There is a mythological quality to the QB position in the NFL where decision-makers have long ascribed essential and intrinsic value to qualities they can’t readily explain. More than any other position in sports, the need to evaluate personality, intelligence, even gait and physical appearance looms large for a quarterback as he is dissected for far more than his on-field accomplishments. We assign an almost magical quality to what makes the great ones truly great, something unseen and yet fully realized.
For a quarterback prospect, that je ne sais quoi can make or break him. In fact, whether or not a quarterback knows that phrase could probably hold some meaning for an NFL front office.
As analytics make their way into NFL front offices and coaching rooms, how will old-school, so-called “football people” square these tried and true methods of determining if a quarterback has “it,” with statistical analysis? The numbers can’t show charisma or equanimity. How would a team like the Browns with football people at the wheel and analytics people sitting in the passenger seat reading the map and offering directions, ever come together and agree on a pick?
The answer is simple, and frankly, we should have all seen this coming.
Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield serves both masters. He isn’t a traditional QB size (6-0½). He didn’t have the rocket arm despite his outstanding impression of Brett Favre in a famous draft photo. And many questioned his offense in Norman under Lincoln Riley that set him up for success. On the surface, there were plenty of reasons for traditionalists to scoff.
But the numbers speak for themselves. Mayfield broke his own single-season efficiency record in 2017, leading the Sooners to the College Football Playoff, where his team fell in overtime to the National Title runner-up.
Football Outsiders uses a statistical projection model to evaluate QB prospects and found Mayfield had the highest rating of any quarterback to be drafted in the last ten years, and the fourth-highest since 1997. Based on their QBASE formula, Mayfield had the lowest probability of being a bust and the highest probability of becoming elite. In other words, he was the safest pick, who also had the highest upside according to the analytics. This accounts solely for statistical production, though it does adjust for the quality of teammates and competition.
For an idea of how perceptive this model has been over the years, the other nine names on the list of top-10 prospects are, in order, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb, Russell Wilson, Peyton Manning, Marcus Mariota, Byron Leftwich (the lone miss), Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Note that of that group, only Wilson wasn’t a first-round pick, but only two were No. 1 overall picks — which is particularly interesting in the case of Mayfield.
In 2012, Wilson fell to the third round, while many said he would have been a first-round pick had he been 6-foot-4. Scouts raved about his leadership, personality, and his potential to be a culture changer in the locker room. Some said he was the most impressive interview they’d ever had at the combine. He was a winner, and a dude. Football guys loved him.
Football Outsiders’s QBASE model had him as the best QB prospect in the class, ahead of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In fact, the numbers loved him so much, the writer of the piece on the projection basically had to explain away why the generational talent was behind the short, former baseball player in Madison.
To this point, the model was right. The league made the mistake of letting a player whom the numbers deemed an elite quarterback, and the football guys raved over with his immutable ‘it factor’, all because he was too short. He was Mayfield before Mayfield.
Only this time, the Browns didn’t pass him over because he was too short. Mayfield went ahead of Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, quarterbacks against whom he’ll always be measured. The Browns’ success or failure will likewise be weighed against the success of these other quarterbacks. If they’re better than Mayfield, even if their No. 1 pick produces on the field, the criticism will come easily.
On that aforementioned Football Outsiders top prospect list, McNabb went after the Browns took Tim Couch. Rivers and Roethlisberger fell below Eli Manning, yet there’s a solid case to be made each are better players despite Manning’s Super Bowl hardware. Rodgers infamously (or famously if you’re a Packers fan) went after Alex Smith, and Mariota after Jameis Winston.
After passing on Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson—and that’s just in the last two years—the Browns couldn’t afford to take the guy who would end up in an article like this where he’s the punchline rather than the “see I told you so” guy. The analytics say Mayfield is the “I told you so” guy.
Pro Football Focus put Mayfield No. 1 overall on their board based on their charting and grades. For whatever flaws may exist with PFF, it’s clear NFL teams value PFF's work and they attempt to quantify things previously seen as too esoteric to tag with a number grade. According to PFF's charting, Mayfield led the nation the last two years in what they consider negatively-graded throws. The Sooner star also led the draft class in what PFF calls “big-time throw” percentage in 2018.
When PFF and Football Outsiders, two of the preeminent football analytic houses in football agree Mayfield is the guy, the number crunchers have definitively spoken.
But despite his physical limitations, and the character concerns with the arrest and some of the attitude questions, Mayfield was always the football guy choice because he checks the pseudo-science boxes.
At Texas Tech, he started as a walk-on true freshman after an injury to the projected starter. After transferring to Oklahoma, Mayfield beat out incumbent starter Trevor Knight and immediately became the leader and a team captain. Overcoming adversity sells front offices.
Browns coach Hue Jackson told a bizarre story this offseason about Mayfield being the “Pied Piper” of the program, one Jackson tells complete with sound effects. The thrust of it is that where Mayfield goes, his teammates follow, truly an old-school football compliment.
For whatever criticisms there are about Mayfield, his maturity level or his short fuse as a competitor, his teammates clearly adore him. They fight for him. Browns VP of player personnel and former player Alonzo Highsmith solidified the idea of Mayfield having the illusive “it” to Peter King in MMQB.
“I’ve never been concerned with the big arm or the size, necessarily. Those things help, obviously. But I was always looking for traits. Favre and Montana and Kosar and Rodgers and Troy—they had the kind of presence, like when you were a young kid and your big brother was around, and you always felt a lot more confident when your brother was there with you,” Highsmith says, having been around some of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play both as a player and a personnel man.
“They all had that smirk, that stare, that attitude. You never saw the deer in the headlights. When I met Baker, I saw that in him. And I told him, ‘You could have played with me at Miami. You could have been one of us.’”
For a football guy, there may be no higher compliment than having “it,” as Highsmith describes it. Forget size or the cannon arm. This is the trait they prize above all.
But Mark Sanchez had incredible charisma and leadership. So did Tim Tebow and Brady Quinn. How many times have teams whiffed on a quarterback because they prioritized what the coaches at the Elite 11 quarterback camp call “dude qualities”?
Mayfield has DQ’s for days, but as the great Greg Cosell is fond of saying, all intangibles manifest themselves on the field in tangible ways. Ultimately, that’s what matters. NFL teams don’t just need a cool guy in the press room, they need a guy who stays cool with bodies flying around him on third-and-12 with the game on the line.
In big games, the Oklahoma star proved over and over in his four years of college ball his non-quantifiable traits were reflected in the quantifiable numbers on the football field — and no one in college football history has had better statistics.
Analytics and traditional scouting rarely intersect so cleanly, and yet so incongruously. It’s not that the two agree; the Venn diagram of reasons they support Mayfield don’t include a laundry list of like traits.
All the reasons Paul DePodesta, with his background in baseball, might love Mayfield, could theoretically have little to do with why John Dorsey and Alonzo Highsmith love him over someone like Josh Rosen or Sam Darnold. At least that’s true on the surface.
Does Mayfield's competitiveness, his ability to overcome obstacles, have anything to do with his ability to throw with accuracy and timing? Probably not. The former can only be gauged based on interviews and reach along with a handshake and a stern look into his eyes, while the latter can likely be reflected in statistical prowess.
When the league last had a chance to match the “it” factor with the clear analytic darling, 31 teams dropped the ball on Russell Wilson. Cleveland had the opportunity to right that wrong with the No. 1 pick by ignoring the height and picking a guy the analytic crowd and the football crowd agreed on. We knew all that going into draft week, and yet when the Mayfield rumors began, most of us ignored or dismissed them.
We should have known better. The Browns did.