Before last year’s NFL draft, the Browns decision-makers had already wrapped their heads around the idea of taking a six-foot quarterback with the first overall pick. But to be sure, the Cleveland front office gathered some of their scouts in April 2018 to play devil’s advocate and ask the questions those scared off by a vertically-challenged passer would. The team thought they knew, just based on feel, how good Baker Mayfield was at avoiding the perceived pratfalls that a shorter quarterback faces, the brass wanted to run the numbers themselves.
The results clinched the Browns’ decision to draft the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner. Among six quarterbacks they studied—the five first-rounders, plus Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph—Mayfield had the fewest balls battled at the line.
“We knew he didn’t have many,” one scout said. “But we didn’t expect that he’d have the least.”
A year later, questions have come up regarding the Cardinals’ drafting Mayfield’s successor at Oklahoma—the even shorter Kyler Murray. Some are leery of his base of football knowledge for a first-round pick; others question the wisdom in taking a one-year starter so high. And everyone seems to wonder about the way Arizona handled the last two months, seemingly imploding Josh Rosen’s trade value.
But no one seems to have questioned his height much, which means we’ve come a long way.
The Cardinals drafting Murray first overall is the latest example of a sea change in how the NFL thinks. The two Oklahoma quarterbacks were the 22nd and 23rd players taken first overall at their position since the AFL-NFL merger. Of the previous 21, 19 came in at 6' 3" or taller. One of the exceptions, Matthew Stafford in 2009, was 6' 2". The other, Michael Vick in 2000, came it at six-foot even.
What we saw last Thursday night is pretty significant.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to put a bow on the draft with all your questions, including some good ones on …
• Rules preventing the Cardinals from putting a no-baseball provision in Kyler Murray’s contract.
• The pressure that could come on the Redskins to hand the reins to Dwayne Haskins, and other teams to do the same with their rookie QBs.
• The biggest surprise thus far among the fifth-year option decisions on 2016 first-round picks.
• The Patriots’ tight end situation.
• The future of Tyreek Hill in Kansas City.
But we’re starting with the long-ranging impact of the last two NFL drafts, which is about players who are relatively short.
Seahawks GM John Schneider was smitten over Russell Wilson after watching Wisconsin play in the rain in 2011. Schneider liked his skill set, but he loved his energy, his leadership and his passion for football that bled all over the field. And after he was drafted and won the job in Seattle the following year, Pete Carroll told me he thought Wilson would’ve been a top five pick if he was 6' 4".
Rather than going higher than fifth that March, he went 75th. The Seahawks passed on him twice, taking Bruce Irvin with 15th pick, and Bobby Wagner at No. 47. As much as Schneider liked Wilson, he figured the quarterback might slide, because at the time, teams didn’t touch a 5' 10" quarterback much higher than where Seattle took him.
In fact, even taking him there was a stretch. I went all the way back to 1980, the year I was born, and I couldn’t find a single quarterback under six feet tall taken in the first three rounds of the draft before Wilson went in 2012.
“NFL scouts do a lot of things on comps,” an NFC exec said. “And the talk at the time was that—When has there been a 5' 10" quarterback that worked in the league? You’d bring up [Doug] Flutie, Drew [Brees] was another.”
So history provided ample warning against taking one high. And doing it would require not just a willingness to be wrong, but also potentially be ridiculed in the process.
How did that change? Here’s a few trends that may assure us the change is here to stay.
The proliferation of the spread. The idea that spread offenses are Mickey Mouse college operations is pretty much dead, which has created opportunity for shorter quarterbacks. Playing out of the shotgun helps generate vision for them, as do three- and four-receiver sets that unclutter the box.
“By virtue of having to cover all these guys up, the box is so light, and there are fewer arms, limbs, and hands swinging up to bat the ball down,” one AFC scouting director said. “There are just not as many humans for you to have to navigate through. Everything’s so wide open. If there are eight guys in the box and everyone’s hands are up when Baker lets it go, somebody’s probably going to get it.
“But if they want to open it up and throw, they damn sure don’t have seven or eight people in the box, that’s for sure. It’s five, maybe six.”
That doesn’t mean that the translation from college is direct. Another way college offenses create vision for shorter quarterbacks is through wider line splits, which are tough to go with in the NFL because the defensive tackles are too athletic. But there’s little question that the lines between college and pro offenses have never been more blurred.
Prioritizing what’s important.A great athlete at quarterback can extend plays, make some on his own, and cover up weaknesses an offense might have elsewhere. And an increasing number of teams and coaches want them element, and are willing to give in other areas to get it. Which leads to acceptance of some of the problems that remain with having a shorter player back there.
“Someone like Kyler, if you’re looking for the weak spots, he’s going to have a hard time seeing over middle in the short-to-intermediate area,” one NFC exec said. “Even [Wilson] has trouble with that. But then, if he misses something there, and you get him on the edge and he’s running, he absolutely a threat, so you give, but you get something back.
“Brees is one of the rare guys who can get around it—you see him lift up on his toes, and find guys. For guys like Russell and Kyler, they have trouble, but can make up for it.”
Teams focus on what their players can do, rather than what they can’t; in these cases, the payoff can be worth that trouble. And speaking of that …
Worrying less about the cosmetics of draft position. Last year, Browns GM John Dorsey and a few other guys came together to watch Mayfield’s two best games of 2018 on tape, and a couple against his toughest competition. One of the latter games was his worst of the year, against Georgia. He threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns that night, and Oklahoma scored 48 points in an overtime loss.
That underscored a larger point—to not worry about where a player is being taken, and just take the best players. Mayfield, in Cleveland’s eyes, was an objectively great player over and over again on tape. So that others may have trepidation on that became immaterial to the Browns.
“I don’t quite understand why we all get so wrapped up in where the guy’s drafted,” one AFC exec said. “It comes down to what they do between the white lines. … If the guy can play, I don’t think it matters how high you take him.”
That logic applies, of course, to the Raiders’ decision to take Clelin Ferrell fourth and the Giants’s call to take Daniel Jones sixth—both teams chose to prioritize getting their guys over playing the board. And it’s why the Browns weren’t getting cute last year and trying to take Mayfield at No. 4 instead of No. 1.
Understanding history instead of strictly adhering to it. There was only one reason why Brees fell to 32 in 2001—and it’s that one thing that he shares with Murray and Mayfield. For years, Brees was seen as the outlier, and he is in some ways. In others, he’s become a forerunner.
“We’ve evolved,” the AFC scouting director said. “How much different is he than Baker? They’re the exact same, right down to their hometown. They’re the same person. They’re extremely productive, they’re six feet [tall], they have quick, mechanically-sound releases, and they have awesome DNA to lead a franchise. There’s really not that much difference.
“[Ignoring that] is just protecting your ass—‘Hey, it’s never been done so we can’t do it.’ Come on, man. You have to believe in your evaluators and believe in yourself more than that.”
Add this up, and you see what Arizona was doing here. They have an offense conducive to mitigating Murray’s height, they focused more on what he can do than what he can’t and they decided not to worry about how anyone else saw him—plenty of other teams didn’t have him as the best quarterback in the class.
Will it work? We don’t know, and the Cardinals don’t either. But it’s clear the landscape has changed on how we look at these guys, thanks to a couple Oklahoma Heisman winners—one who constantly had to answer questions about his stature, and another who didn’t have to quite as much as a result of his ex-teammate’s success.
“That whole spring, everyone was saying [the Browns] were crazy because Baker was short, and that [Sam] Darnold was the safer pick,” the AFC exec said. “Fast forward a year, and no one talks about height anymore.”
The league, without question, has come along fast on this. And if you want an update on where we’re at a year from now, you’ll get it—Alabama’s blue-chip quarterback prospect, Tua Tagovialoa, flirts with the six-foot cutoff just like Mayfield does.
The smart money, for now, says it won’t be issue next April. And that’s especially if Mayfield and Murray are in the fall who so many folks think they’ll be.
And now to your mail …
From A (@Andrew1mt): What’s the deal with the no baseball clause—apparently it’s been reported that it can’t be binding (Jameis [Winston] had one I think)?
I’m glad you raised this, Andrew. I hadn’t seen it reported, but I did some digging and you are correct. Per the CBA, having a no-baseball clause is an impermissible term in a rookie contract. What the Cardinals can do is put playing baseball in the default language tied to his guarantee.
So what does that mean? If that language is in there, and Murray decides to go to spring training, the Cardinals can void whatever guarantees are left in his contract. That, of course, would give the team expanded flexibility to cut him, which could be in play in a situation like that, because you’d think going back to baseball would relate to struggling in football.
Anyway, thanks for bringing it up, Andrew. I learned something as a result.
From Steve (@s_pont637): Will there be pressure to start Haskins Week 1?
I don’t think so, Steve. The Redskins have Case Keenum and Colt McCoy (assuming McCoy heals from his broken leg suffered in Week 12 last season) on the roster, and both have shown they can start for NFL teams, which give the coaches valuable leeway to take their time in putting Dwayne Haskins on the field. If Haskins looks great in preseason, maybe there’ll be a little more of a public push, but nothing that won’t be manageable.
Where the pressure will come is if the Redskins start losing. It’s been eight years since a first-round quarterback failed to start a game as a rookie—Tennessee’s Jake Locker in 2011. Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes got de facto redshirt in 2017, with a meaningless Week 17 game as his only rookie start in Kansas City. What did those two guys have in common? Their teams were contending.
History has shown us that if a team with a first-round quarterback isn’t starting him from the jump, the pressure to do so will turn up once the losing starts.
From Donald Alveshere (@wareagleboise): Biggest fifth-year option surprises... pick ups or declines?
Biggest surprise thus far, without question, has been the Titans’ decision to decline the fifth-year option on right tackle Jack Conklin, who just so happened to be GM Jon Robinson’s first draft pick in Nashville. My sense is that this isn’t about the team’s feelings for the player—it’s more his injury history. Conklin tore his ACL in two Januarys ago, wasn’t quite the same when he returned in October, and had another knee injury end his 2018 season, which brings the mechanics of the option into play.
The offensive line option number for top 10 picks this year is $12.53 million, and it’s fair to guess, given all the spending there’s been at those positions, that Conklin’s figure for 2020 would exceed $13 million. That money is guaranteed for injury only, so if he were to suffer another bad injury this year, the Titans would be on the hook next year, a year in which two other linemen (Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold) have a cumulative cap charge of over $30 million.
I don’t think this foretells the end for Conklin in Nashville—I think it presses pause on his future. Maybe Conklin and Tennessee can work out a band-aid extension in the interim. More likely, I’d think Conklin bets on himself in a contract year, and the Titans hold the franchise tag (which should only cost about $2 million or so more than the option) as insurance to keep him, if he returns to form.
From Deyan Varbanov (@DeyanVarbanov): Obviously the Cards chose the QB preferred by their new HC. Do you think it is a gamble given that they had already Rosen? How do you compare Rosen and Murray?
Rosen and Murray are totally different players, so it’s hard to compare them. And I’d tell you that Rosen was seen as a prodigy as an NFL prospect well before Murray was, so we should be careful about getting caught up in recency bias here. Gun to my head, I’d say Murray has a slightly better shot right now, because his team is more invested in them, but I think both have considerable potential.
As for the coach angle—I believe Kliff Kingsbury’s love for Kyler Murray has always been real, and separate from that I think it’s always important for coaches to have investment in players that GMs are putting on the roster. So if Kingsbury told Keim that Murray can make his offense fly, then Keim was smart to listen to him and take the kid. They hired him to run an offense and develop a quarterback, after all.
From Jack (@NotaTreeStump): Day 5, and still no comment about Dre’Mont Jones. I thought you were some sort of Buckeye homer.
Jack! I missed your question, and I still don’t know what it was. I think Jones has a chance to be a really good 3-technique. The questions about him at Ohio State were more about how much he benefitted from playing on a star-studded line, which consistently allowed him favorable matchups. Thing is, he should have that in Denver, playing with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb.
So I’m on board with the Broncos drafting him as part of what I believe has a chance to be a second consecutive bumper crop in Denver.
From James Cummins (@jcitfc79): What do the Eagles have to do to get some credit this offseason? Surely they are a Super Bowl contender in waiting?
What they needed, James, is for you to ask that question in this column. Now I trust the public will be on board with the Eagles’ quest to get to a second Super Bowl in three years.
In all seriousness, Philadelphia is in a really good spot. The roster’s well-rounded enough to where the brass was working a year ahead on needs (see: Andre Dillard) in the draft, and Carson Wentz should be better a year out from ACL rehab. So sign me up for double-digit wins there.
From Anil Adyanthaya (@AnilAdyanthaya): Does the Patriots’ lack of action in addressing the tight end position (Seferian-Jenkins has played more than nine games in a season just once) suggest they expect a second half return from Rob Gronkowski [who announced his retirement earlier this offseason]?
I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’d be surprised if the Patriots are counting on it. What if Gronk really, really loves retirement? Considering who Gronk is, and all the stuff he’ll probably do, that result has to be in play, right? What if his back acts up (avoiding a fourth back surgery was a big factor in his decision)? I just think there are too many variables there to bank on Gronk making his way back down Route 1.
Also, I’d never sit here in May and look at New England’s roster as a finished product. Benjamin Watson is mulling a comeback. Kyle Rudolph could, again, be an option. A bunch of things are on the table.
From Topper (@topperg): Does Tyreek Hill ever play another snap?
From Canoe Reeves (@free2dine): Furthermore, do you think it’s fair that everyone calls for the Chiefs to release Hill if he’s potentially picked up by another team where everyone will forget what he did?
Topper, I don’t know if Hill ever plays another snap. I do know the league has taken the lead with the investigation into the criminal charges against Hill for alleged child abuse, and as a matter of course, teams take a back seat in those situations and let the process play out. I just don’t know that, based on the team’s history and the player’s history, the Chiefs can afford to just do that here.
They publicly said there’d be zero tolerance with Hill when they drafted him, and this would appear to break their word on that—there’s no way a lesser player would be afforded due process like Hill has been, given the circumstances and his status as a potential repeat offender. That they just went through the Kareem Hunt situation, and traded for a star with a record in this area makes it worse.
I’m sure part of the thinking here is that they don’t want to have gone through all this, only to have Hill cleared and on someone else’s roster. But they’ve put themselves in this situation, by taking chances on some guys, and standing by others.
From Donovan Williams (@tweetsbydonovan): I am happy with what the Dolphins are doing this offseason. Does Fitzmagic get the starting job or will Rosen get a legit chance to compete?
First of all, you should be happy, Donovan. GM Chris Grier’s getting high marks from his peers, too, in how he’s handled this offseason—building future assets, creatively off-loading some veteran contracts (while in essence buying draft picks) and clearing the financial decks for the years to come. Going into 2020, Miami will have a clean salary cap situation and a ton of draft capital.
As for the quarterback situation, here’s what Grier told me about where Josh Rosen stands, post-trade: “We just want competition at every position. That’s what brings out the best in people. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s done a fantastic job, and we’re excited Ryan’s here. And Brian will make that decision. Right now, Josh is going to have to come in and compete. Nothing’s going to be handed to him.”
The interesting element to this is that for the first time maybe since he was a little kid, Rosen is coming into a situation and isn’t being positioned as a prodigy. We’ll see if that brings out the best in him. And if it doesn’t, well, as Grier said in the Monday column, there’s nothing prevent the Dolphins from going and getting a quarterback in next year’s draft.
From Blake (@TheLandTalks): You see Gerald McCoy getting moved soon?
Let’s wrap it up there—I think things should come to a head soon. If I’m McCoy, I want a decision by Tuesday. Cap space is short around the league, and Tuesday is when unrestricted free agents stop counting against the comp-pick formula, which could open the floodgates for older guys like Ndamukong Suh and Eric Berry. Bottom line, the longer McCoy is in limbo, the more cap space gets gobbled up.
Maybe if something weird happened and Quinnen Williams had fallen in the Bucs’ laps, this would already be done (although Tampa coveted Devin White all along). Either way, a move away from McCoy, who’s not the player he was, still seems likely, given that the Bucs have less than $2 million in cap space and a rookie class to sign.
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