Photograph: Gary A Vasquez/USA Today Sports
Four quarterbacks were among the top 10 players selected in the 2018 NFL draft. Lamar Jackson, who went 32nd to the Baltimore Ravens, had five first-round QBs, second-most ever. The New York Times called it a “quarterback frenzy” in the next day’s paper.
Of the four quarterbacks who made the top 10 — they should step in now and contribute — only Josh Allen, of Wyoming and the Buffalo Bills, is still with the team that drafted him. Josh Rosen, of UCLA, was released in October from his sixth NFL team (still had $18 million in career earnings, more than $1 million for every touchdown pass he threw in the NFL).
In the NFL, few players considered top-notch quarterbacks coming out of college wear out their welcome (there are, of course, exceptions like JaMarcus Russell and Tim Couch). Perhaps the most egregious current case of a top-ranked QB sticking around despite teething problems involves the #1 overall pick.
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It came as a bit of a surprise, at least to mock draft builders, that the Cleveland Browns used the first overall pick in 2018 to select Baker Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma. Sam Darnold was favored by many to go to No. 1 overall.
Standing just 6 feet 1 inch tall, Mayfield didn’t have the stately pocket presence of a Peyton Manning and didn’t have the fearsome speed and quickness of Jackson, who wasn’t a starter early in his pro career, but is became the NFL MVP in his second season.
Mayfield was a cheeky underdog who just got the job done. He grew up in Austin, Texas, but received no attention from his hometown Texas Longhorns. He went to Texas Tech as a helper, won the starting job, then moved to Oklahoma as a helper and won that job. After leading the Sooners to an upset win at Ohio State, he planted an Oklahoma flag in midfield.
But, unfortunately for the Browns, Mayfield’s best performances arguably came in television commercials for Progressive Insurance, where he displayed surprisingly strong comedic timing. His time in Cleveland ended amidst injury problems and an Instagram abuse from his star receiver’s father, Odell Beckham Jr. He was eventually traded to the Carolina Panthers after a Browns career that was neither really terrible nor really great.
Believe it or not, that trade happened just five months ago. Mayfield found himself in a quarterback competition with, guess who, Darnold, who had failed after the New York Jets drafted him with the third pick in 2018. Darnold was traded to Carolina for three draft picks prior to the draft of the 2021.
Mayfield started the Panthers’ first five games, four of which they lost, leading to the firing of head coach Matt Rhule. Since Darnold was injured, PJ Walker became the starter, but it was only so-so, then he got hurt. So Darnold, not Mayfield, was chosen to replace Walker.
Mayfield asked the Panthers just last Monday to release him. He was signed the next day by the Los Angeles Rams, who needed a quarterback because Matthew Stafford, who had led them to a Super Bowl victory in February, suffered a horrific spinal cord injury.
The Rams won three of their first 12 games and had a bad season, well, until Mayfield showed up. He didn’t start the Rams’ game last Thursday against the Raiders, but he certainly finished it, leading a game-winning 98-yard touchdown drive in the last minute.
“I don’t know if you can write it any better than that,” he said after the game. “Obviously, we’d like it to be a little less stressful, but it’s a damn good story. I’ll be honest with you, so it’s special.”
Mayfield wore a baseball cap to the postgame press conference that read, “This isn’t my first rodeo,” but he smiled and got laughs from reporters when he said of the unlikely comeback win, “It was my first rodeo.” to do it.
Three days later, Darnold led the Panthers to their second straight win. While their 5-8 record isn’t quite as hot yet, Carolina is just a game behind Tom Brady and the faded Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are holding on for first place in the dreadful NFC South.
Meanwhile, the Browns are 5-8 and going nowhere. The quarterback Cleveland traded to replace Mayfield, Deshaun Watson, missed the Browns’ first 11 games of the season after he was suspended for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. He was mediocre in his first game back—a win over the hapless Texans—and Cleveland lost its second game.
The Jets dropped Darnold after three years in favor of another quarterback they picked in their top five. Zach Wilson was dropped three weeks ago in favor of a quarterback, Mike White, who was drafted by Dallas in the fifth round of that fateful 2018 draft. White was drilled in the ribs Sunday in a loss to Buffalo, and Joe Flacco is been temporarily replaced. Flacco was the Super Bowl MVP after leading the Ravens to the title in the 2012 season, but he was dumped after injuring himself and Baltimore realizing that Jackson would make a terrific quarterback. All QBs seem to be connected in some way.
As of now, Stafford will most likely miss the rest of the season but won’t need offseason surgery, Rams coach Sean McVay said last week, which means he intends to return. What that means for Mayfield is uncertain, other than the fact that he plays against Green Bay on Monday.
After the game against the Raiders, Mayfield said he would just “pick up as much as possible and let the pieces fall where they may. I can’t control the future. I know I have the next four games here. I’m trying to build on that, to be the best version of me and improve.
The four quarterbacks selected in the top 10 in 2018 have been to a combined Pro Bowl: Allen, in 2020. The six non-quarterbacks have been to the Pro Bowl eight times, including once for New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, the second choice.
Quarterbacks face pressure that players in other positions don’t, of course, but quarterbacks tend to get second and third chances (and sixth chances, in Rosen’s case). Allen aside, there has been almost no quarterback hitting frenzy in the top 10 of the 2018 Draft. But Mayfield shows they aren’t done yet.