- For most NFL scouts, there’s no need to look much farther than Russell Wilson to see why
It’s easy, after what Russell Wilson did on Sunday night (and what he’s done the last six seasons), to look back on his draft year and say, If he was 6' 4", he’d have gone in the Top 5 picks. It would’ve been a lot tougher to say such a thing before Wilson had started a single NFL game.
But that’s exactly what Pete Carroll said five years and a few months ago. Wilson had just beaten out Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson for Seattle’s starting job, and I had Carroll on the phone a few days before the Seahawks’ opener against the Cardinals. Nationally, at that point, Wilson was more of a curiosity, especially considering the high-profile, first-round rookies who’d start that weekend: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and, ahem, Brandon Weeden. To everyone, at least, except Carroll and the Seahawks.
“[If he was 6' 4"], he’d have been vying for be the first pick,” Carroll told me then. “He has everything you look for—all the records, the numbers, he did everything. He’d be right up there with Andrew [Luck], and you’d be trying to figure it out. That’s my opinion. I just look at him, and think that there’s nothing he can’t do.”
Six years later, could all of that apply to Baker Mayfield?
Over the next four months, that’s what the NFL will be trying to figure out, as they assess the guy whose play has stripped Saturday night’s Heisman ceremony of any drama and made it a coronation. Mayfield, like Wilson before him, is an undersized, oft-overlooked star who needed to transfer just to assure that he’d even have a shot to play.
Based on the conversations I’ve had over the last few months with dozens of scouts, as well as what I’ve seen with my own eyes, I think I can make this one pretty simple: Baker Mayfield should be a first-round pick.
He’s short. So was Wilson. And to be clear, that’s not irrelevant. There’s Darwinism in the fact that most great NFL quarterbacks are tall. Seeing the field is a significant piece to playing the position, and that’s easier to do from higher ground. So the question is whether or not Mayfield is an outlier.
“He’s extremely talented,” said one AFC college scouting director. “Guys want to play for him, players believe in him, the staff believes in him. I’ve heard the comparisons to Brees, [Johnny] Manziel, Wilson, and there’s a little bit of all of them in his game. And he’s not Manziel in terms of the off-field stuff—he studies his ass off, he goes through his progressions, he’s not a typical spread QB. He has first-round ability.”
“Big-time competitor and winner,” texted an AFC exec. “He’s on the short side, but that’s O.K. He’s mobile. Accurate. Passionate. He’s gonna be good.”
The latter exec believes that Mayfield, who’s listed at 6' 1", will come in a shade over 6-foot, which is hardly a death sentence for NFL quarterbacks. In fact, it’d probably make him a shade taller than Brees and Keenum, and put him a couple inches taller than Wilson.
All of which, as another AFC college scouting director put it, “is a problem only if a team wants to make it a problem. If a guy can make all the throws, it’s not. If it affects his play on the field, it is. Johnny didn’t see the field well because he didn’t prepare. The others know how to find windows and throwing lanes. They’re used to being 6-foot, and aware of the issues. I don’t think it’s a problem for Baker.”
There are, of course, off-field flags with Mayfield. There was his February arrest for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, resisting and fleeing in Fayetteville, Ark. There’s the on-field antics too, most notably the crotch-grab that prompted coach Lincoln Riley to strip him of his captainship for his final home game.
And feelings on those incidents vary depending on who you talk to. Most scouts I’ve spoken to see his popularity with teammates and coaches, and his maniacal work ethic (which, again, Manziel lacked), and believe that, because his football character is beyond reproach, he’ll be O.K. A few others, on the other hand, see a punk who just doesn’t get it.
Either way, Mayfield promises to be the story of the combine and lead up to the draft in Dallas, and we’ll get to see him take on one more good test before then, against Georgia in the Rose Bowl (and maybe two, should the Sooners advance to play either Clemson or Alabama in Atlanta for the national title).
For now, though, my belief is plenty of teams see Mayfield as a second-round prospect, and enough like him to make it likely someone gets itchy and takes him in the first round. That is where I believe he should go.
With the benefit of hindsight, we now know Wilson should’ve been a first-round pick in 2012. Consider what Carroll told me then, when I asked what was unique about his rookie quarterback.
“Everything is,” he answered. “His smarts, his focus, his discipline, his work habits, his athleticism, his competitiveness, his confidence. Really, however you can rank them, he’s that high on that list in all those areas. Now, all of those of things will be in question in the real season, and he needs to back all that up. But if you observe him, if you know him, you think it’ll happen.”
It did, of course. And a lot of good NFL people believe it will for Mayfield, too. Which is why I’m pretty sure he won’t have to wait too long on draft weekend.
FIVE FROM SATURDAY
1. Let’s start with maybe the lowest profile showdown of Championship Saturday: Florida Atlantic’s 41-17 rout of North Texas in the Conference USA title game. Lane Kiffin is certainly unconventional, and thrives on messing with people (you can see that on Twitter). But if you’re really watching, you see a big reason why he ascended to top jobs with the Raiders and at the University of Tennessee and USC so quickly, and that’s because he has a brilliant offensive mind. He has effectively merged elements of the spread offenses of Texas coach Tom Herman (whom he consulted with while at Alabama) and ex-Baylor coach Art Briles (Briles’ son Kendall is Kiffin’s offensive coordinator) with his pro-style-rooted system, and the results have been off the charts. On Saturday, an FAU team that was listless last year rolled up 633 yards, most of which came in building the lead to 34-0 over the first 33 minutes of the beat down. Last year, before he got the FAU job, I advocated for the idea of an NFL teams hiring him as a coordinator, and I know there were scouts who told their clubs to do it. Since he seems to be on the fast track to another Power 5 job, that idea’s probably off the table now. But if I’m an NFL team, I’d at least ask.
2. We’ve been high on Georgia LB Roquan Smith all fall, and he might have been the best player in any of the championship games on Saturday, showing exactly why NFL teams have been drawn to him throughout the season. He finished with 13 tackles (10 of those solo), a sack, two tackles for losses, two hurries and a big fumble recovery as the Bulldogs held an Auburn offense that scored 40 on them in November to just seven points. The 6' 1", 225-pound junior has a Luke Kuechly-like nose for the ball, and is swift enough to be a three-down linebacker in today’s NFL. I’d expect him to be gone somewhere inside the first half of the first round.
3. Over the last few years, NFL types have looked at Alabama and Ohio State differently than other schools, just based on top-end talent and overall depth. As this season comes to a close, those two can make room for the Clemson Tigers. The defense this year is better than last year’s, and the assembly line of skill position talent has been able to sustain through the losses of Top-12 picks Mike Williams and Deshaun Watson. Oh, and the defensive line might have three 2018 first-round picks (Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins) on it, as well as perhaps, 2019’s top overall prospect (Dexter Lawrence). The Tigers’ next opponent, Bama, has a talent advantage over almost every team it faces. The two exceptions are the two teams that have knocked the Tide from the playoffs over the last three seasons.
4. Speaking of schools having strong lineage at a position, Ohio State’s been quite the NFL pipeline for defensive backs over the last few years and Denzel Ward looks to be the next great one to come down it. Ward entered our top-10 Big Board midseason and has stayed there since—a tough, physical and feisty corner who only lacks the length that the three Buckeye corners (Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley) drafted in the first round the last two years had. He was fantastic again in the Big Ten title game, pulling down a red-zone pick in the first quarter. Given the value of the position, and the year he’s had, there’s a decent chance that he goes higher than the aforementioned three went when all is said and done.
5. Credit to all involved in how the Scott Frost situation was handled over the weekend. Nebraska did it best to keep the deal it had with Frost under wraps, allowing their well-regarded alum to focus on the AAC title game with his undefeated UCF Golden Knights. Credit to UCF, for being so gracious after the deal was announced. And credit to Frost, for keeping the focus on Saturday on the players, and deciding to stick with them to finish out a dream season in the Peach Bowl against Auburn, when most coaches would just bail to their new locale to start recruiting. Here’s hoping more follow this blueprint in the future.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
2. Bradley Chubb, EDGE, N.C. State
3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama
4. Sam Darnold, QB, USC
5. Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
6. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
7. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
8. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
9. Christian Wilkins, DT, Clemson
10. Connor Williams, OT, Texas
Because only four guys on the list actually played this weekend, we have very little movement. Roquan Smith moves up a spot after a terrific SEC title game . . . And I’ll give Sam Darnold a little love, because of the way he’s handled a tough year and come away with a Pac-12 title . . . Connor Williams, by the way, has announced he’ll skip the Texas Bowl against Missouri to prepare for the draft.
Top of the Class:
1. Sam Darnold, USC (17-24, 325 yds, 2 TDs, 0 INTs v. Stanford): The Trojans were hit hard by graduation before the year and injuries during it, and so Darnold deserves a lot of credit for guiding USC to its first conference title since the Pete Carroll era. He, in many ways, became the program’s margin for error as so many young players worked through growing pains. We’ll see whether or not he comes out. This much is for sure: Everything people have said about him as a player and a person showed up this year.
2. Josh Rosen, UCLA (DNP): The true junior still has questions about his personality and durability to answer, but few believed he was ever staying in 2018. The arrival of Chip Kelly probably seals his departure, since Kelly’s offense is a less-than-ideal fit for him. Interim coach Jedd Fisch has said he expects Rosen to play in the Cactus Bowl.
3. Josh Allen, Wyoming (DNP): It’s a foregone conclusion that Allen will declare after this, his redshirt junior season. The only question left there is whether he’ll play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (yes, that’s the name of it) against Central Michigan. Allen gets points, as Darnold does, for getting the Cowboys through a rebuilding season. And if you add his off-the-charts tools to his uneven play, you get one of the 2018 draft’s most polarizing prospects.
Helped Himself: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (12-26, 211 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs vs. Wisconsin): Barrett didn’t look great throwing the ball against Wisconsin—he missed on a pair throws that would’ve been long touchdowns that could’ve blown the game open, and his unsightly pick-six in the first half kept the Badgers in it. But he played just six days after having arthroscopic surgery to address a meniscus injury that he’s played through all season, and he carried the ball 19 times. Barrett’s toughness and leadership precede him as the only three-time captain in Buckeyes history. And a night like Saturday night should, at least, pique the curiosity of NFL teams and give him a shot to win a roster spot in training camp.
Hurt Himself: Jarrett Stidham, Auburn (16-32, 145 yards, TD vs. Georgia): The redshirt sophomore picked the wrong week to turn in his worst statistical effort of the season, as the Tigers were held to a single touchdown in their SEC title game loss to Georgia. The good news is that, for most of Auburn’s stretch run, he flashed tools that have caught the eye of evaluators, and now we know that Gus Malzahn is staying, which should help push Stidham’s development forward.
The Heisman Ceremony (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN): So Baker Mayfield is the winner over Stanford’s Bryce Love and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. And as a reference point, Ohio State’s Troy Smith had the largest margin of victory in Heisman history, having taken 91.63% of the vote in 2006, a mark that Mayfield could best. Got it? We’re good? O.K., so here’s the other thing I’m watching in the coming days: Prospects deciding to skip their bowl games to prepare for the draft, like Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette did last year. We’ve seen three(!) Texas players do it already. Two of the three are expected to go on Thursday (OT Connor Williams) or Friday (LB Malik Jefferson) of draft weekend, whereas S DeShon Elliott may have a tougher road.
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