The 2018 quarterback class inspired breathless hype for its depth, but the leading men grew obvious as draft day approached: Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold were the established stars. By the time Commissioner Roger Goodell hit the podium in AT&T Stadium, the only real mystery was the order in which they'd be selected.
Two years later, the picture is more complicated. Lamar Jackson, the fifth quarterback taken in the first round, has already won an MVP. Belief in Mayfield (the No. 1 overall pick in 2018) and Darnold (No. 3) remains strong in Cleveland and New York, respectively, but it is a more cautious faith, couched in contingencies and the reality that highly drafted quarterback duos can go in a lot of directions.
Will Mayfield and Darnold wind up like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, unable to secure a second contract with their original teams? They clearly are not Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf, so perhaps the answer will defy simplified narratives, like the Jared Goff-Carson Wentz 1-2 punch of 2016. Or Baker and Sam could turn out like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, one-time supernovas who take paths no one saw coming.
Mayfield and Darnold diverge in so many ways, a split that has only grown in the NFL. Mayfield treated the AFC North like the Big 12 as a rookie; now he must show he has more staying power than a hot streak. Darnold runs cooler. He didn't get Baker's endorsements or cover articles -- partly because of personality, but mostly because Darnold's production and surrounding talent were so dull. The split only looks bigger entering Year 3 for both signal-callers.
What is medium for Mayfield?
Before the Browns' Week 15 game in Arizona last season, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told the FOX broadcast team that "we know exactly what [the Browns] are going to do" based on their formations. When a veteran coordinator is confident enough to express that out loud, something is seriously wrong. Joseph proved prophetic. By the end of the depressing game, it took Mayfield 19 plays to score a garbage-time touchdown to cut the final score to 38-24. Browns coach Freddie Kitchens was fired two weeks later.
Blaming the messy Browns offense solely on Kitchens is tempting. While most quarterbacks point out the opposing middle linebacker before the snap, Mayfield spent every other play pointing his teammates to the right spot to line up. Cleveland often couldn't run basic screens, even in December. Changing tempo appeared impossible; only three teams played slower when trailing by seven-plus points, per Football Outsiders. After replacing Kitchens with former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, the Browns believe such disorganization will disappear. Even an average coaching staff, the thinking goes, won't get in the way of an excellent collection of offensive talent.
Mayfield needs to do his part. Putting all the blame on Kitchens ignores that he was also the one calling the plays down the stretch for the 2018 Browns, who ranked 17th in offensive efficiency before finishing 20th in 2019. The offenses weren't that different, but Mayfield's decision-making was.
According to Pro Football Focus, Baker threw 15 interceptions when protected -- the second-highest figure in the league, just below Jameis Winston's 16 picks from a clean pocket. No other quarterback topped 11. The long-derided Browns offensive line was average. Mayfield ran into many of his sacks, and defenses knew that he was always going to roll right at the first sign of trouble. The second-year QB was effective when the Browns ran play-action, but his numbers without play-action were positively Manzielian: 11 TDs, 15 INTs, 6.4 YPA. Cleveland's front office, now led by general manager Andrew Berry, smartly hired one of the best play-action coaches in the league (Stefanski) to play to Mayfield's strengths. But Baker also needs to excel on plays where his reads aren't defined so easily; he can't continue to lose so many plays before the ball is snapped.
There are a lot of reasons to believe 2020 will be better, and none of them include "moving in silence." Built up too fast on a small sample size as a rookie and torn down too much for a reasonable second season, Mayfield has surrounding talent that'll make it difficult to fall far. If last season was the floor, it wasn't that low. Mayfield finished 19th in ESPN's QBR metric, just ahead of Aaron Rodgers. He finished 19th in PFF's grading among 39 qualifiers. He was average.
For all of the mental mistakes Mayfield made last season, his physical skills may be even better than they were advertised before he was selected No. 1 overall. The pop in his arm is incredible, whether on the move or in the pocket. He is capable of making all the throws -- and not afraid to try them. He has the supporting cast to make those decisions look smarter.
2019 was Odell Beckham Jr.'s floor, too. Even playing through injury, Beckham was open a lot and routinely failed to bring down catchable passes. Jarvis Landry made the Pro Bowl catching passes from Mayfield. The backfield of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt is the best in football. Tight end Austin Hooper has reportedly been the best pass catcher in Browns camp, allowing the team to use more two-TE sets with David Njoku.
An average starting NFL quarterback should put up top-10 numbers with this crew. Mayfield showed as a rookie he can dazzle, but he doesn't have to. Stefanski's last two quarterbacks were mid-tier distributors (Kirk Cousins and Case Keenum, now Mayfield's backup) who kept their offenses on schedule, then were paid handsomely.
There is no "sleeper MVP candidate" buzz around Mayfield this year, as the 25-year-old still has a lot to learn about playing the position. There is no expectation he'll be Andrew Luck in his third season, leading the NFL in touchdown passes while making the AFC Championship Game. The middle ground between Baker's flying start and last season's letdown, however, is an above-average starting quarterback with the tools to delight while improving. For Browns fans in search of a franchise quarterback for three decades, that should be plenty good enough.
Darnold must overcome
The biggest fear for Jets fans, after Darnold slipped past the Giants to Gang Green's No. 3 overall slot in the 2018 draft, is that their organization would find a way to ruin him. Two years in, those fears have only grown. Darnold is the toughest quarterback evaluation in the NFL today because he's had so little help, and so little appears to be on the way.
Darnold already has to break through historical precedents to live up to his draft billing. Since 2004, 13 quarterbacks have posted a negative DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) in their first two seasons, according to The Football Outsiders Almanac. Of that crew, Alex Smith and Sam Bradford have gone on to have the best careers. Darnold's ceiling remains higher, no matter the precedent. He makes at least one throw each week that few other quarterbacks could attempt, plays that keep you coming back for more. But Darnold has a mountain to climb just to get to average and won't have much assistance.
Blaming Darnold's struggles on his organization makes sense; blaming his 2019 struggles on his bout with mono does not. He won AFC Offensive Player of the Week in his first game back, went through a prolonged slump, enjoyed his best stretch in Weeks 10-12 and then played perhaps the worst five-game stretch of his career to close the season.
It's challenging to separate Darnold from his surroundings because football doesn't work that way. There were entire weeks that were not on Darnold, but it was tough to see progress in Adam Gase's system. Like many Gase quarterbacks, Darnold eschewed the tough throw for the safe checkdown. There were a lot of third-down completions short of the sticks. The Jets' offensive line was among the worst in football, with Darnold kept clean at a lower percentage than any quarterback with at least 400 snaps, according to PFF. Then again, when Darnold was protected well enough to throw deep, only Josh Allen and Kyle Allen had a lower completion percentage among quarterbacks with at least 50 deep attempts, also per PFF.
"I don't know what Darnold saw," Troy Aikman said with more than a hint of exasperation on Thursday Night Football late last year. It was a sentiment repeated throughout the season, starting with the infamous "seeing ghosts" game against New England. Teams continued to blitz and change their looks after the snap all the season, waiting for Gase, Darnold and a beleaguered offensive line to come up with a counter move. It never happened.
No one expects Darnold to be Drew Brees at diagnosing coverage, but it's not unreasonable to ask for progress after 1,600 snaps. I blame this shortcoming more on coaching than the quarterback, which is the problem. The coaching staff hasn't changed. The team around Darnold hasn't changed enough, either.
The offensive line has a number of new players, but none of them besides first-round left tackle Mekhi Becton are premium talents. Darnold's supporting cast of pass catchers is no better, with Robby Anderson out the door. Tight end Chris Herndon's presumably healthy return bodes well, but Anderson's replacement, Breshad Perriman, is already hurt. Promising rookie receiver Denzel Mims essentially missed all of training camp with a hamstring injury. It's not a good sign that former Patriot Chris Hogan went from the scrap heap to the Jets' starting lineup after a handful of practices.
Gase wasn't around when Darnold was drafted and, at this rate, probably won't be around when his rookie contract ends. Gase also wasn't hired by the Jets' current GM, Joe Douglas, and has consistently coached below-average offenses. If Darnold is going to take a third-year leap -- and he still has the athleticism and arm to pull it off -- he will have to do it despite his organization. He will have to make those around him better. That's unfair to ask of a 23-year-old, but it's also what transcendent quarterbacks can do. Unfair expectations come with being selected in the top three overall picks, a reality that Darnold and Mayfield understand better now than they did on draft day.
Even if Mayfield's commercial portfolio slimmed down along with his body this offseason, he's surrounded at camp by young offensive stars and a legendary O-line coach in Bill Callahan. Baker has backers.
Darnold, meanwhile, was held scoreless in six possessions during a scrimmage last month against the Jets' backup defense. It takes a village to raise a young quarterback, and too often, it feels like Darnold is going it alone.