Baker Mayfield, Not Saquon Barkley, Is Obvious Choice for NFL Rookie of the Year

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 24, 2018

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) celebrates after the Browns defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26-18 in an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
David Richard/Associated Press

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is the easy and correct choice to be named 2018 NFL Rookie of the Year. 

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley is already a star and one of the league's best running backs, but his presence hasn't provided the same jolt to his organization.

When a team selects a prospect with the first or second overall pick, certain expectations are heaped upon that young man. He's not just expected to produce; he's expected to change a franchise's entire culture. After all, there's a reason that team selected so high. 

The Browns were coming off the NFL's second-ever 0-16 campaign, saddled with a lame-duck head coach, and desperately needed a shock to the organization's system. They found exactly what they needed in Mayfield. Cleveland is now on a three-game winning streak after Sunday's 26-18 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium. 

"People need to fear playing in Cleveland," Mayfield said after the contest, per 92.3 The Fan's Daryl Ruiter

That the rookie can say this with a straight face while everyone in attendance didn't burst out in laughter shows how far the Browns have come in a very short amount of time. The Browns have been the league's doormat for so long that it's hard to remember a time when any excitement regarding their future existed. 

Sure, the Browns accumulated tons of draft picks and salary-cap space over the years, only to fail season after season. Mayfield is the Browns' version of the Rosetta Stone. He speaks the language everyone in the building needed to understand how success is derived. 

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23:  Baker Mayfield #6 of the Cleveland Browns looks to pass during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 23, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

The Browns are now 7-7-1 overall. On the surface, it's just another mediocre team in a league filled with them. Yet, something is brewing on the North Coast. The Browns were staring at an 0-2-1 start with Tyrod Taylor starting until Mayfield entered the lineup during the second quarter of the New York Jets contest when Taylor got hurt and helped lead Cleveland to its first victory since Dec. 24, 2016. 

The quarterback elevated his performance upon Hue Jackson and Todd Haley's dismissals. Mayfield is now on a roll while solidifying his status among all-time great rookie performances. His standing among the best rookies ever becomes more apparent with each passing week. 

"The guy's had three offensive coordinators," an NFC executive said of Mayfield, per NFL.com's Tom Pelissero. "As soon as the storm was over, he's done nothing but flourish at the most difficult position in the NFL."

Barkley is in the same rarefied air for his respective position. 

No one is trying to slight what this year's second overall pick has achieved. He's been absolutely spectacular. Barkley ranks third overall with 1,886 total yards from scrimmage, and he only needs two more receptions in the Giants' season finale against the Dallas Cowboys to surpass Reggie Bush's rookie record of 88 receptions by a running back. 

"He's the best player and he's been the most productive," an AFC general manager said of Barkley, per Pelissero. 

Barkley's talent is undeniable. But his overall impact pales in comparison since Mayfield's insertion. Andrew Gribble of the Browns official site provided a rundown of what's happened in Cleveland with its rookie signal-caller leading the way: 

If Cleveland wins next Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, it'll be the second team in NFL historyalong with the 1922-23 Columbus Panhandles/Tigersto post a winning record the season after a winless campaign. Wins aren't an individual stat, but they can be indicative of continued excellence from individuals. 

As a team, the Browns have never experienced such a turnaround in the franchise's 74-year history, according to public relations director Dan Murphy: 

The Browns' about-face came while navigating the NFL's toughest schedule, per TeamRankings.com

Individually, Mayfield is closing in on multiple team and NFL records. He's 37 yards from besting Brandon Weeden's franchise rookie record of 3,385 passing yards. He's only two-tenths of a point from surpassing Otto Graham's team-record 64.7 completion percentagewhich has stood for 65 years. Mayfield's 24 touchdown passes are only behind Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson's 26 as the most by a rookie in NFL history. The Browns quarterback trails only Kurt Warner (23) and Brad Johnson (15) after throwing a touchdown in 12 consecutive starts to begin his career, per Murphy.

Imagine if the Browns coaching staff decided to play Mayfield from the onset. Then again, there's a reason why the previous head coach and offensive coordinator are no longer employed by the franchise. 

Those previous numbers take a macro view of the rookie's performance, and it's already one of the best ever seen from the position for a first-year player. The types of throws he's making at a very early stage show how special Mayfield is from a micro point of view. 

On Sunday, this year's No. 1 overall pick completed 73 percent of his passes for 284 yards and three touchdowns. Last week, everyone raved about Mayfield's ability to deconstruct and manipulate the Denver Broncos defense pre-snap before throwing the game-winning touchdown to fellow rookie Antonio Callaway. This week, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner showed how he can extend a play and throw the ball into a nonexistent window for a score when nothing appeared to be available. There are very few quarterbacks playing today who can make this play: 

It's not the first time Mayfield worked his red-zone magic, either: He has a 19-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio when working inside an opponent's 20-yard line. 

"His decision-making has really improved," Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard said, per the Associated Press' Brian Dulik. "He was just slinging it out theremaking all the throwsand that's the sign of a good quarterback."

Furthermore, Mayfield's attitude is infectious, and the Browns are feeding off his energy. 

This was never more obvious than when Carlos Dunlap tackled the quarterback along the sideline and teammates Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins flew to his aid, getting in the defensive end's face for what may have been a late hit. Landry is already an established star. He doesn't need to get into confrontations, but he's more than willing to do so for the rookie. 

The Giants, meanwhile, are only two games improved from last season, and Barkley, for all of his special traits, can only do so much from the running back position. 

Mayfield's elite rookie production, coupled with positional value while adding a level of poise that has allowed his team to prosper over the second half of the season, makes him the obvious favorite for NFL Rookie of the Year. 

Barkley is great; Mayfield has elevated the entire Browns franchise to dangerous levels. 

     

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

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