Feb. 11, 2019
"Year of the Quarterback" A Year in Reflection: Part One
The offseason which followed the Eagles victory over New England in Super Bowl LII was one of the wildest in recent memory. Many teams underwent major rebuilds, and despite a backup quarterback being the hero of the big game, every team had their eyes on obtaining a "franchise quarterback". The 2018 NFL Draft will forever be known as the second iteration of the "Year of the Quarterback", with an endless bounty of riches at the position. From January to May, every day was dedicated to researching as much information as I could for this unprecedented draft, which promised to change the landscape of the NFL as we had known it.
At this time last year, the Cleveland Browns held the number one overall pick in the draft. Experts around the NFL you would paid them with almost every quarterback in the draft depending on the author's opinion of the draft's top signal callers. The consensus about the 2018 draft class was that there were the top 5 quarterbacks in the group (Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, and Lamar Jackson) who were all "franchise quarterbacks", then there were two others (Mason Rudolph and Kyle Lauletta) whose names were occasionally mentioned as potential first rounders as well. The pure hype surrounding this draft was unlike anything I had ever seen. It seemed as if almost every team was in the market for one of these "franchise quarterbacks", and the comparisons to the 1983 draft class (which included Hall of Famers John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly) were being thrown around casually.
For a long time it seemed as though the Browns were going to be selecting between rocket-armed Josh Allen, a player who looked like the ideal QB made in a lab, and Sam Darnold, a player whose toughness and talent drew comparisons to Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, and Andrew Luck. However, on the day of the draft, a rumor began circulating that the team was considering selecting Heisman winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma with the top pick. Mayfield, standing at an even six feet tall, had been knocked by many analysts for being undersized and for playing in what was virtually an Air Raid offense under Lincoln Riley in Norman. Despite some analytical stats that placed him well above the rest of the passers in the class, draftniks were skeptical about Mayfield's chances in the NFL, as he drew as many Johnny Manziel comparisons as he did Russell Wilson comparisons. Yet the Browns went on to take Mayfield, as his infectious attitude and tremendous collegiate career were enough to drown out the criticisms of him. This set off a wild chain reaction for the next three days of the draft, with teams scrambling to get their hands on one of these special prospects before it was too late.
The Giants may or may not regret their decision at number two overall, as they selected Saquon Barkley, a player who would go on to win the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Barkley was described as a "generational" talent and was in consideration for Cleveland at number one overall. However, despite Barkley's success, many fans have grown frustrated that the team passed on taking a quarterback with such a high pick, in one of the most flush quarterback drafts of all time. It does not help the Giants’ cause that this year's draft included several other really successful running backs, including Sony Michel, Kerryon Johnson, and Nick Chubb, the latter two being drafted after the Giants second selection of the night. So due to this choice, the debate becomes this. Who would you rather have? Barkley and offensive lineman Will Hernandez, or potentially Sam Darnold and either Chubb or Johnson? The opinion of this choice will really be decided depending on whether the Giants are able to select a quarterback of the future in the 2019 draft. Given Eli Manning's putrid play these past few seasons, ignoring the quarterback position with such an opportunistic draft position could really come back to haunt the franchise for the next decade.
In the weeks prior to the draft, the Jets had made a trade with the Indianapolis Colts to move up from the sixth pick to the third pick. I believe that they were moving up thinking that they would get to choose between Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen, with Darnold sitting at number one on their board. Due to the bizarre, unexpected sequence that included the Browns taking Mayfield and the Giants passing on a QB, Darnold fell right into the team's hands, and they had that selection card up to the stage within a couple minutes. My analysis of the situation was that the Jets either knew the Giants would not be taking a QB, or had three quarterbacks that they were considering, and would be comfortable taking any of the three. Regardless, it really seemed as though the team got the guy they really wanted, and the New York media rejoiced at the selection.
Fast forward to pick five, where Denver, a team that had been missing a QB since Peyton Manning, was expected to take either Josh Allen or Josh Rosen. Instead, general manager John Elway rather swiftly sent in a card with the name of the draft's top pass rusher Bradley Chubb on it. At the time this selection came as a shock given the fact that the team was entrusting a very expensive band-aid named Case Keenum to be the signal caller for 2018. Perhaps, after blowing their 2016 first rounder on super bust Paxton Lynch, Elway decided to just take the best player available at pick five, and worry about drafting a QB in another year. With two teams that were expected to take one of the big five passing up on selecting a QB, many teams began making calls to move up for the remaining three "franchise passers".
With the first trade of Draft Day, the eager Buffalo Bills, a playoff team that had just traded former pro bowl quarterback Tyrod Taylor, moved up from pick twelve (acquired in a separate trade with Cincinnati) to pick seven via a trade with Tampa Bay. With this pick, they selected mercurial prospect Josh Allen, who in the previous days had come under scrutiny after some questionable tweets from his adolescence had been unearthed (I have a theory that the Dolphins are responsible for that). Despite the controversy, Allen was still worthy of a top 10 pick to the Bills, and for the first time since Doug Flutie (sorry Tyrod, Fitzmagic, Drew Bledsoe, Trent Edwards, and J.P Losman, actually no not you Losman) in 1998, there was real hope surrounding the quarterback position in Buffalo.
With the dominoes beginning to fall into place, another aggressive GM decided to strike, as Arizona's Steve Keim traded up to pick ten via a trade with Oakland. The Cardinals organization was in a state of flux, as coach Bruce Arians had retired as well as starting quarterback Carson Palmer. To rejuvenate the fanbase, Keim went and selected the best available signal caller, UCLA's Josh Rosen. Rosen was once considered a clear cut future number one pick in the draft, as he had displayed a special skill set and a sharp football mind. The pro comparisons for Rosen were pretty complimentary, as they included Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Matt Ryan. The biggest concerns surrounding Rosen from an on-field basis were his lack of mobility and his injury history at UCLA. There also existed, these very strange concerns that scouts had about him, including his being raised in an upper-class Jewish family, his status as a millennial, and his Anti-Trump political opinions. None of these had anything to do with his ability to be a successful NFL quarterback and felt a lot like the league's concerns about the now boycotted Colin Kaepernick. Despite his strange pre-draft evaluations by some scouts, others felt as though Rosen was the most pro ready of the bunch, and the Cardinals must have bought into the thinking of those scouts, as they valued him enough to draft him with the 10th pick.
With four of the five big names accounted for, the 2019 draft turned into "Lamar Jackson watch" as the remainder of the night was highlighted by images of Jackson waiting patiently to hear his name in the green room. Several teams had been linked to Jackson, as the former Heisman winner was being hyped up as the second coming of Michael Vick. Like Vick, Jackson was uncontainable as a runner while also possessing a great arm and leadership ability. For whatever reason, Jackson experienced the proverbial "fall" that we see at least one high profile player suffer in every draft. Several teams that were once linked to drafting a QB including the Dolphins, Bengals, Ravens, Patriots (twice!), Chargers, Jaguars, and Steelers passed up on Jackson as he waited for what seemed like an eternity. There was a point where it really seemed like we were going to see the Lamar Jackson pick when the New Orleans Saints traded up to pick 14, only to select UTSA defensive end Marcus Davenport. Before announcing the pick, the analysts on ESPN were already talking about the potential of Jackson in the Saints offense and Drew Brees' potential impact teaching him. In hindsight, how awesome would it have been to see Lamar Jackson doing all the Taysom Hill stuff we saw this year? Jackson's wait finally came to an end when Baltimore traded up to Philadelphia's pick to take him, and legend has it that if you were residing in the Mid-Atlantic region at that moment, you could hear the faint cry of a dejected Joe Flacco.
One of the biggest storylines from Day 2 of the draft was surrounding the top two remaining QBS, Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph and Richmond's Kyle Lauletta. Both players were longtime starters in college who had shined during the Senior Bowl, and both were rumored to be potentially selected as the heirs to Tom Brady and Drew Brees. With several QB needy teams still in the mix, many expected Rudolph and Lauletta to get selected rather quickly. In a less star-studded QB draft, both players might have been first round picks. Rudolph profiled as a typical pocket passer, as he had a strong enough arm and solid accuracy, and also had put up some dazzling numbers in college and displayed great leadership ability. Lauletta, while not having the strongest arm, had some tremendous accuracy and mobility, and his quick release (as well as his small school background) drew comparisons to Jimmy Garoppolo. Lauletta's background as a former lacrosse player and son of a military family led many to believe he would be coveted by Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Instead, both players lasted well into the middle rounds of the draft, interestingly enough being selected by two of New England's biggest rivals in the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers. While Eli Manning appeared unfazed with the team's selection of Lauletta, Ben Roethlisberger gave some rather hostile quotes during minicamp regarding his thoughts about the Rudolph selection.
Let's bring it back to this moment right now, roughly nine months removed from the night of the 2018 NFL Draft. The opinions around these seven players have undergone serious transformations after seeing how they played and how their teams used them this past season. Thus, concludes part one of this reflection upon the "Year of the Quarterback", stay tuned for part two tomorrow evening, in which I will reflect upon each of these players respective rookie campaigns. -AK