LOS ANGELES – Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield is America’s favorite flag planting, crotch grabbing and swashbuckling quarterback underdog. His pocket improv act is Second City-worthy, his accuracy the caliber of an Olympic archer and his everyman hero story straight from a 30-for-30 script. Mayfield’s ascent from a walk-on at two different schools to Heisman Trophy winner has provided the most dramatic and compelling story of this 2017 college football season.
There’s still an underlying tension surrounding Mayfield as he leads the No. 2 Sooners against No. 3 Georgia in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff at the Rose Bowl next week. That game against the Bulldogs’ high-end defense will offer the latest referendum on Mayfield as an NFL prospect. In the eyes of NFL evaluators, Mayfield remains as polarizing a prospect as he is captivating as a player.
That teeming intensity that’s shaped Mayfield, straddling the line between fire and fury, has also stigmatized him. Some executives see a contagious passion and staggering track record of success that can energize a franchise. Others see his penchant for impulsiveness on and off the field – including an arrest for public intoxication and resisting arrest in February and a brief suspension for grabbing his crotch – and conjure comparisons to Johnny Manziel.
Some executives project that Mayfield has played his way into the so-called Big Three of this potential NFL quarterbacking class – UCLA’s Josh Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold and Wyoming’s Josh Allen. (Allen has declared, Rosen is widely expected to declare and Darnold is viewed as a 50-50 shot at returning to USC.) Others observe Mayfield’s slight build – 6-foot-1 on his tiptoes and 210 pounds – and see the same long odds as quarterbacks who fail to fit the taller and bulkier quarterback paradigms.
Once the glow from Mayfield’s 41 touchdowns and just five interceptions fade, NFL evaluators will fall back on the crutches that have defined them for decades.
The range of opinions on Mayfield vary. Private quarterback tutor and former NFL backup Rich Bartel says Mayfield should be the first quarterback taken. “I really believe that,” Bartel said. “A lot of people screw up the evaluation process by taking a negative and making it a non-negotiable. We need to get over the height thing. What we used to think is the prototype is no longer the prototype. He’s proven himself. It’s about cognitive processing, and he clearly can do that.”
One veteran NFL coach predicts that Mayfield won’t go in the first round. He points out that Seahawks star Russell Wilson, who also faced height and size questions coming out of college, ended up going in the third round. “It’s like buying a house,” the coach said. “Get comparables, and they usually stack up pretty close.” The coach added that Mayfield’s off-field issues aren’t a big deal, but “if he’s going to be the face of your franchise, you’ve got to be careful.”
From a pure collegiate performance standpoint, there’s little to quibble at with Mayfield. He’s completed nearly 71 percent of his passes in consecutive years, compiled the fifth-highest vote total in Heisman Trophy history and broke his own NCAA record for passing efficiency in a single season (203.76). “You can’t run from the numbers,” said a veteran NFL executive. “You can’t hide from some of these numbers. It’s like Deshaun Watson. You can’t hide from the numbers.”
This executive said Mayfield’s most impressive statistic is his 11.8 yards per attempt. The executive did note that playing in the Big 12, Mayfield encountered “some of the worst defenses in the history of football.” But what that number showed him backs an important nuance that’s shown up on film time and again on Mayfield – his eye level being consistently down the field.
Why is eye level important? “If you watch Jimmy Garoppolo play quarterback, his eye level is down the field,” the executive said. “He’s looking down the field. He sees and feels the defensive players around him. He never really looks at them. It’s a sense. It’s like a boxer who isn’t worried about getting punched. He’s looking up.” The executive pointed to Mitchell Trubisky, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco as quarterbacks that don’t always keep their eyes down the field. “They start reacting to hits that aren’t coming,” he said, “and they get rid of the ball quickly.”
Another veteran NFL executive said he graded Mayfield a 1.2, which projects him between No. 10 and No. 20 in the first round. He compares him to Brett Favre, the former Packers star who became synonymous with the word “gunslinger.” There could end up being a compelling debate in the mid-part of the first round between drafting Wyoming’s Allen – the classic 6-foot-5 dropback quarterback with a cannon arm and modest success – or the slighter and shiftier Mayfield. And that decision may be indicative of the evolution of the sport.
“Mayfield has enough arm strength to make any throw,” said the second executive. “His accuracy on the move is very impressive. Now with where the game is going, there’s only so many Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings [in terms of dropback style]. The defenses are getting so fast, you have to survive with your legs and he can.”
The executive adds: “He may be a [bone]-head or a bad person, but I like the whole package. I like what I see from his talent.”
Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, the former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had to gameplan against Mayfield earlier this season. Schiano scouted Mayfield extensively in the offseason and still saw him deliver one of the signature victories against his team – a 31-16 thrashing of the Buckeyes in Columbus.
“He’s a fierce competitor, very athletic and I think can do both designed plays and create when things break down,” Schiano said. “I think he’ll be a successful NFL quarterback. He’s going to have to go to a system that uses him the right way.”
Bartel takes that a point further, saying there may only be about five offensive coordinators in the league that have the creativity to match schemes to Mayfield’s skill set. (He mentioned New Orleans, Seattle, Kansas City, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco as places where Mayfield could flourish.) “The biggest thing that will determine whether or not he succeeds in the NFL,” Bartel said, “is where he lands.”
And that will be a test of how flexible NFL executives, coaches and schemes are to adapting to a player like Mayfield. That means Mayfield likely faces another underdog narrative in the months leading up to the NFL draft. Just how he likes it.
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