NFL Insiders on Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold's Struggles as Seats Get Hotter

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterSeptember 17, 2020

Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, left, talks with New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold before an NFL football game between the Browns and the Jets, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Let's go back to April 26, 2018.

It's Thursday night in Arlington, Texas. Fans, media members and NFL hopefuls have invaded AT&T Stadium to watch commissioner Roger Goodell announce the names of 32 players who will be selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

The 2018 draft features five quarterbacks considered to be first-rounders. There are Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. There are the best of the West Coast in Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen. And there's enigmatic Wyoming gunslinger Josh Allen.

The Cleveland Browns, following a 2017 season in which they lost every game, own the No. 1 overall pick.

The New York Jets had hoped to be in position to select first, but a surprising season under veteran quarterback Josh McCown ended their hopes of "tanking" for the top spot. Instead, the Jets shipped the No. 6 overall pick plus three second-round picks to the Indianapolis Colts to move up three places to No. 3.

Two franchises, both heavily invested in improving at quarterback, sat facing a historic number of potential cornerstones. The decisions made that night would lead to both teams firing the head coaches who sat with them that evening—Hue Jackson in Cleveland and Todd Bowles in New York—as well as the general managers who made the selections.

Three years later, the quarterbacks Cleveland and New York selected find themselves on the hot seat after uninspiring play, along with the realization that the quarterbacks drafted third and fifth have outplayed them.

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The Browns had a tough decision in 2018, but entering the draft, many experts and insiders believed they would play it safe and select Darnold. The USC product was solid, smart, athletic and had led a team with a surprising lack of talent to wins with poise and clutch play. By most accounts, Darnold was the safe pick and the top quarterback in the class.

The Jets, fearing the Browns would select their top-ranked quarterback, had focused on UCLA's Rosen in the lead-up to the draft. But one former member of the front office said the organization was split at the time.

"Darnold was our guy," he said, "but there were a lot of people in the building who liked Baker because of his leadership skills and athleticism. And of course the owner wanted Rosen, so we were really divided, but it came down to what the GM and head coach wanted, and that would have been Darnold, then Rosen."

The Jets wouldn't have to make a decision after Cleveland shocked the NFL world and selected Mayfield—a pick that became the hottest rumor in the final 24 hours before the draft started. The Browns' selection shocked many, but the Jets were in position to draft their preferred quarterback.

Scouts, coaches and decision-makers in both Cleveland and New York went to bed that night convinced they had drafted the top signal-caller in the 2018 class. Three years later, we know that the passer selected with the last pick of the first round—Jackson—would set the league on fire while his peers struggled to find their footing.

This isn't a history lesson, though. This is instead a story about how the careers of Mayfield and Darnold are on thin ice after inconsistent starts. And it undoubtedly hurts to see draftmates Jackson—last season's NFL MVP and one of the brightest stars in the game—and Allen (the No. 7 overall pick that year) in Buffalo both make the playoffs in their second seasons while Darnold and Mayfield try again to learn a new offensive scheme amid offseason coaching changes.

Nick Wass/Associated Press

Mayfield started the 2018 season behind Tyrod Taylor, but he quickly seized the starting job and was impressive (albeit erratic) in his debut season, throwing 27 touchdowns to 14 interceptions and nearly winning Offensive Rookie of the Year with a 6-7 record on a team that one year prior had lost 16 games.

But midway through that season, the Browns fired head coach Hue Jackson and replaced him with Gregg Williams. Fans of Mayfield around the league will tell you this was a move he wanted. After being around Lincoln Riley at the University of Oklahoma, Mayfield privately knew Jackson wasn't the right kind of leader or strategist to get the most out of him, people close to Mayfield said.

Freddie Kitchens, who got promoted to offensive coordinator after Jackson's firing and took over as head coach in January 2019, had Mayfield's full endorsement. But Kitchens struggled making the leap to head coach, and Mayfield regressed in his second season. With 21 interceptions to only 22 touchdowns and a completion percentage under 60 percent, Mayfield's sophomore slump was a real thing.

"There was a perception that he got caught up in being this bright star in the NFL between those first two seasons and it affected his play. But I don't put that on him," said a former Browns staff member. "The NFL had a winning player at the quarterback position in Cleveland. That's a dream from a PR perspective, so he really got asked to do too much."

Mayfield hunkered down during the COVID-19 pandemic and disappeared from the spotlight, focusing on conditioning and dedicating himself to learning another new offense and building trust with new head coach Kevin Stefanski. The initial results weren't promising as Mayfield struggled in the season opener.

The guideline for completion percentage in the NFL is not standardized, but most agree you need to be above 60 percent. In the opener, Mayfield completed only 53.8 percent of his passes while throwing an interception and averaging a dismal 4.8 yards per attempt. He did throw an impressive touchdown pass, but a blowout loss to the Baltimore Ravens with Jackson torching his team for three touchdowns only highlights the questionable decision that the Browns' previous regime made.

Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

In New York, Darnold hoped his second season with Adam Gase would be better than this. He struggled as a rookie with Todd Bowles as a lame duck coach and missed three games with mono early last season, but he led the Jets to a shocking 6-2 record down the stretch while throwing only four interceptions.

But Darnold's warts were once again on display in Week 1 of the 2020 season, hinting that the seemingly solid second half may have been a mirage.

"People forget that he threw like 12 touchdowns in the final eight games last year," said one former scout who evaluated Darnold coming out of USC. "There was all this hype coming out about how he finally got it, but he wasn't that good last year, either, when you really look at the tape of who he was playing and how inaccurate he was."

The interceptions, poor decisions and uninspiring play were evident as Darnold completed 60 percent of his passes with one touchdown and one interception.

With the Browns and Jets sitting at 0-1, both franchises must now evaluate their quarterback situations moving forward.

The Browns' current general manager and head coach did not draft Mayfield.

The Jets' current general manager and head coach did not draft Darnold.

The Arizona Cardinals cut bait on Rosen, the No. 10 overall pick in 2018, after one year of poor play. Teams are not tied to young quarterbacks when a new coach or general manager comes in.

Like the Cardinals last year, the Browns and Jets might find themselves in situations where they're drafting high enough in Round 1 to consider replacing their quarterbacks. Especially since the fifth-year option is looming for both players following the 2020 season.

If Darnold struggles and the Jets are drafting in the top three again, in a year with franchise prospects in Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Trey Lance (North Dakota State) and Justin Fields (Ohio State) expected to be available, current GM Joe Douglas must think about upgrading at the position.

And while Mayfield's Browns are expected to rally and be much more competitive than Darnold's Jets, the Browns also must make a quarterback decision after the 2020 season. Could a surprising bottom-three finish lead the team to move on from Mayfield?

Absolutely.

        

Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.