MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – In Kyler Murray’s first year as a full-time starting quarterback, he completed nearly 71 percent of his passes, threw 40 touchdown passes and won the Heisman Trophy. He also asserted himself as perhaps the most intriguing character in the sport, as his potential decision between the NFL draft and fulfilling his contract with the Oakland Athletics looms large over the sports landscape.
Murray signed a $4.66 million contract with the A’s after getting drafted No. 9 overall in the Major League Baseball draft this summer. Both he and his agent insist that his current plan is to join the A’s immediately after this football season ends, as the organization was gracious enough to allow him a one-season football experiment as a gesture of good faith.
But as No. 4 Oklahoma marched to a Big 12 championship and braces to play No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff on Saturday, there’s an increasing feeling in NFL circles that Murray may attempt to be the next Baker Mayfield before he tries to be the next Mookie Betts. At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, his size would make him an anomaly at the quarterback position in the NFL. But it’s hard to ignore the production, arm talent or evolving NFL schemes that cater to his skill set.
The ambiguity surrounding Murray’s future may best be summed up by this cryptic quote from Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley on Thursday.
“I don’t know,” he said when asked about what is star quarterback will do next. “I don’t know. I can see it going either way, honestly. I just want him to do what makes him happy.”
Somewhere around midseason, officials at Oklahoma told NFL scouts to be sure to evaluate Murray as they went through. The scouts all knew he’d signed his lucrative deal with the A’s, but that was the first tangible sign the door for football remained open. And he certainly hasn’t shut it, as his open-ended comments at Orange Bowl media day indicated.
“It’s never bad to have options,” he said, adding later, “I’ve always felt like I can play in the NFL.”
He summed up his precipitous football rise and resulting conundrum this way: “Nobody expected it. So now it’s kind of like, what do you do?”
Declaring for the NFL draft comes with complications. He’d have to pay back his hefty baseball bonus, and declaring for the draft would essentially end this initial foray into baseball, as it’s the understanding of NFL front offices that he’d have to choose one or the other in the near future and can’t straddle both because of his signed deal with the A’s.
Scouts in both sports told Yahoo Sports that many signs point away from baseball.
“I think he’s going to play football,” said an NFL scout who goes through Oklahoma. “I think he wants to play football. If it’s equal or he liked baseball better, why would he have played this year? I truly think he loves playing football.”
Baseball scouts are generally skeptical he’ll stick with the sport because the allure of being a star quarterback potentially outweighs their perception of his desire for baseball.
“I love him,” an MLB scout told Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. “He can be a star. Plus speed, good raw power, legitimate center fielder. But he’s so far behind the curve because of football, it’s going to take longer for him to develop. And I really wonder if the football bug is too strong for him to say no.”
The football projections contrast strongly with the sentiments of his baseball agent, Scott Boras, who told Passan on Thursday: “He’s very loyal to the A’s for allowing him to achieve this in college and give him the guarantee of $5 million. That is something that was very important to Kyler and his family. He has every intention of playing baseball. He’s going to be at spring training with the Oakland A’s on Feb. 10.”
To put that in context, it’s rare for players in their post-draft year to go to major league camp. Murray is not going to be working out for NFL teams, Boras said, and intends to transition into baseball training immediately upon the conclusion of the football season. That means NFL teams couldn’t quiz him in person or see his tiny frame up close.
As the weeks have passed and the yardage totals have pinballed, the volume of the questions over what Murray will do has increased. Does he play football, with a higher salary ceiling for his position but a greater injury risk? Or does he play baseball, which has already guaranteed him nearly $5 million but also could come with a lengthy minor-league stay.
“I have serious doubts he loves baseball enough to grind it out in the minors,” said a second baseball scout. “I just think Kyler is pretty immature mentally and I’m not sure he can handle the real baseball world given that he’s raw and famous.”
Let’s start with his football potential, as he’d the perfect test case for a changing NFL. One scout joked to Yahoo Sports that even as recently as three years ago Murray would be disregarded as a misfit-toy prospect, nudged to change positions.
But the confluence of the evolution of NFL offenses with the success of Mayfield and Lamar Jackson and his own dynamic performances have thrust Murray into the conversation as a first-round pick. Oregon’s Justin Herbert deciding to stay in school only added to the intrigue around Murray, as there’s a thin crop of high-ended quarterbacks – Duke’s Daniel Jones, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Missouri’s Drew Lock – compared to the number of franchises desperate for a quarterbacks – New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins. (The Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers could be dabbling as well.)
“He’s an NFL quarterback with everything other than height,” said Mike Lombardi, a former NFL executive who writes for The Athletic and hosts the GM Street podcast. “Do I think he’s going to be a first-round pick? I think he has more of a skill set than Russell Wilson and he’s got a [Patrick] Mahomes kind of arm. I don’t know his baseball skills, but I think the high-end is higher in football.”
The issue, of course, comes with Murray’s height. He’s only 5-foot-9; practically the only NFL comparison is Doug Flutie.
“I wouldn’t go there, myself,” a veteran NFL personnel director told Yahoo Sports. “Just because of the body structure. That being said I’m very impressed with how he throws the football. The ball comes off his hand clean and the mechanics are clean. But if it’s me, I’m going 6-feet or higher.”
This way of thinking is annoying to Riley, who points to the success of Wilson, Mayfield and Drew Brees, along with the spread of more creative offenses in the NFL.
“You don’t have to be 6-foot-4 to be a great quarterback,” Riley said. “A lot of times people take guys who are 6-foot-4, and they don’t have the other things.”
What’s Murray’s ceiling in baseball? Passan polled scouts and found some interesting comparisons. One scout projected him as a Rickey Henderson-type first step with the potential to hit 20 home runs a season. Two scouts compared his ceiling defensively to Jackie Bradley Jr., which is elite. Though, they cautioned, his arm doesn’t play as well in baseball as Bradley’s – or as impressively as it does on the football field.
Murray played in the outfield for Oklahoma last season, hitting .296 with 10 home runs and snaring 10 stolen bases. He played 16 games for the Harwich Mariners in the Cape Cod League in 2017, hitting two doubles, a home run and stealing four bases.
“He’s an elite athlete that was willing to play baseball,” a third scout said. “The sport doesn’t get many of those. It was definitely worth the risk. Not sure I would have gone that high. But that’s how they made this a discussion.”
For Murray, there’s still a chance he remains undecided. His performance against the Crimson Tide in the Orange Bowl on Saturday night could potentially dictate his decision. If Murray obliterates Alabama, it’d be yet another sign that his skill set translates to the next level. Lombardi said it’d be intriguing to watch how Alabama coach Nick Saban rushes him, clogs running lanes and where he tries to get him to throw the ball.
“I think this Alabama game is going to be the true indictor where his height relates to the NFL,” Lombardi said. “Nick will have a specific rush plan for him to make him have a hard time seeing things.”
By then, perhaps we’ll all have a clearer view on one of the most compelling questions in sports.
(Yahoo Sports MLB columnist Jeff Passan contributed to this report.)
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