2018 NFL Draft: First Round Quarterback Review
When it was all said and done, the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft ended with five signal-callers coming off the board. It began with a former Heisman trophy winner going first overall and ended with another former Heisman trophy winner taken with the 32nd overall pick. Below are my thoughts on each quarterback and how they fit within their respective new teams. Check back later this weekend for my thoughts on the rest of the QBs selected in rounds 2-7. Also, make sure to listen to the most recent episode of the 2QBXP Podcast in which host Greg Smith recorded a live draft diary.
Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns, 1st Overall)
Cleveland made the pick that most lends to immediate success. Baker Mayfield is the oldest of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round and, in turn, has the most starting experience. Mayfield played at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma, giving him experience in Kliff Kingsbury’s more traditional Air Raid system and Lincoln Riley’s creative iteration of the system. By the time Mayfield concluded his collegiate career, he had secured a Heisman trophy and posted two of the best statistical passing seasons in college football history (2016, 2017). If anyone in this class appeared to have the experience and charisma to take command of a team early on, it was Mayfield.
Mayfield is an interesting selection because he sports a similar skill set to Tyrod Taylor, who the Browns acquired a month ago.
Editor’s Note: You can read more on Tyrod Taylor’s fit in Todd Haley’s system in this breakdown by Derrik.
Mayfield, like Taylor, is generally accurate to all levels of the field. It is rare for Mayfield to dazzle with a rifle shot down the seam into triple coverage, but he is a consistently accurate passer all over the field. Though it is not flashy, Mayfield does all that is necessary to give wide receivers quality chances to keep the offense on schedule. Any good quarterback must be able to do so at a baseline level, so Mayfield is in good shape.
In addition to reliable accuracy, Mayfield provides a commanding presence pre-snap. During his three years at Oklahoma, Mayfield grew to take over the reins pre-snap and was allowed to call his own audibles. Few quarterbacks in this class were given that much autonomy. Mayfield did not waste that responsibility, either. He proved to be a pseudo-coach on the field and consistently kept Oklahoma in the right play, often using the calls to expose linebackers in space — something Oklahoma’s offense as a whole was reliant on. It is difficult to pinpoint the last time Cleveland had a rookie capable of as much pre-snap control as Mayfield should be able to handle immediately. Even for how high I was on DeShone Kizer, Mayfield was better in college as a pre-snap determiner.
Mayfield also has a decent athletic profile. He is not an athletic specimen like Cam Newton or Carson Wentz, but Mayfield has more than enough agility and short-area speed to be a problem for pass-rushers. Mayfield is slippery in the pocket, as well as a threat to pick up a few yards once he has left the pocket. In the same way that Alex Smith or Andy Dalton can be scrambling or rushing threats when necessary, Mayfield adds that little extra dimension to his game on top of all he does as a passer.
Though Mayfield is not the sexy pick Sam Darnold or Lamar Jackson might have been, he has as clean a profile as anyone could ask of a quarterback prospect. Mayfield showed great success in college, took on a leadership role while at Oklahoma, and produced a film catalog that displayed as well-rounded skill set suited perfectly for today’s NFL. When Mayfield will get his chance to play instead of Taylor is to be seen, but the Browns finally made a seemingly solid, safe bet at quarterback. After the days of Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel, such a change must bring a glimmer of hope in Cleveland.
Sam Darnold (New York Jets, 3rd Overall)
The idea of a veteran quarterback mentoring a rookie quarterback is often fantasy. The Brett Favres and Tom Bradys of the world have no obligation to teach younger players. Their obligation is to win football games. However, for a journeyman like Josh McCown, a veteran mentor role is a legitimate possibility, and something freshly minted New York Jet Sam Darnold will need.
Darnold is as talented a prospect as any in this class, boasting arm strength and an indescribable knack for playmaking. In many ways, Darnold at USC felt like Jameis Winston at Florida State, but not quite as accomplished or pro-ready out of the gate. Darnold will need time to clean up his footwork in the NFL, shore up decision making issues, and learn to more consistently read elongated progressions. Having a veteran presence in McCown should provide the exact environment Darnold needs to blossom into his full potential.
That being said, Darnold possesses a few key traits that could lend to early success, even if the entirety of his skill set is not ironed out. For one, Darnold is a fantastic quick-game passer. Slants, hitches, quick outs, and the like are right in Darnold’s wheelhouse. Darnold does a great job of hitting the top of his drop, knowing where the ball needs to be, and delivering without hesitation. Coupled with his arm strength, Darnold is able to fit all the tight windows in the short area of the field and make it easy for an offense to remain on schedule.
As previously mentioned, Darnold is also a playmaker. He has an unfathomable ability to dodge a pass-rusher, summon a throwing platform out of thin air, and drop in a clean pass. No quarterback in this class rivals how well Darnold can create good outcomes out of seemingly doomed plays. Of course, Darnold throws his fair share of turnovers in those scenarios, but the same could be said of other franchise quarterbacks such as Carson Wentz, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, and a young Matthew Stafford.
Darnold is a unique prospect. He is raw, yet still has enough baseline traits that lend to success. The question then becomes how realistic it is for Darnold to reach his potential, as well as how quickly it can happen. It took Stafford a half-decade to become a reliable franchise quarterback. Winston, on the other hand, has yet to make the transition Stafford has. The hope for Darnold is closer to Wentz, who had the luxury of the best QB coach in the league and one of the best offensive staffs around. Determining where along this spectrum Darnold falls is tricky, but for the spectrum to be Winston to Roethlisberger, there should be plenty of reason to get excited about Darnold.
Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills, 7th Overall)
I knew it. It was too obvious. Only the Buffalo Bills could ship off Tyrod Taylor, then turn around to trade up for Josh Allen.
Bills add another asset to use to go up and get Josh Allen
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) March 12, 2018
(Okay, I made a lucky guess through the medium of a joke, but hey, I’ll take wins where I can get ‘em.)
There is no point in hope trafficking, Josh Allen was a poor pick. From a statistical standpoint, Allen is one of the worst first-round quarterback selections in recent history. Per Alex Kirshner of SB Nation, Allen’s collegiate passer rating among non-power conference quarterbacks in the first round is right on par with Joe Flacco and Paxton Lynch, and only a hair better than Patrick Ramsey and J.P. Losman. Allen’s 137.7 rating is nearly 20 points worse than successes like Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Smith, and Carson Wentz.
It is not just numbers that disagree with the drafting of Allen, though. Allen’s collegiate film catalogue is littered with raw quarterback play and mishaps, only to be lightly sprinkled with incredible flashes of arm strength and mobility. The appeal for Allen is much more about what he could be, not what he has ever proven to be.
Allen does have rare arm strength. No window is too tight for Allen to fit, nor is any pass too far down the field for him. Allen’s high-end throws are as pretty as anyone else’s passes. At times, Allen feels reminiscent of the 1980s NFL quarterbacks who threw heroic bombs to keep their teams in games. Unfortunately, Allen does not show that ability consistently enough to feel good about the way you would with, say, Cam Newton. Newton may be a bit erratic, but he connects on big throws when it matters more often than not. Allen, at least to this point, has not shown the same ability.
Beyond raw arm strength, Allen’s profile is based around potential. Allen might clean up his footwork and become more accurate. Allen could learn to more properly read the field. In time, Allen may improve his sense of pressure and how to react to it. To this point, Allen has not shown any tangible skill consistently enough to say with confidence that he is good at any one thing. Maybe Allen can put it together, he would not be the first unlikely star to figure it out. There’s just not much reason to believe Allen will reach his potential aside from irrational fandom-based passion.
Josh Rosen (Arizona Cardinals, 10th Overall)
It is rare for a team to trade up for their franchise quarterback without sacrificing a war chest of assets. The Arizona Cardinals, however, lucked out. Arizona moved up five spots in a swap with the Oakland Raiders for little more than a single third-round pick, which pales in comparison to some of the other quarterback trade deals that have happened over the past few years. With the 10th pick, Arizona selected UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
With Carson Palmer retiring this offseason, it was clear the Cardinals needed to reload at quarterback. Rosen will be a cerebral, young presence at quarterback — something the Cardinals have not had in decades. The additions of Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon may have appeared to drive away the potential of a rookie quarterback, but now serve as insurance for Rosen, be it for injury or an unexpected delay in his development.
Rosen is going to win as an aggressive dropback passer. When executing deep drops and play-action concepts, Rosen shows great processing and timing. Rosen’s ability to see a play through and adjust his footwork throughout the play accordingly is already veteran-like. Not often does Rosen fail to execute on-schedule and complete passes you would expect a good quarterback to make.
Additionally, Rosen is dangerous in the quick game. Rosen’s swift footwork and top-notch velocity make it easy for him to fit slants, quick outs, and drag routes into the exact spots necessary. The value of Rosen being a high-end quick-game passer is that it should be easy for him to keep an offensive moving as a rookie, making it a bit easier to stomach some of the other growing pains that will naturally come from him being a 21-year-old rookie.
The cherry on top for Rosen’s fit in Arizona is that he needed to be the immediate face of a franchise. Similar to Baker Mayfield, Rosen has an electric, contagious personality that has the makings to take over the locker room. Rosen was often lauded as a great on-field leader while at UCLA and became known for his outspoken personality. Arizona is a perfect fit for his personality and leadership style, as they desperately needed a face of the franchise. The notion of that being important may seem corny, but franchises take the personality of their quarterback or head coach. Rosen certainly has a strong enough personality to give the Cardinals a clear direction.
Lamar Jackson (Baltimore Ravens, 32nd Overall)
I like the idea of Lamar with Harbaugh https://t.co/AiboEsRJH8
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) April 6, 2018
(Yes, I know this was not actually a guess that Baltimore would draft him. Just let me have this.)
In all seriousness, Lamar Jackson being a Baltimore Raven is arguably the best fit among the first five quarterbacks drafted. Jackson, while I think him to be the best quarterback, is not perfect by any means and may benefit from being able to sit for a season — or at least a couple months — behind an established starter in Joe Flacco. Taking some extra time to refine mechanics and settle into a new system would be great for Jackson, just as it would be for any rookie quarterback.
Jackson can immediately provide a handful of things Flacco cannot, however. The obvious difference between the two is mobility. Flacco is a below-average athlete with a history of knee injuries, while Jackson is one of the best athletes to ever play the position. Jackson immediately opens up the offense to more rollouts, designed quarterback runs, and option plays, not to mention the defense must now account for a dangerous quarterback scramble.
Athleticism is not the only reason Jackson can succeed early on. Jackson’s real value comes as a quick-game passer and mental processor. Jackson is one of the best 6-10 yard passers in the class and did so at a high volume while at Louisville. Jackson thrives when being asked to abuse linebackers in space and locate vacated zones. On a similar note, Jackson is a calculated passer. Jackson almost never makes egregious mistakes that lead to interceptions or wasted downs. When necessary, Jackson will provide the aggression needed for an important play. More so than any other quarterback in this class, Jackson has a good idea of when and when not to attack, and he also knows when to move onto the next play. Many veterans fail to develop that trait, let alone walk into the league with it.
Where Jackson should truly excite Ravens fans is how much he has already proven he can develop. As a true freshman at Louisville, Jackson was inaccurate and admitted to not understanding the playbook. The next season, Jackson took full control of the offense and ran away with the Heisman trophy. The year after that, he developed once again to show off better processing and accuracy in his final season. Under a top-10 head coach in John Harbaugh, Jackson should be able to replicate his development arc in the NFL and rapidly turn into a success.