- With the draft two days away, and at least five quarterbacks expected to come off the board during Thursday night’s first round, decision-makers around the league are still grappling with the most basic of questions when it comes to Allen, Darnold, Jackson, Mayfield and Rosen
Dave Gettleman uses a Ben & Jerry’s analogy to describe this year’s quarterback draft class—you know, lots of different flavors to choose from. The Giants general manager, for whom the No. 2 pick is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure story for the rest of the first round, could pick any flavor besides the one the Browns choose at No. 1. Or, he could decide he doesn’t want ice cream at all.
It’s a decision that will be based on a number of factors, not the least of which is: Are any of the flavors really, really good?
The numbers this year will show that this is a quarterback-rich draft class. Teams around the league are expecting five to be taken in the first round—Wyoming’s Josh Allen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson—which hasn’t happened since 1999. And it’s possible a sixth quarterback jumps into the first round (most likely Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph), which last occurred during The Great Quarterback Boom of 1983, a class that included John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.
But, at the same time, Saints head coach Sean Payton told The MMQB’s Peter King that he doesn’t see an Andrew Luck or Carson Wentz in this class. Mike Mayock, NFL Network’s draft analyst, echoed that last week, saying that Luck and Wentz checked off every box for a franchise QB, and no one in this class gives him that same feeling in his gut. “People were so anticipating this class,” Mayock said, “that it surprises people when we start to kind of pick our way through them.” And Phil Savage, former NFL GM and executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl, described the top of the QB class as being “a bit overrated; a little bit overhyped.”
“To me, this is a little bit more quantity over quality,” Savage says, “but, at the same time, this is the pool that the league is trying to choose from.”
The 2018 draft class had been talked about for the past year or two as a quarterback windfall, in part fueled by Darnold’s brilliant five-touchdown Rose Bowl performance against Penn State, as a redshirt freshman, to cap the 2016 season. Whether you want to chalk it up to overanalysis or simply a larger sample size, for highly touted prospects like Darnold, Allen and Rosen, the 2017 season wasn’t the confirmation for which many teams were hoping.
Darnold is regarded by many NFL decision-makers as the quarterback with the best chance of panning out. But multiple coaches and personnel evaluators view this as a particularly boom-or-bust QB class. Sure, that’s the nature of the position, but look at it this way: When evaluating prospects, teams look at both the player’s ceiling and floor. Wentz and Luck had both high ceilings and high floors. There are players in this year’s class with high ceilings, but none with as high of a floor, thus the bigger risk.
Gettleman’s analogy about Ben & Jerry’s, while one he’s used before, is particularly apt this year; opinions and preferences about the top QBs vary widely. As teams have gathered for their pre-draft meetings the past few weeks, it hasn’t been uncommon for the top decision-makers on a team—owner, GM, head coach, college scouting director—to each rank the top QBs in a different order. One AFC personnel executive described the top four QBs—Allen, Darnold, Mayfield and Rosen—as legitimate top 15 players in any class because they have the skills to be starters in the NFL. On the other hand, two evaluators on teams with an incumbent franchise QB said they were glad they did not need to take a QB this year, because each of the top signal-callers has a substantial question mark.
Darnold won a lot of games as a starter at USC, but turned the ball over 22 times in 14 games last season—including three in a Cotton Bowl loss to Ohio State that felt like the polar opposite of his signature Rose Bowl win. Allen might have the highest ceiling, a big-bodied QB with athleticism and an arm that had NFL teams literally gasping during the combine throwing session. But, he completed less than 60% of his passes playing in the Mountain West and had his own signature loss, a 24-3 defeat to Iowa during which he seemed to freeze against the Hawkeyes’ pressure and level of play.
Mayfield had the most success during 2017, both individually—he completed more than 70% of his passes and threw for 41 TDs on his way to winning the Heisman—and in leading Oklahoma to the college football playoff. Teams love that he’s a gamer, but at the same time, have to determine if he’s mature enough to be the face of a franchise. Rosen has the appeal of being a stereotypical pocket passer, but putting aside the discussion about his “interest” in football, he missed two games with concussions last season, an increasingly important consideration for teams, and was 17-13 as a starter at UCLA. Consider the standard Gettleman describes for drafting a QB at No. 2: Does he make everybody around him better? For some NFL teams, that’s the biggest question with Rosen.
2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson’s landing spot will be one of Thursday night’s more interesting dramas, especially on the heels of NFL Network’s report that the Patriots hosted him for a Top 30 pre-draft visit. Jackson was not a consistently accurate passer in college—like Allen, his completion percentage was below 60%—but is perhaps the most dynamic player in the draft. Coaches around the league, in part out of necessity, have become increasingly more willing to adapt an offense to a player rather than the other way around.
• LAMAR JACKSON, HIS MOTHER AND THE PLAN THEY’VE ALWAYS HAD: Through the controversial decision to not hire an agent, Jackson and his mother are the same as they’ve always been: silent and singularly focused on making him a starting quarterback.
Trying to put the quality of this class into context, we asked NFL decision-makers this question: Is this year’s group better than 2017’s? That’s difficult to answer because opinions have been influenced by what’s happened since then—Deshaun Watson galvanizing the Texans in the six starts he made before tearing his ACL, and the Chiefs trading Alex Smith and moving on to Patrick Mahomes. One AFC personnel executive says yes, explaining that either Allen or Darnold (if he was draft-eligible) could have been the first quarterback taken in last year’s draft. “I don’t know that [Mitchell] Trubisky would have been first had Darnold and Allen come out,” he says. “There would have been a sizable debate, Allen, Darnold or Trubisky.” But another team decision-maker said there’s no one in this class that he likes as much as he did Watson, who lasted until the No. 12 pick.
One factor influencing the first round will be QB need: This year, a case could be made for close to half of the teams in the league to consider drafting a quarterback in the first round. There are clubs who have made no secret of their intentions to take one (Browns, Jets, Bills); clubs that it would not be a shock if they took one (Broncos, Cardinals, Dolphins, Ravens, Jaguars); and clubs who might be alerting their aging veteran starter that they could be selecting a QB of the future (Giants, Patriots, Chargers, Saints).
If there is the expected run on QBs on Thursday night, keep in perspective that quantity has nothing to do with quality. Sure, there are years like the 2004 class, from which three of the four quarterbacks drafted in the first round are still incumbent franchise QBs (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger). But there are also classes like 2011, in which three of the four QBs taken in the first 12 picks were busts (Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder). The most recent draft with five first-round QBs, 1999, produced two busts (Akili Smith and Cade McNown), one starter who never overcame injuries and an expansion team supporting cast (Tim Couch), one starter who looked like a rising star before his career was derailed by injury (Daunte Culpepper) and one franchise QB (Donovan McNabb). As Mayock points out, history tells you that of the five QBs expected to be drafted in the first round, a lucky outcome would be for two or three to become franchise players.
“They’ve all got stuff; they’re different,” Gettleman says. “I can’t compare it to the ’83 draft, if that’s what you’re asking.”
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