Finding the Fit: Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns
No matter which quarterback the Cleveland Browns draft, it never turns out to be the right one. Prior to 2018, the team had drafted seven quarterbacks in the top 100 picks since 2000, three of whom were first-round picks. The three first-round picks — Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, and Johnny Manziel — all busted, while none of the day two selections developed into anything significant. Oddly enough, however, each of the team’s three first-round picks at quarterback over the past 15 years have been at pick 22, rather than in the top five. For as often as the Browns find themselves picking early, they spent nearly two decades avoiding quarterbacks with those picks.
Baker Mayfield is the Browns’ first top-five selection at quarterback since drafting Tim Couch first overall in 1999. We can all get a kick out of tossing in Mayfield as “another Browns quarterback,” but he truly is the first of his kind in Cleveland in quite some time.
The Mayfield Skill Set
Mayfield is what you would expect of a senior quarterback who dominated the competition in college: prepared, poised, and accurate. By his senior season at Oklahoma, Mayfield was given freedom at the line of scrimmage to check to his own calls, if he saw fit. Head coach Lincoln Riley trusted Mayfield to be a coach on the field and get the offense into the right plays. Additionally, the offense was built in part around run-pass options (RPOs), allowing Mayfield to cripple defenses with swift, sound decision making.
One of the clearest examples of Mayfield’s pre-snap control came versus Tulane early in the 2017 season. A play I have harped on many times, Mayfield used his knowledge of the defense’s coverage shell and personnel to check to a scoring play.
Tulane shows a one-high shell with seven players in the box, despite the offense’s trips formation. In seeing the personnel and shell, Mayfield gets a hint that the defense will blitz one of the linebackers, likely the one away from the offense’s strength of formation because there is no need to defend that side of the field. Mayfield then motions the running back to the other side of him and signals him to run vertically up the seam. With the hunch of the weakside inside linebacker coming on a blitz, Mayfield figures the running back will be covered by the outside linebacker, allowing the running back an easy inside track.
Mayfield’s hunch is correct and the running back springs free up the seam. The outside linebacker, seemingly unprepared to carry a running back up the seam, gets caught flat-footed and allows the running back to fly by to a free touchdown.
A quarterback does not have to make a slew of hand signals and audibles to showcase pre-snap prowess, though. Being a dominant pre-snap quarterback can come down to simpler aspects of the game, such as understanding leverage and knowing where to find secondary and tertiary passing options. In short, the pre-snap phase is all about setting up a plan to execute without hesitation once the ball is snapped.
In this example, Mayfield is in an empty set with three receivers to his right. The middle receiver to the right side of the formation is set to run a vertical route while the two receivers by his side run short stop routes to stretch the defense thin. On the back side of the play, the slot receiver is primed to run a pivot route underneath the outside receiver clearing vertical. Mayfield wants the deep pass, of course, but does not immediately get the look he was hoping for.
The defensive back playing over the deep route does not bite on the shorter routes around him. He stays true to his assignment, mirrors the receiver’s hips, and caps him vertically before the receiver has a chance. Mayfield initially looks that way, but it does not take long for him to realize the receiver is going to get capped and pushed to the sideline, making the throw highly improbable and unnecessarily risky for a first down play. Mayfield quickly turns back to the pivot route, which he knew would be open. With the defender’s clear inside alignment over the pivot receiver, Mayfield knew the receiver could quite easily bait the defender into cutting off an inside route then break free to the sideline. In seamless transition, Mayfield pulled away from the deep route and laced a throw to the pivot receiver for a first down and more.
Of course, plays will not always go so smoothly in the NFL. Pressure is to be expected in the pros, whereas Mayfield had the luxury of many pressure-free drop backs at Oklahoma. In turn, Mayfield did not have to make as many plays around pass-rushers the way others such as Josh Allen or Josh Rosen had to. To some, that meant Mayfield would struggle when pressured more in the NFL, but upon inspection of Mayfield’s time at Oklahoma, being pressured as little as he was did not correlate to poor performance when he was pressured.
Take this play versus Texas, for example. Texas sends a windy, creative five-man blitz versus Oklahoma’s five pass-blockers. The confusion sends Oklahoma’s left tackle working inside to the B-gap to stop a rusher, as pass-blockers are often taught to pick up the most immediate threat (i.e., inside rushers). As a result, Texas’ defensive end gets a free run at Mayfield from the quarterback’s blind side. Mayfield senses the pressure and moves off of his spot, but not in a panic. He assesses the state of his offensive line and finds a crease to move up into. Once Mayfield slides into a safer spot to throw from, he finds tight end Mark Andrews crossing over the right hash for a first down.
Just for good measure, here is another play in which Mayfield dances around behind the line of scrimmage to find a throwing lane.
Mayfield often found similar throwing lanes while at Oklahoma. Considering Mayfield is on the shorter side at 6-foot, simply standing tall in the face of disruption is not an option for him. Luckily, he knows he has to move and search for throwing lanes at a higher rate than most, and does so properly when the defense forces him to. Mayfield’s movements are not quite as effective as the likes of Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, but he moves plenty well enough. His height should not deter him from NFL success.
Mayfield also sports great accuracy all over the field as a bow to an already impressive skill set. Via my own charting for the Optimum Scouting NFL Draft Guide, Mayfield ranked top-three in the class in accuracy to each individual area of the field, as well as placing first in cumulative accuracy. Additionally, Mayfield was the most accurate quarterback under pressure and in the red zone.
The red zone, in particular, is a strength for Mayfield. Because he can so easily adjust his throwing lanes and arm slots, the strenuous conditions of the red zone do not phase him. Whereas some quarterbacks fail to speed up their process or move from their spot to find a better throwing lane, Mayfield can feel out a play instantly and make the correct adjustment for a successful play. Those very same traits are why red zone juggernauts such as Brees and Aaron Rodgers are as good as they are.
Though the receiver does not hang on to the ball, this type of play is common from Mayfield. As soon as the ball is snapped, a free blitzer loops inside the right tackle and finds a clear path to Mayfield. He sees the blitzer and slides to the left, both avoiding the blitzer and moving the throwing lane out of arm’s length from the defensive tackle. The ball comes out from what looks like an awkward platform, but Mayfield does well to control his motion and push the pass out from a clean release point. For Mayfield to see the unexpected rusher and react accordingly to make a situationally-perfect throw is the caliber of play one would expect from a number one overall pick.
Mayfield’s Fit in Haley’s Offense
One week before the draft, I profiled Todd Haley’s offense as it related to the presumptive new starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor. The Browns then went on to draft a quarterback first overall, which threw a wrench in Taylor’s hopes of remaining the starting quarterback, thus possibly nullifying the idea of Taylor and Haley as a duo. However, Cleveland drafted the one quarterback who resembles Taylor stylistically and possesses a similar physical skill set. Mayfield plays with the same calculated, yet free-flowing play style as Taylor. Mayfield also possesses similar arm strength, deep passing ability, and ball-carrying potential to Taylor. In turn, an offense comprised of RPOs, vertical concepts, and quick passing from spread formations will fit Mayfield just as it will Taylor.
While at Oklahoma, Mayfield carried out a handful of different RPOs (run-pass options), both as pre- and post-snap reads. Quick pop passes and shoots from the H-back were the typical styling, but Oklahoma went to a handful of more aggressive options, as well. Additionally, Mayfield was asked to execute strictly-running option plays, such as the zone-read and Oklahoma’s unique G/T counter-option. On strictly-running options, Mayfield did show a propensity to hang on to the ball himself more often that he should have, but on RPOs, Mayfield seldom made the wrong decision.
Haley’s offense in Cleveland will feature RPOs similar to Lincoln Riley’s at Oklahoma. Given that RPOs are a way to pick up cheap, almost indefensible yards, more competent quarterbacks need fewer of them to make the offense function, but those same quarterbacks can abuse RPOs as a means to grab free yards. Ben Roethlisberger did this under Haley in Pittsburgh. Andy Dalton also had great success with RPOs and pop passes when Hue Jackson was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati.
Most of Haley’s RPOs are of the pre-snap variety, like the play above. On this play, one receiver motions across the formation to reveal the defense’s coverage. The cornerback following the receiver across the formation is playing about 10 yards off the ball, meaning the quick pass will be a sure completion and a chance for the receiver to make a 1-on-1 play on the sideline. Roethlisberger makes the right call to fake the inside hand-off and throw the quick pass. Even as a rookie, Mayfield should have no issue making the same type of play.
Another key component to Haley’s offense is the use of vertical stress. That does not necessarily mean Haley’s quarterbacks will always throw deep, but the offense is built on regularly using vertical routes to create stress on the defense, or punish them for not properly responding to that stress.
Here is a play in which the Steelers punish the Packers for not respecting a vertical threat. In the original formation, as shown in the first picture, running back Le’Veon Bell is in the backfield. The Packers are showing a two-high coverage shell in response. Moments later, Bell is motioned out to the slot (indicated in yellow), but rather than have an outside linebacker cover him, the Packers roll down the weak safety (WS) to cover Bell.
In doing so, the deep right hash area is vacated because the far safety can not make up the ground. Roethlisberger is able to find the deep receiver just outside the right hash for a 20-yard gain.
Mayfield can take advantage of those plays. For example, Oklahoma ran a few variations of the Mills (or Hank, for West Coast purists) concept. Mills is a two player concept in which the outside receiver runs a deep post while the inside receiver runs a 10-yard in-route under the post. The concept is designed to attack two-high shells with the idea that the defense will either bite on the 10-yard in-route or play too far deep to shutdown the post.
In this play versus Texas Tech, Mayfield wastes no time in throwing over the top of the defense as soon as the safety trots down to cover the in-route. Be it the Mills concept or something similar to the Steelers play in the previous example, Mayfield has the awareness and gall to make defenses respect vertical stems and abuse them when they fail to do so.
Aggression down the field is the area where Taylor and Mayfield differ most. Taylor, though a fantastic deep passer, plays too cautious at times and can hinder the explosivity of an offense. With as aggressive as Haley is, Taylor will likely not be the starting quarterback for long if that continues in 2018. Mayfield, however, is not scared of any passing window. If anything, he can be too aggressive. Mayfield will throw deep too late on occasion, allowing defensive backs to catch up to the ball. Though more volatile, that style of quarterbacking should fit better with Haley than Taylor’s passive style.
Cleveland Chose Wisely
It may not have influenced the draft day decision, but selecting Mayfield with Taylor already on the roster was brilliant. For one, Taylor is a good enough quarterback to hold down the fort for as long as Mayfield needs. Taylor also being a similar player affords the offense a smooth transition to the rookie, an added bonus.
Mayfield himself also meshes well with the direction of the offense. Haley’s aggressive spread offense, as well as Jackson’s experience with creative spread offenses prior to coming to Cleveland, should bode well for Mayfield, who played in that style of offense in college. Furthermore, Cleveland is stacked with a top-tier offensive line, a game-changing athlete at tight end, vertical threats at wide receiver, and pass-catchers out of the backfield, all of which Mayfield had the luxury of having at Oklahoma. In most every way, Mayfield’s transition to the pros should be as smooth as it can be.
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