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The Question of Defining Baker Mayfield’s “Ceiling”

What is Baker Mayfield’s true ceiling as an NFL quarterback, and why are most NFL analysts wrong about it?

The most common way NFL analysts define a quarterbacks’ “ceiling” is still, in the year of our lord 2021, based largely on physical traits. This is a mistake. 

It’s become popular in NFL media circles to claim to know Baker Mayfield’s ceiling as an NFL quarterback. Kirk Cousins is probably the most common comparison. “He’s a replaceable part,” says world renowned former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum. When compared to his contemporaries of the 2018 Draft, Mayfield frequently finds himself at the bottom of a three man list with Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. Typically this centers around Jackson and Allen having a perceived “higher ceiling,” on the strength of unique or elite physical traits. 

So how exactly is a quarterback’s “ceiling” defined? It’s an old question, and if it were easy to answer, I wouldn’t be writing this article and a lot of people would be out of a job. The question is how to define and measure a quarterbacks potential. His “ceiling” in the NFL. Too often it centers around the concept of judging an NFL quarterback’s potential by assuming that all quarterbacks will reach an equilibrium with non-physical quarterback traits, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Non-physical skills such as Pre and Post snap processing, accuracy, pocket awareness, translating preparation to the field, the ability to adapt in adverse circumstances, etc., these skills together define the lion’s share of of a quarterback’s success on the field, assuming a quarterback has the baseline physical traits to make the necessary throws against professional NFL athletes playing defense.

Yet time and time again, over different era’s of the NFL, elite or unique physical traits continue to lure in evaluators while non-physical aspects of the game are minimized. Understandably, this is in part because evaluating these traits is more difficult and sometimes impossible vs overt physical talent you can easily identify on film. Even in today’s NFL circles and media, when looking at a group of young quarterbacks, if the question is which of these quarterbacks can give a team the best chance of winning a Super Bowl, answers tend to devolve into whether or not a quarterback has a unique or elite physical trait.

But does that logic hold up when looking at past Super Bowl winning quarterbacks?

Here is a list of the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks of the last 30 seasons:

Super Bowl Winning QB’s 1991-2020

Tom Brady

Aaron Rodgers

Brett Favre            

Patrick Mahomes

Drew Brees

Troy Aikman

Nick Foles

Ben Roethesberger

Steve Young

Peyton Manning

Brad Johnson

Mark Rypien

Russell Wilson

Trent Dilfer

Phil Simms

Joe Flacco

Kurt Warner

Eli Manning

John Elway (Old man Edition)

How many of these quarterbacks had a truly unique or elite combination of physical skills when they won the Super Bowl?

Mahomes, Wilson, Rodgers, Favre, and Young. Each won a single Super Bowl (to date). That totals to 5 out of 19 (26%) Super Bowl wining quarterbacks taking home 5 out of 30 (17%) NFL championships over the last 30 NFL seasons.

So does history tell us that it makes sense to define a quarterback’s ceiling, or ability to win a Super Bowl, on having a unique or elite physical trait? It doesn't seem so.

While somewhat subjective, the best quarterbacks of my lifetime have been Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. Not one of them had a single overwhelming physical trait, and in terms of strict quarterback play, none looked destined to be Hall of Fame, All-time great quarterbacks by the start of their 4th season in the NFL. They weren't born into the league as All-Pro quarterbacks. They worked. They got better. They continued to grind and perfect their craft. 

When it comes to the Browns and Baker Mayfield’s ceiling, what can we see after three seasons that can help predict whether his career is a good one or a great one? After his first season under competent coaching, operating within a coherent NFL offensive system that saw him finish the season ranked as PFF’s ninth best quarterback, how does Baker take the next step as a quarterback? 

It hinges on refining and honing those non-physical traits into razor sharp edges season after season. Given consistent focus and effort out of Mayfield, the stability that Kevin Stefanski brings provides Mayfield the opportunity to achieve a greater understanding and confidence in what he sees on the field and build on top a foundation as Jackson and Allen have been allowed to do under the same coaching staffs for their first three seasons. 

Mayfield will need to continue to improve on his footwork, pocket presence, play fakes, snap count manipulation, and film study among other things. All of which are entirely within his control, but take dedication over long periods of time to perfect at the highest level. 

Whether or not Mayfield has that level of personal consistency remains to be seen. Make no mistake, grinding for small edges is not a small or easy task year after year. Will Mayfield need to have a “check season” once in a while to remind him of the benefits of that kind of dedication? Will he have seasons where he gets lax in offseason preparation, as he did in 2019, or is the added accountability of Stefanski and his staff what he needs to stay on track long term?

These are legitimate questions that we do not have the answers for when it comes to defining Baker Mayfield’s ceiling in the NFL.

These things in total, and not physical traits, will be the difference between Mayfield being a top third or a top five quarterback in the NFL over the long term.

These questions can only be answered by Mayfield himself…and they can’t be answered just once, but will re-emerge for another answer over and over throughout his career. 

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