ways, might be Russell Wilson. They’re both the same body type. Mayfield is listed at 6-1, 220 pounds, but probably scrapes 6 feet. Wilson is 5-11, 215 pounds. Both have thick, powerful legs, which they use to extend plays and shake off lunging pass rushers. They escape the pocket in similar fashion, scrambling backward in an attempt to throw downfield. They both launch gorgeous deep balls with accuracy.
“I love the Russell Wilson comparison,” Klatt said.
Beyond physical comparisons, Mayfield and Wilson share intangible traits and similar college arcs. Wilson was renowned for his leadership and was elected a captain at Wisconsin after transferring. Mayfield is renowned for his leadership and was elected a captain at Oklahoma after transferring. Each became the face of a powerhouse program after entering as an outsider.
“There’s not a better leader in college football than Baker Mayfield,” Oklahoma defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo said earlier this season. “And you can quote me on that. That guy, look, I’ll follow him anywhere.”
“They have the persona that can walk into a locker room and immediately get guys to follow them,” Klatt said. “That type of leadership is rare.”
In college, Mayfield’s production is undeniable. Including his freshman season at Texas Tech, Mayfield has passed for more than 13,000 yards and 116 touchdowns. This season, Mayfield has completed 71.7 percent of his passes while throwing for 28 touchdowns with five interceptions, averaging 358.4 yards per game.
Against archrival Oklahoma State, which boasted one of the best defenses in the Big 12, Mayfield completed 24 of 36 passes for a school-record 598 yards and five touchdowns, leading the Sooners to a 62-52 victory. Palazzolo, the Pro Football Focus analyst who has charted every snap of Mayfield’s career, said it was not even one of his standout games, from a grading perspective.
In previous years, it would have been easy to dismiss Mayfield. But the instant success of Wilson, Dak Prescott, Marcus Mariota and Jared Goff has eased the stigma attached to quarterbacks who are either relatively small or come from a spread offense. If anything, the NFL may be searching for quarterbacks who, like Mayfield, can make plays on the run, either by design or when defenses break down.
The Eagles’ Carson Wentz played in a pro-style offense in college at North Dakota State. This season, he has excelled running run-pass options and other wrinkles typically associated with the college game, so much that some Denver Broncos defenders called Philadelphia’s scheme, admiringly, a “college offense.”
Mayfield may be the next quarterback in that mold. “It would not shock me at all if he is a starter really early in his career for a team making a playoff push,” Klatt said. He didn’t start the season as a top NFL prospect, but Mayfield is making his way there.
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