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Every Quarterback Prospect Has a Red Flag

But they aren’t the same—here’s what each of the top five passers entering the NFL draft needs to work on with his next team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To call a draft prospect a bust before he even steps onto an NFL field is to remove the team aspect from team sports. The word implies a predetermined fate, but in reality draft day is just the beginning of a player’s development The best organizations put hard-working talent in the best position to succeed, while bad organizations make decisions that hamper a player’s development. Yes, some players might really be destined to fail, but labeling every player who doesn’t meet certain predraft expectations a bust in waiting removes the possibility that players can fix their flaws.

With that in mind, let’s look at the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft and analyze their potential fatal flaws and how they might be mitigated

Josh Rosen, UCLA

The main knocks against Rosen haven’t been about his play, but his personality. Evaluators have questioned his attitude, his coachability, and even whether he loves football or only wants money and attention. He first developed a frat-boy reputation freshman year when he put a hot tub in his dorm room. Since then, much of the criticism stems from Rosen’s refusal to give PR-friendly sound bites, illustrated by his saying that college football detracts from academics and that it’s “fucked up” that some college football players went to school for an education but ended up with long-term brain injuries.

But here’s the thing: Everything Rosen’s saying is true! The issue teams have with Rosen isn’t what he says, but rather that he has the nerve to say anything at all. Rosen may be the most outspoken, socially conscious starting quarterback in the NFL next year, and as sad as it is to say, some teams will see that only as a “distraction.” If that’s the case, it’s an indictment of the NFL, not Rosen.

Perhaps Rosen’s critics have focused on his personality because it’s so hard to find holes in his play. His fluid mechanics, poise under pressure, and advanced understanding of defenses make him the most pro-ready prospect, and the one with the highest floor.

Of course, just because Rosen is ready doesn’t mean he should be put in a situation where he might develop bad habits. If he gets tossed into the fire in Week 1 starting for a team with a terrible offensive line, Rosen might see a lot of pressure early in his career, which would be a particular concern for him: He is not nearly as mobile as the other quarterback prospects and has obvious injury concerns — surgery on his throwing shoulder cost him the final six games of his 2016 season, and he was diagnosed with two concussions in 2017.

Ideally Rosen would land with a team that could protect him, but no matter where he goes the coaching staff will need to emphasize the importance of limiting the hits he takes. As long as Rosen’s upright, he should be a thrill to watch.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

As someone who told everyone I was 6 feet for the last five years and then began admitting I was actually 5-foot-11 last year, even though I know I am 5-foot-10-and-¾, it’s hard to admit that height does matter for quarterbacks, and that 6 feet is short. This is the part where people scream about Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, who are both 6 feet or under, but they are both outliers who have managed to succeed in spite of their height. Mayfield’s 6-foot-⅝ stature wasn’t an issue in college, where by traditional and advanced metrics he was by far the most productive quarterback over the last two years, but scouts still have three main on-field concerns about Mayfield.

  • He’s under 6-foot-1
  • He comes from a spread offense
  • His arm strength is NFL-level, but considered on the weaker end of the spectrum

The arm-strength concerns may be overblown, but he did underthrow some balls even when his feet were set.

Like Wilson, Mayfield quickly bails from questionable pockets and relies on scrambling to (successfully) extend plays. Yet some scouts doubt he can succeed at the next level.

“The difference between Russ and Baker is football IQ,” one anonymous scout told Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller. “Russ ran a pro scheme at Wisconsin, not this high school offense at Oklahoma.”

Even if Mayfield overcomes all of those supposed deficiencies, it’s the off-field concerns that may give teams the most hesitation about him. In February 2017, Mayfield was arrested on charges of public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and fleeing and resisting arrest (and a video of his attempt to run from police went viral after the incident). He was ordered to pay nearly $1,000 in fines, court costs, and restitution.

It’s the kind of arrest that might fly under the radar had Mayfield kept a low profile, but, uh, did you watch college football last season? There might not be a higher-profile move than planting a flag in Columbus, Ohio. Two months later against Kansas, he yelled “fuck you” at Jayhawks players while grabbing his crotch. Baker is so controversial that Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko has been reporting a new story about him every week since January. It’s completely fair to ask why Mayfield was trying to run from police officers while drunk, or whether he’s going to do something that could embarrass his team. It’s unfair (and irresponsible) to compare Mayfield’s off-field behavior to Johnny Manziel, whose ex-girlfriend said he threw her into a car by her hair and hit her so hard she couldn’t hear out of her left ear for two days.

I have no interest in Mayfield counting me as one of his doubters, but there’s certainly a scenario where his height inhibits his ability to adapt to a professional-style offense and his lack of a rocket arm hampers his learning curve. As polarizing as Mayfield was when he was succeeding, it remains to be seen how he’d handle that struggle. Mayfield would thrive on an imaginative team willing to use the concepts he crushed in college.

Sam Darnold, USC

Darnold’s winding but effective throwing motion has been parsed, but improving his footwork will be far more important to his NFL success. When his feet are set, he makes plays that make you put your phone in your pocket. When his feet aren’t set, he can still make fantastic plays, but he’s more likely to miss those.

Like staying up until 2 a.m. every night, what works in college doesn’t always translate to the next level. NFL quarterbacks have to throw into windows so small that success requires seamlessly syncing footwork with receivers’ routes. Some of the touchdowns Darnold threw at USC would be pick-sixes against the Los Angeles Rams.

If you still doubt the importance of footwork, just ask another promising USC quarterback who failed to refine his footwork.

“Oh my God, [syncing footwork with routes is] a lot easier said than done,” Bears backup quarterback Mark Sanchez told the Chicago Tribune’s Dan Wiederer in November 2017. “Things are happening all around you. You’re moving, trying to maintain your base. And the problem is if you don’t learn that (stuff) early and you’re blessed with arm talent, you can make up for (sloppy footwork) and you start getting away with stuff. … Now you’re shooting fadeaway 3-pointers and the worst thing you can do is make one.”

Almost every quarterback needs to refine his footwork entering the NFL. It’ll be an issue for Darnold only if he’s able to skate by for a time on talent without a serious adjustment. If Darnold’s coaching staff recognizes and embraces that issue, he’ll be closer to Carson Palmer than Mark Sanchez in the USC alumni pamphlets. His Instagram account is much more concerning.

Josh Allen, Wyoming

According to several dubious websites, roughly 500 years ago someone asked Michelangelo how he turned a block of marble into perhaps the finest statue in human history, David.

“It is easy,” Michelangelo supposedly said. “You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

Allen is the block of marble, and the team that drafts him fancies itself Michelangelo. Allen’s numbers are bad — he had a 56.2 percent career completion rate in college, and in 11 games last year he threw for more than 300 yards only once while throwing for under 100 yards three times. His fundamentals are worse. His footwork is a mess, he stares down his first read like a person trying to order a drink stares down a bartender, and he struggles with basic coverages. But many NFL teams see those flaws as imperfections that can be chipped away to bring his raw potential — a prototypical frame, a bionic arm, and the athleticism of a long-lost Gronkowski brother — to the surface.

Allen might become an excellent quarterback, but the coaches and front office that draft him will need to be master sculptors. Quarterbacks must be able to recognize coverages, understand route combinations, manipulate defenses with eyes and the body, and use precise timing to take advantage of small passing windows. Allen hasn’t shown he can consistently do any of those things, never mind all of them together. He might be able to throw Tesla’s next rocket to Mars, but he doesn’t have enough touch to consistently complete screen passes.

His inconsistent accuracy is a red flag, but even more concerning is that he often needed to see that his receivers were open rather than anticipating when they would be open. That’s not how the NFL works. The combination of those two deficiencies — lack of anticipation and lack of accuracy — can create situations that are genuinely dangerous for Allen’s receivers. Oftentimes he’d either throw a ball too late or with the wrong touch (or both), putting his receiver at risk of getting creamed.

Best case is that Allen throws a lot of interceptions as a rookie. Worst case is that he puts a few teammates in danger.

That’s not to say he can’t succeed as a pro. If he lands with a team that has a patient owner willing to take a long-term approach, an experienced coaching staff, and an offensive game plan designed with Allen’s skill set in mind, he could be sculpted into a fine quarterback. His development is less about his capabilities and more about the capabilities of the team that drafts him.

Lamar Jackson, Louisville

I broke down why Jackson projects as a starting NFL quarterback and how silly the position-change discussion is here. When it comes to his running ability, the question isn’t whether Jackson can be a game-breaking rusher in the NFL, but for how long. Jackson is famous for his speed and agility, but watch the very first play in this highlight reel (and the second, and the third …) and you see a player who relishes trucking people.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome when a quarterback lowers his shoulder on an unsuspecting defender. But doing that consistently in the ACC is different from doing it in the NFL. Some truck sticks early in his pro career might earn Jackson the respect of his new teammates, but also a spot on injured reserve. The team that drafts him can easily reduce the injury risk by emphasizing sliding and running out of bounds so that he takes fewer hits, which is both the boring and responsible decision.

Beyond an injury, though, are broader limitations as a passer that lessen his appeal. Jackson needs to improve his footwork and coverage reading, but his main concern is delivering balls outside the hash marks, one of the most critical throws in a quarterback’s repertoire. If Jackson ends up on a team without the imagination to take full advantage of his skill set, he could easily fail. If a team has a top-down commitment from ownership to develop a modern offense for Jackson’s unique capabilities, like the Spread Coast style the Chiefs employ, Jackson could conquer the league.