Baker Mayfield: The Data-Point the NFL’s Been Waiting For

When Baker Mayfield’s name is read out at the AT&T Stadium in a little over three weeks time, one NFL franchise will be taking a substantial risk — while testing the veracity of three major pieces of conventional scouting wisdom. When all is said and done, the team that selects the Heisman Trophy winner will be providing the league with the data point it’s being looking for. In time, Baker Mayfield will settle debates.

It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that Mayfield is the archetypal high-risk/high-reward quarterback. If the senior can replicate the standards he exhibited at Oklahoma, the team that selects him will find themselves blessed with deadly-accurate passer who possesses a rare aptitude for leadership. While UCLA’s Josh Rosen might be the most “NFL-ready” of the five quarterbacks available this year, it is Mayfield who has most consistently demonstrated his chops, leading the country in passing efficiency and yards-per-attempt in 2017.

But in addition to all the upsides, Baker brings with him plenty of question-marks. Some are beyond his control. Others less so. In isolation, any of Mayfield’s drawbacks, or ‘red flags’, could be dismissed or overlooked — but concerns start to become amplified when all three are considered together. Irrespective, however, of the doubts that surround the Oklahoma prospect, Mayfield will be drafted as a franchise player, and one current NFL franchise regime will sink or swim with him. In the meantime, league observers will be able to use Mayfield to test the accuracy of some widely-held beliefs about the attributes a NFL quarterback must — and must not — have.

Size Matters?

First up, there’s his height. At 6′ 0″, he is some way off the average for NFL quarterbacks. Comparable signal-callers include, on the one hand, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, but on the other, Johnny Manziel. The existence of such disparate examples of the “six-foot-nothing” quarterback can explain why the debate is yet to be settled.

Brees and Wilson, it’s true, could well be statistical outliers whose off-the-charts football IQs have ultimately compensated for their somewhat modest stature. Indeed, whether it’s Wilson’s  scrambling abilities or Brees’ lightening-quick release, both have developed survival skills that allow them to compensate for those missing inches (Mayfield, it’s worth noting, did both in college).

That said, they could also be living reminders that our obsession with prototypical height — as embodied by 6’ 4” Eli Manning and Tom Brady — is misplaced. Given that both have been able to forge Hall of Fame-level careers in the NFL, there’s ostensibly no reason why others cannot do the same. Moreover, any argument that relies on the examples Manziel and the Cleveland Browns is flawed from the outset. For the question of quarterback height to be settled, we will need another data point. And Baker should perform this role rather nicely.

Off-Field Distractions?

Mayfield’s second red flag also regrettably draws on the largely-unhelpful legacy of “Johnny Football”. As most readers will be aware, a little over a year ago Mayfield was arrested on intoxication and disorderly conduct charges while in Arkansas. The gravity of the incident was, however, worsened by Mayfield’s attempt to evade the arrest. Not one, then, but two calamitous decisions.

No matter where Mayfield gets drafted, it will be in the first round — and more than likely in the top five. He will be the face of a franchise and will be forced to assume all the responsibility that entails. The question then remains whether Baker has the emotional maturity to handle the pressure of playing under-center, likely in New York. Whether or not he answered that question at the center of the Horseshoe last September is a matter of perspective (See below).

One thing we should be clear about is that Mayfield’s “off-field issues” bare almost no resemblance to those of Manziel. Sure, both caught the attention of police when intoxicated, and both have exhibited a nauseating level of cockiness on the field. But most comparisons between the two are lazy and largely without foundation. That disclaimer aside, however, Mayfield’s attitude has sounded alarm bells throughout the league. The question for scouts is whether he will be more a Jameis Winston than a Johnny Manziel — an elite quarterback prospect with his own baggage, but who has adjusted to the role of the franchise player with some level of aplomb.

Limited by the Spread?

The final (major) question mark surrounding Baker Mayfield stems from Lincoln Riley’s spread offense at Oklahoma. Some scouts have warned that Mayfield’s exceptional college stats ought to be taken with a pinch of salt when it comes to making projections. Throughout Mayfield’s time in Norman, the Sooners ran an Air Raid-style scheme in which the transfer from Texas Tech put up ludicrous numbers against shaky Big 12 defenses. His 71% completion percentage last year is considered by some to be soft — and, more importantly, a poor indicator of how he will translate to the NFL, where passing windows are perilously tight. A further problem for talent evaluators is that Mayfield’s closest NFL comparison — Russell Wilson — played in a pro-style system at Wisconsin, suggesting that Baker will have a tougher time adjusting to the nuances of the position in the pros.

Of course, despite there being widespread doubts throughout the league about “Air Raid” quarterbacks, GMs keep pulling the trigger anyway (see: Patrick Mahomes). Moreover, NFL teams appear to be increasingly comfortable with taking spread offense quarterbacks, and molding their offenses around them. It’s no longer uncommon to see run-pass option plays and shotgun sets incorporated into NFL schemes, and the likes of DeShaun Watson and Marcus Mariota have done much to silence the spread-QB doubters.

As with his height and off-field character concerns, Mayfield’s transition from a spread to pro-style offense will serve as a major data point for NFL evaluators in the future. Should be successful at the next level, concerns about height, cockiness, and lack of pro-style experience can be put to bed. However, should Mayfield fail, we’ll have learned a valuable lesson about the attributes quarterbacks need to have. Either way, Mayfield will enter the league with three major red flags. The question is whether he can overcome them, both for the good of himself and for future quarterbacks just like him.

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