Kyler Murray's Choice: Break Baker Mayfield's QB Records or Score MLB Millions?

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJune 4, 2018

Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray during the annual Oklahoma NCAA college spring football game in Norman, Okla., Saturday, April 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
B/R

ORLANDO, Florida — Let's look at this strictly from a common-sense vantage point.

Why in the world would anyone turn down guaranteed millions from Major League Baseball to play college football for free?

Because Kyler Murray wants to be the Oklahoma quarterback, millions be damned.

For now, anyway.

Understand this: Murray is good enough to be a star in college football. "He's going to break all my records," reigning Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield, a guy who has a few to break, told B/R recently of his projected successor. "He's that good." But unlike this year's No. 1 overall pick, Murray doesn't have an NFL future. He's barely 5'10" (that's stretching it), and he's not nearly as polished a passer (that's being nice) as Mayfield.

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 02: Quarterback Kyler Murray #1 of the Oklahoma Sooners looks to throw against the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 2, 2017 in Norman, Oklahoma. Oklahoma defeated UTEP 56-7. (Photo by Brett Deerin
Brett Deering/Getty Images

And understand this, too: As a professional baseball player, Murray's potential is enormous. "I don't say these things lightly," Oklahoma baseball coach Skip Johnson said, "but, yeah, he will be an All-Star." One MLB scout told Bleacher Report that Murray "would be a top-five to -10 pick" in this week's MLB draft...if clubs knew he would sign.

If clubs knew he would sign.

And that's the rub.

Why in the world would anyone turn down guaranteed millions from Major League Baseball to play college football for free?

If only it were as simple as common sense.

MLB scouts and personnel people have told B/R that Murray has all but made it clear he wants to play football—a game full of injury uncertainty, injuries that could impact his baseball career—no matter the consequences.

His football coach at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley, said Murray has told him he's playing football.

Hence, the drama in Monday's MLB draft. Because those same scouts who insisted Murray will play football also thought he could be tempted by a massive signing bonus. An offer he can't turn down.

How much?

"It starts at $3-4 million guaranteed," one MLB scout said. "And that's probably the first lowball offer whoever represents him will laugh at."

All this for a player who hasn't finished a full season of baseball since high school. A player who just now is beginning to learn the nuances of the sport and whose career college batting average is south of .270.

But mother of mercy, is there potential.

Like Murray's monster series last month against UCF, whose staff has four pitchers expected to be selected in the early rounds of the draft. Murray had two home runs and eight RBI in three games and stole two bases. He also ran down a drive in left-center to get a critical out, a play most center fielders—college or pro—don't make.

For the season, he's hitting .296 with 10 home runs and 10 steals, though he's missed the past five games after suffering a hamstring injury against Texas.

There have been flashes on the football field, too. The perfectly thrown deep ball last season for an 87-yard touchdown to Marquise Brown against Tulane. Or the dazzling 66-yard run against West Virginia.

But Murray, who transferred to Oklahoma because he couldn't win the starting quarterback job at Texas A&M, also still hasn't even beaten out Austin Kendall for the Sooners' starting gig this season. "We've got two very capable quarterbacks, and we're excited about both of them," Riley said.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma outfielder Steele Walker, a projected first-round pick in the draft, said, "When [Murray] concentrates on baseball and plays a full season, it's going to be scary."

So again, seems like an easy enough decision, right?

Step into Murray's shoes.

He has been a football player since he was six, a 5-star hero on the big stage of Texas high school football at Allen High, with scholarship offers from many of the sport's heavyweights. His dad, Kevin, was a star quarterback at Texas A&M, and it was only a matter of time before Kyler followed the same path.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Then it all turned sour in College Station, and Murray left after a freshman season that included a timeshare at the quarterback spot and plenty of uneven performances. He landed at Oklahoma, sat out a season per NCAA rules and began last season as Mayfield's backup.

"I've got a lot to prove next year," Murray said before the College Football Playoff semifinals. "Two years is a long time."

But it's more than just personal motivation driving Murray; it's also Riley, one of the game's best teachers and quarterback developers, who will get more hands-on work with Murray now that Mayfield is gone.

As important as Mayfield's transfer from Texas Tech to Oklahoma was in the Sooners' two CFP appearances over the past three years, Riley's hiring as offensive coordinator (in 2015) and head coach (in 2017) was just as critical.

Mayfield went from a freewheeling mustang, busting and breaking when his first option wasn't available, to the surgical precision of moving and waiting in the pocket for everything to unfold. The biggest criticism of Murray at Texas A&M was his inability to go through progressions—and that he bailed at the first sign of pressure.

Sound familiar?

"I love Baker—just an unreal player. But let's not overlook what Lincoln meant to Baker," Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy said. "I don't care who's playing quarterback for us, he's going to be coached and put in the best position to succeed because of the guy coaching him."

NORMAN, OK - OCTOBER 07: Head Coach Lincoln Riley congratulates quarterback Baker Mayfield #6 of the Oklahoma Sooners after a touchdown against the Iowa State Cyclones at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Norman, Oklahoma. Iow
Brett Deering/Getty Images

Earlier this season, Johnson acknowledged Murray was finally getting comfortable as a baseball player after splitting time between football and baseball during the spring.

There were times when Murray would finish practice with the football team and run to the diamond to practice with the baseball team. At one point, Johnson pulled him in the fourth inning of a doubleheader and forced him to go in the clubhouse to sleep.

"He looks at me and says: 'Why? I'm not tired,'" Johnson said. "Less than an inning later, I had one of our guys go in there and check on him, and he's sitting in a chair fast asleep."

Johnson laughed and shook his head, trying to explain the process of playing two college sports at an elite level.

"I've seen him play football. He can do some incredible things," Johnson said. "I've lived in Texas most of my life, and I know how important high school football is and how big football is here at Oklahoma. He wants to play football.

"But I'll tell you, when he gets to the point where he's playing baseball full time—because baseball is his future—and when he learns all about the game, his ceiling is limitless."

Long before Johnson's success as Oklahoma's head coach and, before that, as legendary Texas coach Augie Garrido's No. 1 assistant, he was the head coach at Navarro College, where he won 450 games. He also coached Brian Cole.

A one-time can't-miss superstar in the Mets organization, Cole was one of the top prospects in all of baseball in 2001 when he died in a car accident while driving home from spring training. Johnson said Murray is nearly identical to Cole, from the way he plays to his relentless desire to compete and all the way to his body type.

"Brian Cole could do everything. He could run, he could hit with power, he could get to anything in the outfield," Johnson said. "The unique thing is, I've [gotten] to watch Brian Cole play again through Kyler."

When asked for a current comparison for Murray, one MLB scout said: "He reminds me a lot of Andrew McCutchen. Same size, same power, same quick bat, similar speed—heck, Kyler is faster than Andrew in his prime. That's all based on a limited resume. We just don't have much to go on. We've only seen Kyler scratch his potential in this game."

That's what makes him so tempting, but any club that selects him knows it will only own his rights for one year—and if it can't sign him, he'll return to the draft pool again in 2019.

Murray has two seasons of eligibility at Oklahoma, and that means he may not concentrate exclusively on baseball until after the 2019 football season. Unless, of course, he's given an offer he can't refuse.

There's also the possibility a club could draft him, pay him and allow him to continue playing football. While that would leave the club at a high risk, Murray might just be worth it.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

MLB teams are given bonus allotments for the draft ranging from roughly $5 million to $13 million, a system designed to prevent deep-pocketed clubs from throwing exorbitant bonuses at draft picks and tilting the competitive balance. Each of the first 10 rounds includes an assigned value per pick. Teams can go over those values, but they are penalized if the cumulative value of their picks exceeds the bonus allotment (see: a percentage tax based on the value of overage).

But if a player is picked in the first 10 rounds of the draft and doesn't sign, the bonus money for that specific pick still counts toward the team's overall allotment. In other words, draft players you know will sign—unless you have money to risk and are willing to risk wasting a high-round pick.

"All it takes is one team to say, 'We're going to take a run at him, we're going to take a chance,'" one MLB scout said. "I've seen it happen, and I've seen it pay off. But is he worth the risk?"

Years ago when Johnson was with Garrido, he learned something he says is the most valuable tool in developing players: the concept of self-talk.

It goes something like this: No matter the outside influence, no matter the pressure or noise, you are the only one who can reset and refocus in times of pressure. So he tells players to write a key word or saying on their gloves or inside their caps.

Or maybe on their quarterback play cards or inside their helmets.

"Self-talk is one of the most vital tools you can have," Johnson said. "You don't have to express it so much, just say it to yourself: 'One thing at a time.'"

One thing at a time. Seems like common sense.

If only it were that simple.

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