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Let’s check in on the QB draft class of 2018

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Stop me if you’ve heard this once (or 218 times) before: I was wrong about Josh Allen.

In my defense, I was just a kid. A sophomore in college, writing an article about the 2018 quarterback draft class while not quite paying attention in my Public Relations 101 seminar, also not quite worrying that the Bills would draft Josh Allen. Why would they? A gunner with limited accuracy and indeterminate mobility? Where was the upside?

I had more to say about Allen, and plenty to say about the other four “premier” quarterbacks from that draft (Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson). Rereading that nightmare of a column today has imparted two very important nuggets of wisdom upon me:

  • 1) I think I’ve become a better writer than I was at 19, and
  • 2) I’m a moron.

There’s a point early on in that piece where I jokingly use Baker Mayfield’s Favre-esque draft photo as cause to draft him high. At least I hope I was joking.

Since I’m a glutton for punishment, I’ve elected to go ahead and check back in on those 2018 quarterbacks; going in order of when they were drafted, I’ll see how they’ve fared, what the future looks like for them, how their ceilings and floors have changed, etc. This time, I’ll do my best to refrain from calling Josh Rosen the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, I did that, too. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought this up.

Baker Mayfield

Career stats: 45 games; 23-22 record; 11,115 passing yards; 75 touchdowns; 43 interceptions; 61.9 completion percentage

Draft result: Rd. 1, Pick 1 to the Cleveland Browns

Mayfield is an interesting case, and—it seems—no longer one of the basket variety (at least he hasn’t grabbed his crotch while looking at another bench in a while). As a rookie, he was one of the most exciting players in the NFL, going 6-7 in 13 games as the starter on a team going nowhere fast. As a sophomore, he was disappointing as he was flashy the previous year. And in his third year, by far his team’s best season (11-5 and their first playoff appearance since 2002), Mayfield just… coasted.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mayfield certainly improved upon an alarming sophomore slump, posting career-best marks in both passer rating (95.9) and total QBR (72.2), and throwing the fewest interceptions of his career (eight, as opposed to 14 his first season and 21 his second). It’s certain that he’s benefited from Kevin Stefanski’s new system—one that worked so well for both sides of the ball that he didn’t even need to be on the sidelines for it to function. I guess that’s why he stole won Sean McDermott’s Coach of the Year award.

And yet while Mayfield’s overall success last season isn’t likely to be a flash in the pan, there’s still some pause as to whether or not he’s going to be able to produce as consistently as one might like as a passer. In other words: flash in the pan, no, but erratic flashes of greatness, most certainly. You might remember week 13’s 41-35 victory in Tennessee where he threw for 290 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. He also set up a flurry of explosive sequences in that game to further mute a defense that was already unable to touch him (he was pressured just once in that first half). Then again, you also might remember outings in Week 6 (at Pittsburgh) and Week 8 (Las Vegas) when he threw 119 and 122 yards, respectively, and threw just one touchdown in those eight quarters. When he’s on, he’s really on. But when he’s off, hightail it for the mock draft boards and search hopelessly for a midround replacement.

The good news: there are ways to avoid Mayfield’s sporadic struggles. For one, he was missing a certain receiver who, at the very least, is labeled a number one; Odell Beckham Jr. only played seven games last season before tearing his ACL and was hardly open, let alone targeted. But even more significantly, they have two number-one running backs in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who combined for just over 1,900 yards last season. If Stefanski uses either or both of his backs—assuming they’re both back next season—as frequently as he lets Mayfield chuck it, his quarterback will be the primary beneficiary. Browns fans everywhere are beneficiaries anytime Baker Mayfield is not throwing 53 passes.

Sam Darnold

Career stats: 38 games; 13-25 record; 8,097 passing yards, 45 touchdowns; 39 interceptions; 59.8 completion percentage

Draft result: Rd. 1, Pick 3 to New York Jets

I’m certain of few things in this world like I’m certain that Robin Williams’s best performance comes in Good Will Hunting, and that the best scene of his career—at minimum the most iconic—is the “it’s not your fault” scene. You know what scene I’m talking about. If you don’t, hello! Welcome out from underneath whatever rock you’ve been living under. This is called the internet. Use it to watch Good Will Hunting.

What Robin Williams does for Matt Damon in this scene is what I sometimes wish someone would do for Sam Darnold. Grasp him by the shoulders, maybe shake him a bit, and reassure him: it’s not your fault, Sam. Well, with a slight edit.

You see, it’s not all Darnold’s fault that he’s never played more than 13 games in a season. Nor is it all his fault that he’s only thrown more than 3,000 yards once (and by a meager 24 extra yards). And it’s not his fault that his signal calling—an attribute once considered prolific and advanced by scouts—has been reduced to rubble, or that he’s never had longer than 0.4 seconds to stand still in the pocket and survey the field, or that… you get it.

Darnold, as incomplete as he’s proven to be, is the victim of an endemic trend in the league: a fine-if-not-good quarterback who has been rendered inept by his lesser teammates, predominantly his offensive line. Last season, he ranked eighth in the league in pressure rate (27.5-percent of his dropbacks) and 19th in how much time he had to work in the pocket (2.4 seconds, the least amount of time any of the first five quarterbacks taken in 2018 had; Josh Rosen didn’t qualify for ranking). He’s been beaten, battered, and clotheslined more than Robin Williams has used an exuberant voice while talking to another human being.

To make matters MUCH better—maybe?—for the still-young quarterback, Adam Schefter reported Sunday that teams around the league have been calling the Jets with interest in trading for Darnold. In even better news, the Jets haven’t refused calls, nor has Robert Saleh committed to his current signal-caller as the one he’ll want for the future.

Darnold’s short tenure in the league has yet to see him paired with the right coach, and there’s only one way to tell whether or not Saleh is that guy. My gut says that the defensive-minded hire isn’t sketching out 3rd-and-long plays in his free time, though. Maybe Darnold needs to get as far as possible from anything Adam Gase has ever touched to find true success.

Josh Allen

Career stats: 44 games; 28-15 record; 9,707 passing yards; 67 touchdowns; 31 interceptions; 61.8 completion percentage; 1,562 rushing yards; 25 rushing touchdowns

Draft result: Rd. 1, Pick 7 to the Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen almost ruined my life.

When I wrote about him on draft day in 2018, my analysis was cut and dry: “I don’t get the Josh Allen fascination. I just don’t.” Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one with mixed-to-negative feelings. And for two years, I looked to be on the right track, as while he showed bursts of brilliance with his legs, he was routinely as inaccurate as advertised when throwing the ball downfield and made some split-second decisions in tight situations that even a panicked house pet would know better than to try. I’ve seen my cat use better judgment when the vacuum is rolled out of the closet than Allen did on that lateral play against the Houston Texans in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. Until that play, I thought it was impossible for a 21 year old to go into cardiac arrest. That was until I woke up one year later with my mother and father standing over me and saying: “We lost. But we traded for Stefon Diggs.”

Since my coma, Josh Allen has developed into a composed dual-threat—triple, if we want to count his lone receiving touchdown. He leapfrogged the likes of Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, and Deshaun Watson in the MVP conversation, broke various franchise records, all on his way to becoming one of the best quarterbacks in the league last season. He’s the best quarterback Buffalo has had since Jim Kelly, and probably the most exciting player to land in Buffalo since O.J. Simpson.

But I think, given Allen’s newfound promise, that we’ll soon be on the mend. In terms of football, there’s absolutely no question that Allen has made my life (and that of Bills fans everywhere) feel like an oasis. His pocket presence and startling offensive jump from year two to year three is an embarrassment of riches by Buffalo’s standards. He’s improved in a bevy of areas every season—from completion percentage (69.1) to passing yards (4,544) to passing touchdown percentage index (118, with 100 as the league average)—and posted career-best numbers in almost every major offensive area last season. He threw one more pick (10) than last season (9) and ran for the fewest yards of his career (421), but no matter. A quarterback is primarily meant to pass the ball anyway. It was always nice to know that his running game could bail him out of tough spots, but it’s been especially critical to discover that his passing game can carry the Bills toward offensive heights that it hadn’t reached since the late 90s.

One might like to say that his blossoming was a process that moved slowly and surely but, in reality, he burst onto the scene last season looking like a completely different quarterback. A quarterback who could (and hopefully will) lead this Bills team for the next 15 or so years. Fandom for a historically “lesser” franchise can be an emotional juggernaut, and people don’t give the emotions one feels when their team fails (over and over again) enough credit. If we’re being honest, that might be Josh Allen’s greatest accomplishment: giving a hopeless group of hooligans a reason to smile somewhat deep into January. The next step is what, thanks to his recent dominance, feels closer than ever before: giving them a reason to smile into early February. Eat your heart out, Nick Wright.

Josh Rosen

Career stats: 20 games; 3-13 record; 2,845 passing yards; 12 touchdowns; 19 interceptions; 54.8 completion percentage

Draft result: Rd. 1, Pick 10 to the Arizona Cardinals

You can’t necessarily call Josh Rosen the 2018 NFL Draft’s version of JaMarcus Russell, but if you ask me, that’s exactly what he is. I was as high on Rosen coming out of UCLA as I have been on any quarterback prospect in recent memory. I figured he’d light up the league like few young studs before him, that his sometimes-erratic decision-making would be negated once he was surrounded by pro talent, and that his pro-ready gifts when passing the ball would make everyone regret not taking him. As I said before: I thought the dude was sliced bread in shoulder pads.

And then a fairy godmother named Steve Wilks (aided by his fairy god-coordinator, Mike McCoy) flung Rosen into the snarling jaws of NFL defenses with an aging receiving core and an injury-prone running back. He was protected by the worst-rated offensive line in 2018, per PFF, and sacked on 10.3 percent of his drop backs. A pig for slaughter? Try the target placed opposite a shooter at the gun range. “Do your thing, kid,” he said. “With wha—” Rosen mustered weekly, just before being slammed to the ground by a 340-lb defensive end with muscles the size of the UCLA campus.

Rosen wasn’t ever given a chance. He was soon shipped out of Arizona and sent to the Miami Dolphins for a second- and fifth-round pick then-viewed as his chance for redemption and, in some eyes, revenge. But he didn’t last in Miami for very long. Nor did he last very long with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad because, after a brief stint in the same building as Tom Brady, the San Francisco 49ers pulled him over to their practice squad (on February 8, they decided to retain him for next season). The guy has been tossed around the league like a rag doll more times than he’s appeared under center.

When he’s played, he’s been forgettable. Per CBS Sports, of the 42 quarterbacks to throw more than 500 passes since 2018, Rosen ranks dead last in completion percentage, touchdowns, passer rating, yards per attempt, and win-loss percentage. It’s less than likely that he ever plays a meaningful down of NFL football again.

Don’t let me analyze Joshes anymore. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Lamar Jackson

Career stats: 46 games; 30-7 record; 7,085 passing yards; 68 touchdowns; 18 touchdowns; 64.0 completion percentage; 2,906 rushing yards; 19 rushing touchdowns

Draft result: Rd. 1, Pick 32 to the Baltimore Ravens

In three years, Lamar Jackson has accomplished the following:

  • First quarterback in NFL history to have multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons
  • First quarterback in NFL history to have consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons
  • Fastest quarterback in NFL history to 5,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards (35 games)
  • First quarterback in NFL history to have 5,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in his first three seasons
  • Only quarterback in NFL history to have 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season
  • Most games with two-plus passing touchdowns and 50-plus rushing yards in a player’s first three seasons (14)

AND he’s the third-youngest player to win MVP and a playoff game (24 years and 3 days old, only older than Patrick Mahomes and Dan Marino). To say he’s a transcendent talent is to say a rhino has a horn. In short, how has he fared? Well, he’s won an MVP award as a quarterback in a league where multiple scouts and personalities once said he’d be better off playing wide receiver. Talk about shutting up critics.

The questions about Lamar Jackson moving forward are few and far between, and they aren’t directed at him as much as they are pointed at something that directly impacts his production: Baltimore’s offensive line. The upheaval was a bit swift, with Marshal Yanda retiring last offseason and Ronnie Stanley going down with an injury midseason. Now, Orlando Brown wants to be traded to a team that will play him at left tackle (the Ravens played him on the right side). Even beyond those issues, the line faced variability last season; per PFF, “nine different offensive linemen played at least 100 offensive snaps throughout [2020-21] — the same number as some of the more beat-up offensive lines in the league like Philadelphia and Dallas.” They finished this season as PFF’s 16th-ranked group, just one season after ranking second.

Fix that, and give Jackson weapons akin to Allen’s—any quarterback would take Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and an unhealthy John Brown over a seldom-open Marquise Brown and the league’s fourth-best tight end—and perhaps you see more consistency in the former MVP’s numbers. Then again, he did do just fine one year prior with the same group. So perhaps Jackson’s MVP year, which was punctuated by leading the league in QBR and finishing sixth in the league in rushing, was him hitting his peak rather early, or perhaps it was a remarkable flash of what he’ll do consistently down the line. Either way, he’s certainly had the best first three seasons of any quarterback drafted in 2018… so far.

It’s also clear that a kid wearing no. 17 in a city up north already has something to say about that statement.