Baker Mayfield Cementing Rep as All-Time Great Rookie, Entering NFL Elite Convo

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 16, 2018

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) throws against the Denver Broncos during the second half of an NFL football game, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Move over Andrew Luck, Cam Newton and Dak Prescott, because Baker Mayfield is putting together a rookie season unlike any other. 

Mayfield's doing something none of those previous quarterbacks were in a position to: lift up an entire franchise and city after decades of losing. 

Five-plus months ago, LeBron James left Cleveland. He accomplished his goal of bringing the city its first championship since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Even so, Cleveland has always been a football town. Its fans dream of the day when the Browns hoist a Lombardi Trophy for the first time. 

Those hopes have been dashed on numerous occasions over the decades, especially during the team's run in the 1980s when two of the most devastating losses in NFL history, "The Drive" and "The Fumble," occurred in back-to-back years. 

The Browns faithful don't want to be reminded of these moments yet regularly are. A Saturday night meeting on national television in Denver provided a deluge of painful memories. Those heartbreaks coupled with complete ineptitude since the franchise's return to the league in 1999 surely had some questioning their faith. 

Mayfield has breathed life into the league doormat this year, though, and the 23-year-old quarterback didn't allow ghosts of what-are-they-doing past to hamper a 17-16 victory at Broncos Stadium at Mile High—the Browns' first win there since 1990. 

He may be a rookie, but he shouldn't be viewed as one. The No. 1 overall pick has taken on so much more than trying to live up to the expectations that come with that status—and he's already surpassed many of them. 

Does Mayfield suffer from inexplicable first-year moments? Definitely. 

Yet, his play has been on par with the league's best since Freddie Kitchens became the team's interim offensive coordinator following a Week 8 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers and firing of head coach Hue Jackson and previous coordinator Todd Haley. 

Kitchens' ability to rework the scheme around his players' talent—especially his quarterback's—has come to the forefront. But it's more than that. Mayfield is blossoming into something special. 

He's turning in an all-time great rookie campaign while giving Browns fans a taste of what it means to have a franchise quarterback. He elevates those around him. His teammates want to play alongside him. The team isn't just getting better; it's competing for something more than pride. 

At 6-7-1, the Browns have an outside shot to make the playoffs for the first time since January 2003. 

Saturday's effort may have some scratching their heads. What's so great about a performance that featured a 58.1 percent completion rate and 188 yards passing? How Mayfield adjusted and didn't let the moment overwhelm him can't be stressed enough. 

The opening drive went exactly as planned. Mayfield connected with Jarvis Landry for 19 yards on Cleveland's first offensive snap. Three plays later, the rookie found Breshad Perriman for a 31-yard touchdown. 

Things went downhill from there. Mayfield finished the first half 7-of-18 passing for 105 yards, including an awful decision when the Browns had a chance to enter halftime with a lead. The young quarterback made a predetermined read and tried to thread a pass to Landry between a dropping linebacker and an over-the-top safety. The receiver didn't create separation, and the defensive back, Dymonte Thomas, snagged the errant pass. 

As a whole, Mayfield wasn't his normal, accurate self. Usually, he sprays laser beams all over the field. Whether he came into the game too amped up or didn't initially adjust to the elevated conditions, he was off by a good margin. 

The second half was a different story, though. Mayfield didn't post massive second-half numbers, as he did with 351 passing yards over the final two quarters against the Houston Texans two weeks earlier. However, he became far more efficient. This year's No. 1 overall pick completed 11 of 13 passes for 83 yards and a second touchdown pass. 

Both scoring plays showed his ability to adjust even when opponents gave him early trouble. But Mayfield's second touchdown was impressive for multiple reasons prior to the throw. 

Based on pre-snap reads, the rookie rehuddled his group, changed the play at the line and realigned running back Duke Johnson before he fired a dart to wide receiver Antonio Callaway. He had complete control of the situation, which resulted in the game-winning score. 

This level of understanding with in-game adjustments didn't come easy, especially after an aggressive Broncos defense flustered him for most of the first half.

None of it should come as a surprise, though. Mayfield has been exceptional in multiple areas but is among the best in three specific categories. 

Quarterbacks are often judged by how they perform in the red zone when the field is constricted and plays happen more quickly. Anticipatory throws into tight windows are necessary. It's almost impossible for Mayfield to get any better when his team crosses the opponent's 20-yard line. Only the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees holds a slight edge over Mayfield when working near the goal line: 

Mayfield has 16 red-zone touchdown passes and no interceptions, according to Cleveland Sports Talk's Turner Maney

The five-time Rookie of the Week winner isn't just a precision passer; he can unleash a bomb better than anyone in the business, per Next Gen Stats: 

Mayfield had issues with the Broncos' pressure packages, but he's not afraid to stare down defenders and deliver the football. 

In fact, the Browns quarterback had been the NFL's best against pressure over the previous five weeks: 

Red-zone efficiency, creating chunk plays in the passing game and staying calm while defenders collapse the pocket are three primary traits of an elite quarterback. Mayfield is already there. 

He also continues to build his case as one of the best rookies in league history. His stats with two games to go compare favorably to the NFL's best at his position. 

Top Rookie QB seasons
PlayerYearComp.%YPGYPATDINT
Cam Newton201160253.27.842117
Andrew Luck201254.1273.46.982318
Dak Prescott201667.8229.27.99234
Baker Mayfield*201863.9255.47.532111
NFL.com

More than that, Newton, Luck and Prescott didn't offset a nearly two-decadeslong streak of pathetic football. The Carolina Panthers were 8-8 before their 2010 nosedive to gain the 2011 No. 1 overall pick. The Colts had to endure one awful season after 13 Peyton Manning-led campaigns. Prescott was supposed to be Tony Romo's backup until injuries ended the incumbent's career in 2016. 

None of those quarterbacks had to turn around a franchise quite like the once-hapless Browns, whereas Mayfield is thriving in the role.

"People love the Browns and have stuck with them through some bad years," the rookie said during a pregame interview with the NFL Network's Chris Rose (via 92.3 The Fan's Daryl Ruiter). "I'm going to do whatever I can to turn that around. I don't know what that feels like. I don't know what they went through. And I don't ever want to know what that feels like." 

Mayfield isn't just good for a rookie. He's already a standout quarterback and doing more with less than those who preceded him.

                     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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