The 2018 rookie quarterback class is halfway through their first season., and we look in-depth at how each of the top-10 picks has performed.
The last few quarterback draft classes has led to a new era of NFL passing efficiency. Offenses have exploded as rules, playmakers, and quarterbacks have spread defenses to the brink of their capabilities.
The 2018 class has already seen the top-four quarterbacks selected named as a starter, and the fifth, Lamar Jackson, figures to be a starter in the next year or two. Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen have each claimed their starting job for the foreseeable future.
It’s easier for quarterbacks now than ever to post adequate statistics and be average. Efficiency numbers are through the roof, but it still takes special talent to score touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone. That’s where each of these rookies will have to hone their craft to prove worthy of their lofty draft status over the next four years.
After reviewing every throw of each of the top-four rookies, it’s time to look at how each has performed to date. As rookies, the book is far from written as to how their careers will pan out, but their strengths and areas to improve have been on display early on. How they evolve from now can define their career success.
Going in sequential draft order, we’ll highlight what’s to like, what needs improvement, and their outlook moving forward based on what is known today. Jackson won’t be featured since he hasn’t played meaningful snaps at quarterback yet.
What’s to like:
The moxie, the attitude, and the intangibles that led to the former walk-on to win the Heisman Trophy and be the first walk-on to be selected first overall, have been on display at times throughout his first six career games. His best two performances were his first two, as he electrified an anemic Browns offense.
Even as everything has crumbled around him, Mayfield’s not fallen into the abyss of turnover-prone football that’s plagued the Cleveland Browns’ quarterback position since 1999. A good number of his mistakes can be tied to being a rookie playing with a bad team, an unfortunate side effect of being a No. 1 overall pick.
Mayfield’s willingness to throw to any receiver and ability to quickly react to an open target has directly translated from Oklahoma. The Browns’ receiving corps has been a shell of what it could’ve been due to injuries and Josh Gordon’s trade, and that’s been a limiting factor in evaluation. The developmental players used have thus far been inconsistent at helping Mayfield by finishing catches and creating post-catch.
He’s been impressive at recognizing Cover 2 drops pre-snap, and has excelled taking advantage of corner and seam routes. Mayfield’s also been quick to throw out-breaking routes in anticipation of his man winning his matchup. That doesn’t always work because it relies on the receiver to create space, but he’s not fully in the “must see it open” phase, which is incredibly important for his future.
His arm has looked good and accuracy has been a plus in fully clean pockets. He can clearly drive the ball up to intermediate distances when given the platform to generate velocity from his torso.
He’s smart and generally self-aware of his skill set. He rarely tries to do too much and overextend his physical capabilities. His playmaking on extended plays and ability to deliver accurate passes on the move are going to be a building block.
Where to improve:
It was expected that Mayfield would suffer from the drop-off in scheme and playmakers from Oklahoma. The Sooners were elite in both, and the Browns simply couldn’t and won’t be able to replicate that situation relative to their peers due to the parity at the NFL level.
For example, the Browns’ offensive tackle duo has been subpar and at times submarine plays. Their struggles led to the Browns shrinking the playbook into more dump off passes than intermediate and deep concepts. And as mentioned earlier, the receivers and tight ends have struggled finishing catches.
Isolating Mayfield, some of his bad habits have been exploited in the last month of games as teams have tape on him. His feet are choppy and uncomfortable in clean pockets, a trait that was on display at Oklahoma but rarely cost him.
There are times when he needs to step up into the pocket to buy time, but he’ll bail into pressure instead. It makes the offensive line look worse, but it’s more on Mayfield to be decisive and calm in the pocket.
Another area for improvement is his anticipation against man coverage. While much more comfortable identifying his mismatches against zone, he’s prone to dumping off on third downs when the defense plays man. Like his final game at Oklahoma against Georgia, Mayfield’s been unwilling to test certain passing windows.
That mindset helps limit turnovers, and isn’t meant as a blanket criticism. Picking and choosing when to be aggressive is important. But it has been a major factor in why the Browns’ offense hasn’t been able to put six on the board in the red zone, so it must improve.
Things change quickly in the NFL. The Browns had originally looked like a promising landing spot for Mayfield besides the obvious cancer in head coach Hue Jackson. Now that Jackson and Todd Haley are gone, the Browns may prove to be a great long-term fit for Mayfield.
But the receiving corps needs help, at least one tackle needs to be replaced, and a new scheme will make its way into town next year. There’s no guarantee things will get better, so Mayfield must improve where he can.
His arm strength is inconsistent and dependent on how confident he is in the pocket. He’s flailed numerous throws to the sideline because he couldn’t put everything into them. Tightening up his release and calming his mind while in the pocket may give the boost he needs here.
Mayfield’s play this year reminds me of Carson Wentz’s 2016 season in a few ways. There are some flashes, but much more inconsistency and dependency on great play around him. If Jimmy Haslem upgrades the coaching staff and John Dorsey continues to inject talent into the roster, there’s no reason to think Mayfield won’t take steps forward as well.
The biggest question I have is about his ceiling. Can Mayfield be an elite quarterback? We weren’t going to find out that answer Year 1 regardless of his development.
We need to see his play when pressured improve, better touch on deep passes, and more effectiveness identifying weaknesses in man coverages. If he does, his play will take a big jump forward.