In an NFL draft packed with prized quarterbacks and atypical suspense at the start, the Cleveland Browns selected Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick, starting an unprecedented quarterback splurge while ending a mystery that is usually over long before the commissioner walks to the stage.
The Browns kept their choice a well-guarded secret, with most experts guessing in recent weeks they would take either Wyoming’s Josh Allen or Southern California’s Sam Darnold. Instead, they tabbed Mayfield — a player who walked on to two college teams, courted controversy on and off the field and threw for more than 10,000 yards at Oklahoma — as the man to turn around the most woebegone franchise in professional sports.
“He’s excited,” new Browns General Manager John Dorsey told reporters. “When we called up Mayfield on the phone — and I’m going to embarrass him — he was in tears, crying.”
Starting with Mayfield, four quarterbacks were selected in the first 10 picks for the first time in the draft’s history. At the 11th hour, the Baltimore Ravens added a fifth first-round quarterback. They traded for the 32nd pick, which belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles, to select Lamar Jackson, the electrifying 2016 Heisman Trophy winner from Louisville, who remained in the green room all night until he came off the board.
The New York Jets used the third selection to take Darnold, widely considered the favorite to be the first overall pick heading into the college football season. The Buffalo Bills swung a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to move from the 12th pick to the seventh, which they used to take Allen. The Arizona Cardinals traded with the Oakland Raiders to move from the 15th pick to the 10th so they could take UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
For Mayfield, the selection provided the culmination of a remarkable ascent and the start of a monumental task. Mayfield walked on first at Texas Tech and then at Oklahoma after transferring, eventually becoming the prolific captain of a College Football Playoff entrant. He will be entrusted to turn around a franchise that has gone 1-31 the past two seasons, including 0-16 last year. At least he will be eventually — Browns Coach Hue Jackson told reporters that offseason acquisition Tyrod Taylor will be Cleveland’s starter so Mayfield can acclimate to the NFL.
“It’s a mentality,” Mayfield told reporters. “You come in and you can think about what’s happened in the past, or you can work for the future. For Cleveland, we’re making the right moves, and Tyrod and I are going to put an end to that list.”
Mayfield will have help. The Browns also selected fourth overall, the choice obtained from the Houston Texans in a draft-day deal in 2017. Most expected they would use it to pick North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, whom they could have placed in a pass-rushing tandem with Myles Garrett, the first overall pick last season. Instead, the Browns opted for Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward.
Since the Browns restarted operations in 1999, Cleveland has become a quarterback graveyard. Only once have the Browns seen the same quarterback start all 16 games in a season, and Taylor would be the 27th to start a game behind center.
But the Browns, despite ample opportunity, had not fully committed to a quarterback at the top of the draft since they took Tim Couch first overall with their very first draft choice. In the two decades since, they had taken only three quarterbacks — Brady Quinn (2007), Brandon Weeden (2012) and Johnny Manziel (2014) — in the first round, all coming, coincidentally, with the 22nd pick. Two years later, they acquired extra picks from the Eagles to move down from the second pick, which eventually became Carson Wentz. Last year, they traded the 12th pick, which the Texans used to select Deshaun Watson.
Mayfield does not come without risks, and a player with an unconventional path to the Heisman Trophy now stands as an unconventional first pick. He is barely 6 feet tall. Last year, he was tackled by police trying to evade an arrest. On the field, his competitive flair often surfaced in controversial ways, particularly when he grabbed his crotch last season during a blowout against Kansas.
Darnold mixed frequent brilliance with maddening interceptions and a funky throwing motion. Allen possesses prototypical physical attributes and a rocket arm, but he never completed more than 56 percent of his passes at Wyoming, where his teams went 16-11 facing inferior competition. Allen faced uglier scrutiny Thursday morning, when racist tweets from his high school days surfaced. Rosen displayed an advanced understanding of pro-style offenses, but he produced turnovers in bunches and confronted constant injury. (He also expressed a sophisticated view of the world and betrayed interests outside football, a pair of qualities only the Army or the NFL would view as detriments.)
As quarterbacks hogged the spotlight, the New York Giants landed perhaps the best player in the draft in running back Saquon Barkley of Penn State with the second overall pick. The Browns’ passing on Chubb benefited the Denver Broncos, who scooped up a terrifying complement to Von Miller. A pair of Notre Dame offensive linemen went in the top 10, with the Colts choosing guard Quenton Nelson sixth and the 49ers taking tackle Mike McGlinchey ninth.
But before all of them went Mayfield, the sawed-off firebrand from Austin. After his freshman year, he left Texas Tech, spurned by the coaching staff, and showed up unannounced on Oklahoma’s campus. On Thursday night, he chose not to attend the draft in Arlington, Tex. Instead, he watched from home and posted a photograph of himself on Instagram, wearing a sweatshirt with a simple message: “Walk On.”