2018 NFL Draft: Scouting the 5 first-round quarterbacks
Why Josh Allen may be a bust, and why Baker Mayfield looks like the best of the 5 potential first-round QB picks
The NFL Draft is finally here, and not a moment too soon. It feels like ages since we’ve watched football, and fans are ready for three days of the draft and an offseason dreaming about the future. Two years ago, Rams and Eagles fans dreamt of a brighter future with their top-two picks. Two years later, the Rams had their best season in over a decade and Philadelphia won the Super Bowl. Things change quickly in the NFL, and a lot of it starts with the draft.
A lot of it starts with the man under center. No position in sports is as important to a team’s success as quarterback. This year as many as five quarterbacks may be first-round picks: Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, and Josh Rosen. So which one is ready to turn around an NFL franchise?
The answer may lie in three key stats: passing accuracy, turnover percentage, and number of starts. Let’s take a look…
1. Baker Mayfield 69%
2. Sam Darnold 65%
3. Josh Rosen 61%
4. Lamar Jackson 57%
5. Josh Allen 56%
Everyone loves to talk about arm strength and hand measurements, but an accurate NFL quarterback is a winning quarterback. The league has changed. Teams are rarely chucking it 40 yards down the field, typically once or twice a game. Quarterbacks threw passes more than 20 yards downfield on just 6% of their attempts last year.
The NFL is less a vertical game and more a horizontal one now. Teams use all 53 and 1/3 yards horizontally, completing high-percentage short-yardage throws and letting their athletes make the play from there. The short pass is the new run game. Quarterbacks need to make quick reads and get the ball to their playmakers quickly and accurately. Accuracy is everything.
In the NFL, great quarterbacks consistently rank among the league leaders in completion percentage. Drew Brees is the beacon of measurement, but names like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers usually follow soon after. Kirk Cousins’s accuracy just netted him the richest contract in NFL history. Case Keenum and Alex Smith’s accuracy made them relevant long after their past-due dates.
Baker Mayfield is the accuracy king. He was second in the nation in completion % this year and led the NCAA a year ago. Darnold and Rosen are middle to above average. They were even this year, both top-40, but Darnold ranked top-10 a year ago while Rosen had never cleared 60% before this year.
Mayfield’s accuracy is even better than it looks above. He started eight games for Texas Tech in 2013 and threw for 64% — still better than every season by the other QBs here except Darnold last year, by the way. These past two years at Oklahoma, Mayfield is at 71%. That’s a lot of completions. Darnold was at 67% last year before regressing to 63% this year, probably partly due to losing JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree Jackson to the NFL. Rosen’s 63% this year was a career-high after throwing for 60% his first two years. Rosen was under 58% in eight of his 13 games as a freshman compared to just two this year. That’s a nice progression but it’s still only moderately accurate.
Both Darnold and Rosen are far more accurate than Jackson and Allen. Jackson’s passing has improved slightly each season, his accuracy increasing from 55 to 56 to 59%. Allen was stuck on 56% both seasons. That’s a really poor number and one that didn’t even rank among the top 100 NCAA passers. Allen gets credit for having a cannon for an arm, but only a few NFL quarterbacks are successful with a subpar completion percentage each year. Is Josh Allen the new Cam Newton, who completes fewer passes but hits a ton of them downfield? Probably not. Might be more like Blake Bortles.
Accuracy is a major strength for Baker Mayfield, a red flag for Lamar Jackson, and a huge red flag for Josh Allen.
1. Baker Mayfield 2.0%
2. Josh Rosen 2.2%
3. Lamar Jackson 2.5%
4. Sam Darnold 2.6%
5. Josh Allen 3.2%
Only a few NFL quarterbacks are asked to go out and win the game on their own. It’s not as many as you’d think. Aaron Rodgers comes to mind. Russell Wilson and Cam Newton fit the bill. Guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Stafford are asked, with varying answers.
Most quarterbacks succeed within a successful system, which is no longer a knock. That’s probably more the case for guys like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, and Carson Wentz. That’s why Alex Smith and Kirk Cousins got so much money, and it’s why Jared Goff was suddenly good this year and why Philip Rivers is inconsistent from one year to the next. The system matters, and more and more NFL systems don’t ask their quarterback to go win the game — just not to lose it. Complete your passes and don’t give the ball to the other team.
Baker Mayfield doesn’t give the ball to the other team. He takes care of the ball and gets it to his teammates. So does Josh Rosen. The others are not quite as careful, and Allen is more like Santa Claus for opposing defenses.
If you see those numbers above and think they all look similar and quite small, you’re looking at it wrong. Consider that Allen’s interception rate is almost 60% higher than Mayfield’s. That’s 60% more likely every time Allen drops back that he gives the ball to the opponent compared to Mayfield.
Quarterbacks touch the ball on every play. Most NFL teams throw 30 or more times a game over a 16-game season. Over 500 passes, Mayfield’s interception rate would mean 10 picks. Darnold and Jackson would be closer to 13, with Allen at 16. Jay Cutler and Eli Manning threw 14 and 13 interceptions this year. Tom Brady and Drew Brees threw eight each. That narrow margin is not narrow in the NFL. It’s the difference between being elite and being benched.
Of course, interceptions aren’t the only way a quarterback can turn the ball over. Since they touch it every play, they can also fumble the ball. Sam Darnold led the nation with eight fumbles lost. Only 12 other players had even half that many. Darnold had five last year too, top-10 most. Lamar Jackson lost six fumbles last year, second in the NCAA, and three this year. Allen lost seven over two seasons, Rosen seven over three, and Mayfield four in four seasons. Let’s translate that to a couple more stat charts:
1. Baker Mayfield 2.3%
2. Josh Rosen 2.8%
3. Lamar Jackson 3.4%
4. Sam Darnold 4.1%
5. Josh Allen 4.3%
Turnovers per game
1. Baker Mayfield 0.7
2. Lamar Jackson 1.0
3. Josh Rosen 1.1
4. Josh Allen 1.1
5. Sam Darnold 1.3
Again, let’s do the math. Your quarterback plays 16 games, hopefully. Mayfield gives the ball to the opponent 11 times a season. Rosen and Allen give it away 18 times, and Darnold’s at 21. Not great, Bob.
Ball security is key in the NFL. Gone are the days of quarterbacks giving the ball away 25 and 30 times a season. If you’re on pace to turn the ball over 25 or 30 times, you get benched.
Advantage, Baker. Red flag for Allen and huge red flag for Darnold.
Number of Starts
1. Baker Mayfield 48
2. Lamar Jackson 36
3. Josh Rosen 30
4. Sam Darnold 27
5. Josh Allen 25
Really, number of starts? Why in the world would that matter?
First, more starts means more data. A lot more data. We have twice as much game film on Baker Mayfield as Josh Allen. We just know a lot more. One terrible game doesn’t taint the data as badly, and one hot stretch doesn’t help as much. More data is almost always better.
Second, more starts means more experience under center. It’s that many more snaps, that many more throws, that much more learning how to play the most difficult, complicated position in sports. More starts means more development, more real game experience red-shirting simply can’t provide. Research consistently shows that quarterbacks who started three or four seasons in college are much more successful than those with one or two. The best two-year starters are guys like Cam Newton, Michael Vick, and Alex Smith. There aren’t many good examples, but there are plenty of two-year names like Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell, Blake Bortles, and Akili Smith you probably remember.
Mayfield played almost four full seasons. Jackson played three. Rosen played three too but missed half his sophomore season with injury, so he comes out barely ahead of Darnold and Allen, who played two seasons each.
Starting two seasons is necessarily not a death knell for quarterbacks. It just means we know less, and that they probably do too.
Advantage Mayfield and Jackson.
Quarterback is the most complex position in sports, so reducing it to three numbers obviously isn’t enough. If it was, I’d be the General Manager of an NFL team instead of writing about them. But it’s still a good start.
There are other things that have been proven to be less relevant to quarterback success. College counting stats — passing yards, touchdowns, etc— are symptoms of great teams, coaches, and systems as much as an indicator of the quarterback. Arm strength isn’t as huge as you’d think, and it gets less important each year as teams opt for shorter, more accurate passes. Chad Pennington couldn’t throw a ball as long as this article, and he did fine. Level of competition isn’t huge either. Carson Wentz played at North Dakota State. Super Bowl champs Kurt Warner, Joe Flacco, and Ben Roethlisberger played at Northern Iowa, Delaware, and Miami Ohio. Eastern Illinois has produced Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo, and quarterback guru Sean Payton.
So what’s a hidden factor about each quarterback that might actually matter?
Sam Darnold’s youth
You’ll hear a lot the next few days about how Darnold is only 20 year old. Josh Allen turns 22 in a few weeks, and Baker Mayfield is 23 already. That matters because it’s more years of service, and it’s also more years of growth available. Is Darnold better than Mayfield right now? Maybe, maybe not. But will 23-year-old Darnold be better than Mayfield is right now? Mayfield is almost as old as Jared Goff and Jameis Winston, and older than Deshaun Watson.
But Darnold’s youth is also overblown. He’ll be 21 in June, so he’s only a few months younger than Rosen and Jackson. Mayfield is two years older, but the results show it. The real story here may be that Allen’s second oldest. Yikes.
Baker Mayfield’s brash arrogance
The guy is not super likable, and he’s made more than a few mistakes. We don’t need to list all Mayfield’s sins, but they’re even more worrying when you remember the dude is 23. Not exactly the age of maturity if you’ve ever met a young man before, but not 18 or 19 either. Nobody likes arrogance, especially from the potential face of your franchise.
But arrogance is a form of confidence. What kind of confidence do you need to become the first walk-on freshman in college history to start the season at quarterback? What sort of confidence compels you to transfer to another bigger school, walk on again, compete and win the job again, and eventually win the sport’s highest individual honor and lead your team to the playoff?
Quarterbacks need confidence, resilience. Cam Newton has done alright. Philip Rivers is a sourpuss who doubles as a perennial Pro Bowler. There’s a reason Jay Cutler’s been in the NFL so long. Heck, Tom Brady doesn’t seem like the most fun guy you’d ever meet. Not all quarterbacks need Peyton Manning’s southern charm to be successful. Mayfield’s confidence is a concern but not a disqualifier, and it’s also a sign of something positive.
Lamar Jackson’s legs
It’s easy to forget with all the focus on passing numbers that Jackson is one of the best quarterback runners in college history. Jackson was sixth in the nation with 1601 rushing yards and a top-10 yards per attempt. He was top-10 in rushing yards a year ago too, and he had 50 rushing touchdowns in his career. Rosen and Darnold had 65 and 64 touchdowns total. Jackson had 50 rushing, plus 69 more in the air. The guy is an electric runner, and while he surely won’t be a feature runner anymore like he was in college, we’ve seen the value of players like Deshaun Watson and Cam Newton.
Of course, the other part about Lamar Jackson’s legs is how skinny they are. Watson and Newton get hurt a lot, which tends to happen when 280-pound superhumans hurtle their bodies at you at warp speed all game. Jackson has a slight frame. One electric game-winning run is offset in a hurry by a six-week injury that sidelines the season. Just how valuable will Jackson’s legs be in the NFL? That’s the gap teams need him to make up, because his passing doesn’t measure up on its own.
The Joshes’ questionable winning records
Josh Rosen went 17–13 in three seasons at UCLA. Josh Allen was 16–9 at Wyoming. Baker Mayfield won 23 more games than Allen but lost the same number. That’s basically two full extra seasons of wins.
Rosen was 3–5 against bowl teams this year, all three wins against a 6–6 team. He was 1–2 against bowl teams last year and 4–5 his freshman season. Rosen had four wins in his career against teams that finished the regular season above .500, only two of them against PAC-12 opponents. If you run through Josh Rosen’s game logs, you see a lot of stats compiled against weak opponents. In the biggest win of his career in Utah, he was 15-of-30 for 220 yards and a TD. His team won with defense.
Allen was 7–8 against bowl teams, though obviously many of those bowl teams were from his Mountain West Conference. In three games against power-five schools, Allen was 0–3. He was 48-of-96 for 427 yards with one touchdown and eight interceptions. But Allen just didn’t have any good teammates! Fine, maybe he didn’t. But in all his other games, Allen played with mid-level teammates but against mid-level competition too. Guys in the MWC can run a route and catch a pass. Josh Allen completed 20 passes in a game only twice in his entire career. If you had the best quarterback in the nation, wouldn’t you try to get him 20 good throws a game, especially against the Utah States and Air Forces of the world?
No quarterback can win on his own, but losing college quarterbacks have almost no history of success in the NFL. If you’re looking for a college loser that was a successful QB in the NFL over the last 30 years, your best examples are Jay Cutler or Drew Bledsoe, maybe Jared Goff if he stays on his trajectory. But even Goff looked like a mammoth bust a year ago at this time.
There are only so many conclusions one can draw after three key stats, but let’s draw a few.
Based on the key metrics of passing accuracy, turnover percentage, and number of starts, the short-in-stature Baker Mayfield stands head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. He may not be the most likable guy, and he may not have the perfect height or measurables, but Mayfield has done the things that make NFL quarterbacks most successful.
Josh Allen is at the other end of the spectrum. Every measurement in this article is either a red flag or a GET OUT signal for Allen. He may have a cannon for an arm, but why hasn’t that translated onto the field? Allen turns it over a lot, doesn’t win much, throws a lot of incompletions, and doesn’t have much experience despite being older. Based on these things alone, it’s hard to envision Josh Allen as a first-round pick, let alone a top-five guy.
Rosen and Darnold look like solid but not great quarterback prospects. Rosen looks a bit safer, Darnold a bit better but more volatile. Neither looks particularly like a slam dunk top pick or a guy to give up the franchise to trade up for, but both look worth a shot.
Lamar Jackson is the wildcard, depending on how you think his game translates to the next level. I like it, and I’m also not convinced Rosen or Darnold are can’t-miss guys. If Jackson is what he looked like in college, he is a can’t-miss guy.