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Four Lessons From a First Round Full of QBs

What should we expect from Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and the rest of the quarterbacks selected Thursday night? And what does their draft stock say about the state of the NFL?

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Any quarterback transaction can cause a massive ripple effect. The Sam Bradford–for–Nick Foles trade of 2015 kicked off an almost impossible-to-comprehend series of events that led to Foles winning a Super Bowl for the team that traded him. Quincy Carter failed a drug test, and an undrafted free agent named Tony Romo was able to stay on the Cowboys. Quarterback is by far the most important position in sports, and thus any update to teams’ plans at the position can lead to a wave of fascinating what-ifs years later.

What happened to the NFL’s quarterback landscape in the first round of the 2018 draft is not minor; it will change the league’s competitive balance in both the short and long term. Five teams took signal-callers Thursday night. Four went in the top 10 (for the first time in almost 70 years). Two Heisman Trophy winners were selected.

Here are four thoughts on the fallout:

1. NFL Teams Reinforced the Importance of QBs

This may seem obvious, but there was an argument floating around last season that suggested otherwise. Essentially, it said that the results of the 2017 campaign proved quarterbacks were less important than earlier in the decade. The evidence was mostly anecdotal: Blake Bortles made the AFC title game; Foles and Case Keenum were the starting quarterbacks in the NFC championship game; Foles beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. These quarterbacks were propped up by great defenses, good offensive coaching staffs, and solid skill-position players. Still, the idea was interesting to consider. The NFL was founded in 1920, and, for about 96 years, quarterbacks mattered more than anything else. Perhaps the league was entering an era in which teams would obsess over cap management and the 53-man roster more than the pursuit of landing the right passer.

So naturally, teams took more quarterbacks in this year’s top 10 than in any draft before. Front offices correctly concluded that having a star quarterback solve all of a team’s offensive ills is still the easiest and quickest way to compete. The Eagles, Jaguars, and Vikings took long roads toward building rosters so complete that they could win with less-than-stellar quarterbacks, and two of those teams’ successes come with huge caveats. The Eagles wouldn’t have gotten the playoff bye if not for the pre-injury dominance of Carson Wentz, and the Vikings moved on from Keenum and brought in Kirk Cousins in March, the latter with the biggest guaranteed investment in football history.

Quarterbacks can turn bad franchises into good ones in a flash. That five went so early in this draft makes sense: A good QB is football’s ultimate problem-solver, and the teams that took passers in the first round have pressing problems.

2. Schemes Are About to Change for the Better

One of the NFL’s worst trends of the last decade is franchises taking exciting, versatile quarterbacks and placing them in unexciting and stiff offenses. There are any number of examples you can point to; my personal go-to is Marcus Mariota landing on a team helmed by Mike Mularkey. Professional coaches have taken a wave of electric passers and tried to NFL-ize them, rather than embrace what they did well in college. And while there’s some evidence that has been changing—the Eagles were dubbed a “college offense” last season, and it was meant as a compliment—the league has generally run old, uninspiring schemes.

Now things could be different, though. A few days ago, ESPN reported that NFL teams visited Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley to learn plays:

After grabbing Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick, the Browns would be committing football malpractice if they didn’t introduce Air Raid concepts and some of Riley’s run-pass options into their offense. Not only do those seem automatic at the college level, but they also are growing ubiquitous in the NFL.

If Mayfield runs such plays with success, he’ll help push the sport toward where it needs to go. More offenses should install college concepts, get creative, and do the things their passers are best at—not the things with which their coaches are most comfortable.

Beyond the Browns, the biggest scheme change on a team level should involve the Ravens, who selected Louisville’s Lamar Jackson at no. 32. Jackson represents a sea change for the Baltimore offense, which has trended toward shorter passes in the waning days of the Joe Flacco era. Yet there is creativity on the Ravens staff, and that should help the team develop an offense that perfectly suits its QB of the future.

In March, Pro Football Focus’s Steve Palazzolo wrote that 73 percent of Jackson’s rushing yards last year came on designed runs. Palazzolo also wrote that he wouldn’t be surprised if Jackson runs for 1,000 yards in a season at some point. The Ravens staff includes Greg Roman, the former 49ers offensive coordinator who perfectly tailored the San Francisco offense to fit Colin Kaepernick on the way to Super Bowl XLVII. Roman may not be a read-option specialist, but he’s proved effective at coming up with schemes that emphasize a quarterback’s strengths—and the NFL needs more of that.

3. All Five First-Round QBs Should Play This Season

One of the NFL’s great summer traditions is coaches saying their rookie quarterback won’t play. It happened with Bortles in 2014. The Eagles were so committed to the bit in 2016 that they said Wentz was their third-string quarterback in training camp; shortly thereafter, Philadelphia traded Bradford, and Wentz magically jumped Chase Daniel on the depth chart. John Fox spent a month last year pretending Mike Glennon was better than Mitchell Trubisky. You are going to hear a lot about this in the coming months, and you should ignore it.

There are alleged roadblocks for every rookie starter: Tyrod Taylor is blocking Mayfield on the Browns; Flacco is blocking Jackson on the Ravens; Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater stand in the way of no. 3 pick Sam Darnold on the Jets; and AJ McCarron and Sam Bradford are slotted ahead of Josh Allen (no. 7) and Josh Rosen (no. 10) on the Bills and Cardinals, respectively. None of these teams are expected to compete seriously for a playoff spot this season, so prepare for the drumbeat for the rookies to begin in October at the latest. Flacco seems like the least likely of the veterans to be displaced this season, but he also has the tendency to deliver some truly terrible performances. If you think Jackson won’t at least provide a spark at some point in relief, you’ve never seen Flacco at his worst:

These incoming quarterbacks will almost certainly fail to match the highs reached by the Texans’ Deshaun Watson as a rookie—his six-start, 19-touchdown showing last season was as exciting as anything in the NFL over the past few years—but they should play nonetheless, regardless of any front-office talking points in July.

4. Every Team Is … Set at Quarterback?

There’s nothing quite like quarterback desperation in the NFL. It causes teams to overpay in late-summer trades and general managers to get fired. Here’s the odd thing about this year, though: Following the draft, there appears to be little of it. Consider this chart:

Thirty of the 32 quarterbacks listed were once drafted in the first four rounds, and if a team didn’t spend a high pick on a passer, it paid a big price for one via trade or free agency. That’s not to say that all of these quarterbacks are good, just that all 32 teams are executing some sort of plan at the position.

This is exceedingly rare. There’s a general sense of direction in the league right now—even if that direction sometimes points to a QB room consisting of Allen, McCarron, and Nathan Peterman. A weird plan is better than no plan. I guess.