Part 5 of our draft season series on Baker Mayfield, the 2018 draft’s most fascinating prospect on and off the field
CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. — The former NFL offensive coordinator zones in on a single play—a needle in a haystack of muted clips flashing across a flatscreen—that confirms what his eyes have been telling him for hours. When it comes to Baker Mayfield and his prospects in the NFL, the coach says, you can put the height question to bed.
“You wanna compare him to Russell [Wilson], right?” the coach asks. “Here’s a Hi Lo concept. This is impressive. It’s inside, so you’ve got to throw through people. There’s this wall right here with these three linemen. But he anticipated and knew when to throw between those guys, and he didn’t adjust his arm motion to release it higher or anything like that.” On the screen, the six-foot Heisman winner sorts through the trash and finds his tight end. First down, Sooners.
“This guy’s [one inch] taller than Russ. They’ve been that height their whole life, so they work with it,” the coach says. “You’re not trying to throw over him; you’re trying to throw in lanes. You know what’s not showing up with Mayfield? Batted balls. If his height is a concern, you’re looking for balls getting tipped and batted down at the line. The height is not showing up as an issue for me.”
If there’s one coach who should know when a quarterback has the goods to overcome less-than-ideal height, it’s Darrell Bevell, the former Wisconsin quarterback who has been Russell Wilson’s coordinator for every season of the 5' 11" dynamo’s NFL career. Bevell was dismissed in January after seven seasons on the job, and 18 consecutive seasons on an NFL staff.
The 48-year-old is now free to travel with his daughter and her BYU softball team to tournaments up and down the west coast while he awaits his next opportunity in the NFL. And he’s free, for the time being, to spend three hours in a conference room at a Double Tree in Southern California to talk about undersized quarterbacks.
Baker Mayfield is the topic of endless speculation and debate as we approach April’s draft. He has been compared to everyone from Case Keenum to Johnny Manziel to Drew Brees. But the most enduring comparison when it comes to his playing style and ability is Wilson, the former Wisconsin quarterback chosen in the third round of the 2012 draft.
It’s an easy comparison to make: Both Wilson and Mayfield are undersized for the position, stout and durable, and both extend plays with their feet while keeping their eyes up. But the traits and experiences that make Wilson a franchise quarterback and Mayfield one of the most prolific passers in college football history go deeper than that.
The differences become apparent to Bevell within the first hour of Mayfield’s film cutup. We’re watching the Ohio State game (the one when Mayfield planted the OU flag at midfield) in full, then a handful of scenarios including third down throws against pressure, and red-zone passing against four of the best defenses Oklahoma faced this season (Iowa State, TCU, Ohio State and Georgia).
During Wilson’s final season at Wisconsin, in 2011, then-Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst was running what could generally be described as a pro-style offense. There were traditional progression reads, with Wilson spending time under center and running some of the bootleg passing plays he would eventually master in the NFL. In the three hours of Oklahoma film we watched on Wednesday, Mayfield got under center just once, from inside his own 5-yard line, to throw a play-action pass to the fullback, a position that gets about as many reps in Lincoln Riley’s offense as the pair of white ponies who pull the Sooner Schooner across the home field after Oklahoma scores.
But that’s not uncommon. Very few quarterbacks coming out of major college football today have experience under center. Still, Oklahoma’s Air Raid offense carries a stigma that others don’t. Specifically, very few of its graduates have had success in the NFL (think of the string of Texas Tech quarterbacks who led the conference in passing yards and fizzled out as pros).
“The history of some of those guys hasn’t been real positive,” Bevell says. “There are more guys that haven’t played well than have. Spread out, dink and dunk stuff. I don’t know how they would describe it, because I haven’t talked to these coaches about it, but the NFL guys would say the quarterbacks don’t have to do very much.
“There’s more to do in the NFL, whether it’s making reads, progressions, making Mike linebacker declarations, changing protection, those kinds of things. Maybe they would tell you they’re doing that. But when you stand there, look over to the sideline to get a call, and then run the play, you’re not doing it. That doesn’t mean they’re not capable, but there’s a learning curve.”
Much of the Oklahoma offense doesn’t necessarily translate to the NFL, including a heavy reliance on smoke throws to wide receivers as soon as the ball is snapped, shallow crosses and elaborate screens with linemen and receivers blocking downfield earlier than NFL rules allow. A staple of the Oklahoma offense is a play-action pop pass from a two-back shotgun set that requires Mayfield simply fake a handoff and drop the ball over the head of the approaching linebacker and into tight end Mark Andrews’ waiting mitts.
“Few teams run that,” Bevell says of the NFL. “For one thing, defenses are better in the NFL and can handle this. With the play-action, you want to build stuff off of things you actually run, so it looks the same. Oklahoma runs some of these handoffs, but few [NFL] teams have this in their scheme.”
Still, amid a steady diet of underwhelming dink and dunk throws that helped Mayfield set the tempo against the best defenses OU faced in 2017, there are moments of brilliance. He sprints to his left and threads a needle falling away. He sprints right and drops a ball into the lap of a receiver hugging the sideline. He twists away from rushers, keeping his eyes downfield, and throws a laser for a first down.
“Quick release … Wow, that’s a really nice throw right there … That was cool. Gave him a little dead-leg juke … Now there’s an NFL throw … He’s good at all the backyard ball throws.”
Backyard ball. It’s what makes Wilson so exciting to watch. Manziel too. Might as well throw Michael Vick in there as well. The key difference is Wilson’s knack for knowing when enough is enough. In five seasons, Wilson has never thrown more than 11 interceptions in a campaign, and perhaps more importantly, never missed a start. He throws it away when he can, and takes sacks when he has to. On first-and-10 he goes eight yards then slides feet-first, because the first down isn’t worth the risk.
In this regard, Mayfield is a mixed bag. He doesn’t often turn it over (30 interceptions over 48 career games, including only six over more than 400 throws last season) but you wouldn’t describe him as an expert in sliding, despite his days as a prep baseball player.
“He seems to have a good feel for getting down,” Bevell says after one play. Then, as if on cue, Mayfield fights for those meaningless rushing yards that make coaches cringe. Then he scrambles around a collapsing pocket and takes a sack vs. TCU. “There’s that thin line with guys like him,” Bevell says. “He’s so good at keeping plays alive and making plays, but sometimes you’re thinking, Just throw it away. Don’t take a sack there.”
Ultimately, he doesn’t take an overwhelming number of sacks (44 over his final two seasons). Most of the time, Mayfield is escaping and connecting downfield, scrambling for yardage or throwing it away. When he can't do that, he stands in the pocket, delivers a good ball and takes it on the chin. That’s what happened on third-and-5, at the Iowa State 8-yard line, a play Bevell flags as a positive despite the incompletion. An unblocked blitzer rushed through the right B-gap and Mayfield manages to get the ball onto the hands of a well-covered receiver on a quick slant.
“That’s pretty good right there,” Bevell says, “That guy’s a free runner. You can’t block that guy. You just have to get rid of it, and he gave his guy a chance.”
Conversely, on a play that results in a big gain for Andrews down the middle of the field, Bevell sees a flaw. On first-and-10 with 14 minutes left in the second quarter against Georgia in the Rose Bowl, Baker stares down a smash concept on the left side for three counts before cycling to Andrews, who was drifting across the middle after a stellar corner-post route. Mayfield found him 23 yards downfield for the first down.
“It’s quite a long time it takes him to come to the right and throw downfield,” Bevell says. “It’s a really good play, but I think he should be able to get to it quicker, because it’s a long time to hold the ball.”
The play raises a question that can only be answered by Mayfield and his coaches: Just what sort of reads was the quarterback tasked with in college? It’s a question coaches and evaluators work to dissect on film, then confirm with the player. On occasion there are plays when it seems as though Mayfield makes pre-snap adjustments on his own accord, then goes through a full progression, cycling through a handful of receiving options. Then there are plays where Mayfield obviously receives instructions from the sideline in pre-snap, relays that to his teammates, snaps the ball and throws it to a single option.
There will be less time and more reads in the NFL. And there will be throws Mayfield wasn’t asked to make against the best defenses in college football. Ultimately, Bevell thinks Mayfield will be successful: “He has a really good offensive line here, which is not necessarily what he’s going to get at the next level, but there are enough plays here that show you he can make his own play, kind of what Russell’s done. I don’t think he has to have everyone around him be first-round draft picks to be successful. He seems like the kind of player who can will things to happen.”
But the tape doesn’t show what it doesn’t show. That’s what the combine and pro day are for—filling gaps in the evaluation. The three biggest holes after watching the film, according to Bevell:
Throwing the full route tree. “You don’t see all the throws. And it’s hard to tell velocity from tape. You don’t see him throw that corner route from the pocket, or make very many go ball throws, or throw the deep crossing routes. There’s not enough to say if he’s good or not at that. Most of his big plays have come off of second-chance opportunities, which is a credit to him, still, because he keeps his eyes up and guys keep working and he makes plays. You don’t want to minimize that. I’m not questioning his arm strength. I’m just saying it’s hard to tell.”
Level of responsibility. “You really want to find out what the quarterbacks are being asked to do. How much is on him? Is he looking at one guy? What is his progression? You can give him a man-zone read, a one-high/two-high read, a true progression read. How are his reads starting and where do they finish? Are these truly run-pass option plays or are they being sold that way?”
Intangibles. “You can see why they make the comparison to Russell right away. Undersized, run-around guy, and they think of Russell. But there’s just one Russell Wilson, and there’s so much more about him than just his play. He has this belief that he’s not going to let himself fail. He’s a tireless worker. I don’t have enough information on Baker to make that comparison.”
The first question will be answered at the Oklahoma Pro Day, and the second, when teams sit down with Mayfield for top-30 visits. That last bit, though, might not be revealed until well after the draft.
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