One thing that NFL draft season never lacks is, storylines. Most of them are forgotten by the time the next one moves into the spotlight. No player in the 2018 draft class has produced more than Baker Mayfield. If you haven’t heard yet, Mayfield went from a walk-on (twice) to a Heisman Trophy winner. That journey alone is enough to draw attention. But, it’s his fiery emotion and ultra-competitive nature that has made him the most polarizing player in the 2018 NFL draft.
He started his college career as a Texas Tech Red Raider, but Baker Mayfield is an Oklahoma Sooner. The history books will remember him as a Sooner, and I refuse to acknowledge anything different.
He is now entering the unchartered waters of the NFL, where he will be highly scrutinized, meticulously dissected, and doubted by many. That part of it is nothing new for him. Proving those people and opinions wrong seems like it might be his favorite thing to do. Mayfield has become widely known for the “chip” that constantly resides on his shoulder. The doubters and nay-sayers fuel his competitive fire as much as any athlete we have seen. Sure, some of the things that provide Mayfield with that extra bit of motivation are probably blown up just for motivational purposes. But who cares?
Once you finish in the top five of the Heisman Trophy voting three times and win it once, the “no one believes in me” card doesn’t really apply anymore. Mayfield will likely become a first-round draft pick this spring, and that doesn’t happen if no one believes in you. But, I fully expect Baker to convince himself that no one does as the name of every player drafted before him is announced. The knocks on Mayfield as a prospect have been heard before. He’s too short, he’s a system quarterback, he won’t be able to improvise like he did in college, and he has “character concerns”. (I find the last one to be comically inaccurate).
So what makes Baker Mayfield a first-round quarterback?
Any discussion on the strengths of Mayfield as a quarterback must begin with his accuracy. He has the ability to put the ball where he wants to whether he’s in the pocket or on the move. His completion percentage, which ranked first in the NCAA in 2016 at 70.9 and 2017 at 70.5, reflect that. My favorite attribute of his game is his ability to keep his eyes downfield while avoiding pressure, then make the necessary throw to complete the pass.
That ability is so difficult to teach, and he does it better than many NFL quarterbacks already. It’s his way of coping with the perceived disadvantage he has with his height, or lack thereof. It’s also a huge reason why Mayfield broke the all-time record for passing efficiency rating in 2017 with a rating of 198.9. Who previously held the record, you might ask? 2016 Baker Mayfield.
Some questions regarding Mayfield’s arm strength still float around. “Can he make all the NFL throws”? Baker doesn’t have the strongest arm in the draft, that title probably belongs to Wyoming’s Josh Allen. But, I haven’t heard any Chad Pennington comparison for Mayfield, so I think he’ll be okay.
Examples of his arm strength and ability to make “NFL throws” are plentiful. He’s also shown the ability to throw the deep ball well when he is able to get in good position and drive the ball down the field. Here we see a couple of throws from 2016 against Texas. You will notice in the second clip that Mayfield puts a throw in a perfect spot from the far hash to the numbers.
A couple of often overlooked quarterbacking skills are footwork and a quick release. I believe Mayfield has a positive grade in both areas. There are times when he makes throws in unorthodox positions, which is something he will have to improve on at the next level. A quick release is almost a necessity for NFL success. I believe it to be a more important trait than arm strength. In the clip below, Mayfield shows a prime example of that quick delivery. Mayfield called this the best throw of his 2017 season.
Play action is becoming a frequently used offensive weapon in NFL offenses. Mayfield mastered the art of the play action while at Oklahoma. Since Oklahoma very rarely goes under center, the play action Mayfield displayed isn’t the “back to the defense” style that we see across the NFL. But he still did a good job of it within the offense he was in. He was able to read the correct defensive player and draw them in with the play fake as well as anyone in the country.
The assumed inability of many spread quarterbacks to adapt to the NFL game has always been a big question mark for college quarterbacks. It seems like many people fear that every highly drafted quarterback who ran a spread offense in college is going to be Blaine Gabbert. NFL offenses are becoming more and more tailored to fit young quarterbacks by incorporating college concepts in the playbook. We have seen guys like Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Deshaun Watson excel early in their careers in part because of that. Given the success had by the Oklahoma offense during Mayfield’s three seasons in the spread offense, I expect the team that drafts him to follow the lead of other NFL teams in the same way.
Part of the doubt that surrounds Baker stems from Big 12 quarterbacks of the past becoming NFL flops. Their numbers are viewed as very inflated, and I won’t argue against that. The “dink-and-dunk” systems often seen in the conference don’t really prepare quarterbacks for the NFL style of play. However, Mayfield is far from a “dink-and-dunk” guy. In the last two seasons, he has recorded yards per attempt numbers of 11.08 and 11.45. Both finished first in the NCAA that year and rank first and third all-time for a single season.Feel free to check it out for yourself, here.
Mayfield was fortunate enough to play for Lincoln Riley during his three years at Oklahoma, two as his offensive coordinator and one as his head coach. Riley is one of the smartest offensive minds in all of football and the evidence of that brilliance shines through in Mayfield. Mayfield’s dedication to studying the game and learning how to run an offense has been greatly helped by Riley’s influence. Baker has shown the ability to check into the right play and put his team in the best spot to succeed. This quality is vital for success as an NFL quarterback.
No discussion about Baker Mayfield can be had without a mention of his leadership ability. Some may dislike the way he does it, but none deny his impact. We saw three very different Oklahoma teams rally around him and look to him as their leader. He has talked about realizing his leadership ability in high school and not shying away from it. At a place like Oklahoma where you’re surrounded by blue-chip players, you have to earn that role by how hard you’re willing to work and what you’re willing to do for your team. Neither of those things can be questioned when it comes to Mayfield.
The best example of that leadership ability is the transition from the 2016 season to the 2017 season. After 2016, Oklahoma lost Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon, and Samaje Perine. Also, legendary Oklahoma coach, Bob Stoops, stepped down only a few months before the first game. In a way, Mayfield seemed left behind.
Being a two-year starter, Baker was the person after Lincoln Riley that would have the most added responsibility. He would not only have to be excellent with his own play, but he would have to elevate the play of others that had no experience at that level. With a week two victory at Ohio State, it was clear that Mayfield was up to the challenge. By incorporating many new skill position players into the offense and using any of them on any given day led to a College Football Playoff appearance for the Sooners and one of the best offensive seasons in college football history.
Every prospect has weaknesses and areas of their game that they must improve at the NFL level if they are going to succeed. Baker Mayfield is no different. He has to improve his ability to make quick decisions, take what the defense is giving him at times, and fit passes into tight windows. Count on Mayfield to meet these with the same tenacity that we saw every week in his college career. Someday, this spread quarterback from the Big 12 who’s too short and doesn’t have the biggest arm is going to make one NFL general manager look very smart.