You hear it all the time that college football is more “fun” than the NFL. While Rodger Goodell does add to this illusion, it is the open field due to the hash marks, combined with the unpredictability of talent disparity as well as the varying maturity levels of 18-22-year-old men that causes more big plays, flukes, and surprises. People are drawn to that stuff.
This is why you can get by and be a big-time playmaker in college without a defined skill set that translates to the NFL. It also explains why there have not been many Heisman trophy winning quarterbacks to sustain success in the NFL. We had thought this trend had been bucked by the back to back winnings of Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. 2017 has told us to hold off judgment. Cam Newton and Carson Palmer headline a list that features Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Troy Smith, Matt Leinart, Jason White, Eric Crouch and Chris Weinke as Heisman winning quarterbacks since 2000. Seven complete busts, the injury-riddled Sam Bradford, and Robert Griffin, two unknowns and two legitimate starters. It is a total crapshoot.
With that said, it is much smarter to judge Baker Mayfield on a case by case basis, than to lump him in with this group of players. Based on the last 13 Heisman winners, Mayfield has about a 16% chance of falling into that legitimate starter group. His individual skill set tells you to bet on that 16%, though.
Baker the Play Maker
There is a reason Baker Mayfield won the Heisman so convincingly. He is a playmaker. Mayfield is prized for extending plays to throw and making plays down the field out of structure. Below, he adjusts to the pressure, gets on the run and makes a strong throw about 16 yards down the field, leading his receiver to a first down. The ability to feel the pressure while keeping his eyes downfield is what is important here.
Ohio State has a star-studded defensive line. Below, they broke the play below down before Mayfield even finished handing the ball off on play action. Mayfield stays poised, finds space, spins around and sets his body while three defenders reign down on him. He throws the ball where only his receiver has a chance to make a play with ridiculous arm strength. Watch the calm feet as he navigates havoc.
On third down, the money down, Baker Mayfield is doing his Derek Jeter impression. Mayfield whips the ball across the field on the run, in time to get the runner. This is all arm strength. You always hear color guys talk about “zip” on a ball. Mayfield put some zip on this third and seven pass without ever setting his feet.
Here, we see him roll out with plenty of room to roam. Watch the small touch of nuance here that Mayfield brings. He sees his tight end is going to be open over the top. However, his first look is underneath. This froze the player chasing the tight end on the left side just enough to buy himself any margin for error on the 40-yard pass.
There is the idea that having this ability to extend plays, and having this amount of success at the college level could make someone too reliant on this, and make them too quick to break the pocket in the NFL. It is easier to evade college defenders but much harder to break the pocket as clean as Mayfield can, while maintaining the integrity of that arm strength in the NFL. Not everyone can be Russell Wilson.
However, the savvy of the play above combined with his ability to beat teams from the pocket shows the potential to be a starter in the NFL.
Below, he faces another third down. When he has to, he can break the pocket, or follow a designed roll out to create the first down. However, he can also beat you by standing in and throwing darts in between two defenders to move the chains. Quick read, quick release, quick pass, first down.
This pass is perfect and thrown with anticipation. He sees the cornerback to his receivers left and knows that leading him there will result in a quick tackle, likely short of the sticks. Instead, he places the ball in a position where his receiver has to turn and move his body towards space as he catches it. This is a great pass.
Lastly, we see Mayfield rewarded for sticking in the pocket and going through his progressions. He starts to look right but moves along. Eventually, he sees his running back heading up the seam with a defender falling down for an easy touchdown.
Having teams respect Mayfield from the pocket while understanding that he can break anything outside with the idea of extending the play to pass the ball is a tough stop. You can set your edge defenders to contain him, Mayfield will step up and beat you. You can crash hard to force him to move, but that fails just as often.
Where can he improve?
Of course, Mayfield is not going to be a perfect prospect. He comes with flaws that have to be ironed out. While he is intriguing as a player who can win from the pocket, his ability to win from the pocket is the area of his game that needs to be worked on the most.
In the play below, he is facing fourth and three. He makes multiple progressions, he sees nothing, and after holding on to the ball a bit too long trying to make the fourth down play, he takes a sack.
However, if you watch again, you can see Mayfield misses his guy and an easy first down. Watch the tight end towards the top middle of the screen. He runs a great route and creates a ton of separation.
Below, it is clear that Mayfield has to see the tight end during his diagnosis. You can see above that when Mayfield looks that way, instead of quickly ripping the ball in there, he takes two steps towards the receiver instead. This disrupts the timing, ruins the route and forces Mayfield to move backward, and give up more field position as he takes the sack. Speedy mental processing will be something that Mayfield has to improve on.
Below, Mayfield again is struggling with the nuances of mental processing. He knows where he is going with this ball when it is snapped. Mayfield sees the linebacker towards the middle of the field start near the three-yard line. He is leaning right pre-snap. Once Mayfield sees the linebacker take a step to his right at the snap, he knows he has the space to complete the slant to his slot player on the left. However, while he is waiting for his receiver to get deep enough down the field to make the pass into the end zone, he is staring down his man. The linebacker, who he originally read is now watching Mayfield. He reacts to Mayfield staring down the receiver and is eventually able to jump the route for a costly red zone turnover. Mayfield has to understand that while he knows who he is throwing to, that giving the illusion he does not is going to keep defenders from crashing down on where he is looking.
The play below does draw pass interference but is not the best out of Mayfield. It shows some of his physical limitations as well as some of the finer issues to his game.
This throw has to go about 50 yards in the air. Missing a 50-yard pass short by a few yards is not shocking. Especially considering the size of Mayfield. Still, look at all of the room the play action created for him. With all of the space to work with, he could have stepped up or continued to move towards the sideline. This could have given him the ability to either get that pass well over the two defenders heads or led him to the right enough that he had more space to work with. The two defenders trailing to the right would have been obligated to stick to their receivers, who are also on that side of the field. It would have been closer to a one-on-one pass had he continued to move right before passing.
The other issue with this play is the game situation. His team leads by four, on the road, against an elite opponent in the fourth quarter. We love Baker the playmaker, but at this point in time, tucking the ball and getting a few yards on first down is likely more important than delivering the kill shot, given the degree of difficulty in this pass. It is safe to say that the pass interference bailed Mayfield out of a mistake.
At the end of the day, Mayfield deserves and is going to get a chance in the NFL. Mayfield is not doing this with smoke and mirrors. It is not the mobility of Eric Crouch or the power of Tim Tebow. It is not the big arm with no idea how to use it like Chris Weinke. No, it is not even the ability to turn nothing into something on a sheer whim like it was for Johnny Manziel. Mayfield won his Heisman with a combination of these skills that were put together to build a college football success story, that may just translate to the next level.