In the months before an NFL draft, we are taught that the most important trait to becoming a successful quarterback is hand size. Not any statistic, not any analysis of a player’s game: just how beefy a given prospect’s ball tossers are. And then the draft happens, and we don’t hear about those players’ hand sizes ever again. How do anonymous scouts sleep at night?
There were a stunning five quarterbacks taken in the first round of this year’s draft, and throughout the fall we’ll check in on their performances to determine how they stack up. Of course, we’ll do that in the only way to truly assess NFL QBs: by estimating hand sizes based on quality of play.
Here’s where the rookie QBs stand at the quarter point of the 2018 season.
Hands As Big As a Novelty Foam Finger: Baker Mayfield
Through one month, it seems like the Browns made the right choice with the no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. My completely scientific analysis reveals that Mayfield has the biggest hands of any rookie, and some day may prove to have the biggest hands in football. The Browns franchise is the football equivalent of a leaking dam, and Mayfield’s hands are big enough to stop the leak.
Mayfield was an inexplicably botched replay review away from lifting Cleveland to back-to-back wins in his first two games. I know, I know: QB wins aren’t a reliable stat, but I feel like we can mention them when a guy nearly goes 2-0 in his first two appearances for a team that’s gone 1-32-1 in every other game over the past two-plus seasons.
It took a little more than a half for the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner to become the King of Cleveland, post-LeBron edition. Mayfield came into a Thursday-night game in which Tyrod Taylor had attempted 14 passes and gained 19 yards while losing 22 yards on sacks. The Browns instantly looked competent with Mayfield under center, rallying from a 14-3 deficit to win 21-17. It was the franchise’s first victory since Barack Obama’s presidency, which I believe ended at least four decades ago. Mayfield could have planted a flag in Cleveland’s field or grabbed his crotch for 17 straight minutes in lieu of giving a postgame press conference, and nobody could have gotten mad. His showing earned the highest grade Pro Football Focus has ever given to any rookie in a debut game.
Mayfield’s stats are unimpressive: He’s completing less than 60 percent of his passes, averaging fewer than 8 yards per attempt, and has thrown two touchdowns and two interceptions. But as a wise man—or at least a man—once said: “Stats are for losers.” The Browns have dropped a lot of passes, including six Sunday. In Mayfield’s first game, receiver Antonio Callaway dropped a pass so beautiful that the only explanation is that Callaway must have been so stunned by its beauty that he couldn’t focus on hauling it in; in Mayfield’s second game, Callaway dropped a pass that deflected off his hands, was intercepted, and promptly returned for a touchdown.
I don’t want to overreact, but let’s be honest: If it weren’t for Callaway, Mayfield would already be in the Hall of Fame.
Hands As Big As Catcher’s Mitts: Josh Rosen
Rosen’s hands are clearly not the biggest in the class, but perhaps in another life he could have been a baritone saxophonist. I swear this entire article isn’t going to come down to: “This rookie is actually playing well, but his receivers just can’t stop dropping passes.” But holy crap:
I’m 98 percent certain the Browns and Cardinals receivers are secret Josh Allen operatives designed to make Mayfield and Rosen look bad. Prior to this season, I can’t remember ever describing an NFL receiver as clumsy. So why does every Mayfield or Rosen pass end with their intended target dramatically pratfalling down a staircase somehow located in the middle of the field? Clips of Mayfield and Rosen passing attempts look like two future Pro Bowlers throwing footballs to pandas that can’t stop falling out of trees.
Rosen had an awkward debut, as he was shoved into action in the closing minutes of Week 3 with the Cardinals trailing the Bears 16-14. So his first NFL snaps came with the game on the line and Khalil Mack breathing down his throat. An optimist might say that Arizona gave him an opportunity to be a Mayfieldesque hero. A more rational person might consider this a form of rookie hazing. Rosen threw a pick and somehow got some of the blame for a loss in which Sam Bradford played for three and a half quarters.
Last Sunday, in Rosen’s first career start, he was a clear improvement over Bradford. A former no. 1 pick who has started for four NFL teams, Bradford cannot make this throw that Rosen made with ease:
Rosen is now Arizona’s starter; Bradford, despite being healthy, was inactive in Week 4. That’s because the Cardinals would owe Bradford contract incentives if he serves as Rosen’s backup, and also because Bradford would rather be golfing.
Hands the Size of Mittens: Sam Darnold
I’m starting to worry that Darnold cannot palm a basketball.
Even Darnold’s good game in 2018 featured a prominent pick-six. The Jets QB opened his career with a blowout win over the Lions on Monday Night Football, a result that prompted me to question whether Darnold was a godlike figure sent to deliver Jets fans from decades of misery. I probably should have put more stock in his first pass being intercepted and returned for a touchdown. It wasn’t some fluky pick, either: Darnold decided to hurl a ball across his body in a direction he hadn’t previously been looking.
He now has five picks in four games, and it could be worse. Darnold’s turnovers were a known problem before the draft (he had 13 last season at USC), so perhaps more troubling are his dismal efficiency numbers. He’s averaging just 5.2 yards per attempt over his past two games. Darnold has looked like a rookie, which I suppose is fine for a rookie. But Rosen looks like a starter, and Mayfield looks like a star.
Hands Like Puppy Paws: Josh Allen
Allen has looked better than I expected. I never thought that he’d have a game like he did against the Vikings in his first month as an NFL starter. September 23, he went 15-of-22 passing for 196 yards with a touchdown and no picks in a 27-6 win. He dove for touchdowns and threw for them. He even hurdled a guy.
Allen’s staunchest supporters coming into the draft thought of him as a tremendous physical talent who would take time to develop. Less than a month into his career, though, he looked ready against one of the league’s premier defenses.
But last week, against the Packers, Allen looked exactly like I expected, going 16-of-33 passing for 151 yards. Buffalo was shut out 22-0, and he lost 64 yards on sacks and threw two interceptions. One of those was just about the worst pick you’ll see all season. Do you remember that game 500, in which somebody yells out a number and chucks a ball in the air, and then everybody fights to catch it? Allen played that with the Packers secondary:
The full Josh Allen experience on this play pic.twitter.com/C3JTuCyF5x— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 30, 2018
I think Allen’s hands might be the size of Jewel’s.
I’d call Allen’s first month in the league a success. He is a better quarterback than Nathan Peterman, who had a QB rating of 0.0 in the only game he played this season. (The Bills lost that game 47-3.) He has the tools scouts salivate over and has looked much more competent than anyone could have reasonably expected for a guy who posted below-average stats in the Mountain West Conference in 2017. (A reminder: Allen ranked eighth in completion percentage and 10th in yards per attempt in a 12-team non-power conference last season, as Wyoming’s offense finished 104th out of 130 FBS college football teams in scoring.)
But he still looks overmatched. Allen has thrown two touchdowns and four interceptions, and leads the league in sacks taken, having lost 148 yards on 18 of them. That’s a sack on more than 13 percent of his dropbacks, giving back almost a quarter of the yards he’s gained through the air. If Allen keeps this up, he’ll smash various sacks taken records: No quarterback has ever lost more than 500 yards on sacks in a season; Allen is on pace to lose almost 600, and he didn’t even play in one of Buffalo’s eight halves this fall. Sure, the Bills offensive line is abysmal, but Allen reads the pass rush about as well as my pet beagle reads Dostoyevsky.
That leaves us to rehash the same debate we’ve been having for more than a year at this point. Allen looks great to the people who think he can be great, thanks primarily to his size and his arm. He looks historically bad to those who had no idea why any team considered him a first-round pick. It’s still unclear whether Allen is headed to Canton or the XFL.
Unmeasurable Hand Size: Lamar Jackson
At this point, we don’t know how big Jackson’s hands are. He has thrown just four NFL passes, with all of them coming in Baltimore’s Week 1 blowout of the Bills. Since then, the Ravens have brought him in as a gadget player: sometimes as a wide receiver, sometimes as a QB to spell starter Joe Flacco—although even in those instances he’s only gotten to run. Jackson has 13 carries for 62 yards.
This arrangement isn’t getting as much criticism as it probably deserves, because Baltimore is 3-1 and Flacco is enjoying his best season in years. Flacco’s yards per attempt (7.3) is the highest he’s posted since 2010; his touchdown percentage (4.7) is the highest he’s registered since 2014; and his interception percentage (1.2) sits at a career low. The combination of Flacco’s success and Jackson’s snaps at wide receiver has given Flacco the unique opportunity to kill the backup QB vying for his job, as demonstrated on this throw that could have sent Jackson to the hospital:
My bet is that Flacco’s sudden uptick is unsustainable, and every week that Baltimore starts him over Jackson delays the inevitable. Still, as long as the Ravens are over .500 and their veteran is dealing, they are justified in rolling with Flacco. I just hope Jackson’s usage as a gadget player is merely a momentary fad designed to get an extreme talent on the field, rather than a permanent plan. Jackson won the Heisman and emerged as a first-round draft pick because of his throwing ability, not the fact that, like hundreds of other NFL players, he is fast.
Jackson is a quarterback. Play him there.