Analyzing the tape of college football's best players... and the NFL's future stars.

Futures: Baker Mayfield

Futures: Baker Mayfield
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Derrik Klassen

The cards are stacked against Baker Mayfield as a high-profile draft prospect. Mayfield measured in at 6-foot even at the Senior Bowl, putting him comfortably below the NFL's widely accepted threshold of 6-foot-2. Short quarterbacks tend to get drafted later than their taller counterparts and must reach a higher level of play to earn due respect. Mayfield also comes from not one, but two Air Raid programs in college. The NFL has a discomfort with Air Raid quarterbacks because many of them tend to produce beyond their means in college, only to be ill-prepared for the NFL. It has been an uphill battle for Mayfield to break these stereotypes.

Mayfield began his collegiate career as a walk-on at Texas Tech under Air Raid disciple Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury has grown to blend the Air Raid with more traditional pro-style elements as result of his time as an NFL quarterback. It is not a simple system to execute when constructed to its full potential, but Mayfield was able to do so as a true freshman. However, Mayfield was pushed down the depth chart the following season in favor of future first-round draft pick Patrick Mahomes, who had superior physical tools. Mayfield then transferred to Oklahoma as a walk-on to finish out his remaining three years of eligibility.

With Lincoln Riley as his offensive coordinator and eventually head coach, Mayfield excelled at Oklahoma. Mayfield developed his knowledge of the system year after year, and Riley expanded the system for him throughout the process. By Mayfield's senior season, he had full control of audibles and checks at the line, as well as the freedom to call plays in hurry-up situations. Mayfield blossomed into a coach on the field and was, in effect, Riley's co-offensive coordinator.

Mayfield put his knowledge and intuition to the test early in the season versus Tulane.

Oklahoma comes out with trips to the boundary and the running back to the same side. Tulane is showing a one-high coverage shell with three down linemen. In this scenario, many defenses in a one-high shell will play a version of mable/skate Cover-3. The coverage is designed to push the zone coverage toward the trips and counteract the flood of receivers with a flood of defenders, often leaving the weak side of the field in man-to-man coverage.

Mayfield recognizes the formation and likely coverage. Knowing the coverage should leave the weakside linebacker in isolation, Mayfield motions the running back to the other side of the formation and signals him to run down the seam versus the linebacker. A talented running back versus a linebacker, with the free safety shaded to the other side of the field, should be a free score.


(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

As Mayfield predicted, the running back was able to get open down the seam. Tulane's linebacker should have carried the running back down the seam, but he was likely frazzled by the pre-snap shift and did not recalibrate his responsibilities. Mayfield quickly exploited the linebacker's mistake and furthered Oklahoma's lead.

Adaptability stretches beyond pre-snap responsibilities for Mayfield. Few prospects in recent history had the spontaneity and in-play manipulation that Mayfield displayed at Oklahoma. Mayfield understood the intricacies of his offensive system and how to manipulate it to displace the defense.


(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Moments before the snap, the nickel defender to the left side of the offense creeps toward the line of scrimmage as if he were blitzing. Oklahoma, like most offenses, has a built-in hot route to counter this. The slot receiver should run a quick hitch into the vacated area and pick up the easy yards.


Mayfield calls for the snap, carries out a fake handoff, and immediately looks for the slot receiver. The nickel defender does not blitz, though, and instead sits in the zone that would otherwise be vacated. Mayfield picks up on the trickery and pump-fakes the hitch route, causing the nickel defender to shuffle blindly to that area. The slot receiver adjusts his route and runs across the middle of the field between three defenders. Mayfield is able to thread the ball between the sea of defenders while simultaneously evading pressure in the pocket.

To process the defense that well and operate without hesitation is unusual. It is no easy task to juggle a potential blitzer, a coverage bluff, and a defensive tackle busting through the pocket while trying to fit a throw between three defenders. That level of adaptability and confidence is rare.

Of course, many of Mayfield's detractors want to see him prove himself in structure. Mayfield is believed to be primarily a freelancer -- a quarterback who wants to break the play rather than take the play that is given to him. In reality, Mayfield would not have become the most prolific passer in NCAA history without structured success, but that is for a broader discussion about quarterback play. Mayfield is more than capable when operating within structure.


(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)


Oklahoma put up six points with this mills concept thanks to Mayfield's pocket comfort and ball placement. The heart of a mills concept is the square-in and the deep post working together to create a high-low conflict for the safeties. With Texas Tech showing a two-high quarters coverage, Mayfield knows the pla- side safety should clamp down on the square-in. Mayfield gives a shoulder gesture toward the square-in to sell the safety, only to reset and throw the post over the top. Mayfield leads the post receiver up the field rather than across the end zone so as to not allow the safety to recover and find the ball. Likewise, Mayfield puts the ball up high and away from the cornerback, giving only his receiver a real chance at the ball. Executing a mills concept does not get more textbook than that.

As an added bonus, Mayfield is a smooth passer on the move. Mayfield can execute sprintouts and boot-action plays, as well as maintain control when scrambling outside of the pocket. Mayfield does not suffer the same drop-off in accuracy that most quarterbacks do when throwing on the run. Mayfield plays with a consistent release point and a strong core, allowing him to throw from any platform.


(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)


(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

This is both the wide view and end zone view of the same play. Mayfield is able to move swiftly away from the formation while keeping his body ready to throw at any time. Once the intended receiver flips his hips and makes a beeline for the end zone, Mayfield loads up to throw. Mayfield springs off of his back leg for power and follows through a controlled release point with his shoulders squared perfectly to the target. Mayfield effortlessly puts ample velocity and touch on the throw for another easy touchdown.

[ad placeholder 3]

Despite all of his accomplishments on the field, the stigma of playing in the Big 12 looms over Mayfield. Many Big 12 quarterbacks, especially those who operate in Air Raid systems, produce at a high level due in part to the poor quality of Big 12 defenses. According to Sports Info Solutions, quarterbacks see a 1.0 percent increase in completion rate and a 0.3 yards per attempt increase when facing Big 12 defenses versus playing an average defense. The added yards per attempt, in particular, is staggering.

It is fair to criticize Mayfield for benefiting from Big 12 defenses, but the benefit he received is not enough completely dismantle his statistical prowess. Mayfield ranked first in SIS's IQBR rankings, which account for drops and throwaways. Via SIS, Mayfield's first-place 11.7 yards per attempt was over a full yard better than UCF's Mackenzie Milton and his second-place 10.5 yards per attempt. Furthermore, Mayfield lead SIS's charting in other major categories, including play under pressure, throwing with or without play-action, and throwing further than 10 yards down the field. Mayfield was dominant by any standard and under any condition.

By and large, the concerns with Mayfield are more about generally accepted rules regarding drafting quarterbacks, rather than anything Mayfield has proven as a player. Mayfield has proven to be a leader and a diligent worker who can master an offensive system. As a pure passer, Mayfield has shown he has the arm strength and accuracy to all levels of the field to succeed in the NFL. Mayfield has proven himself as a pocket quarterback, as well as an athlete outside of the pocket. Mayfield is the dual-threat needed for today's NFL. The sooner Mayfield's skill set is separated from the stigma of a short, Air Raid quarterback, the easier it will be to embrace Mayfield as a quality NFL starting quarterback and a player worthy of a first-round selection.


10 comments, Last at 01 Mar 2018, 12:35am

1 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

The NFL has a discomfort with Air Raid quarterbacks because many of them tend to produce beyond their means in college, only to be ill-prepared for the NFL.


Both NFC title game teams had QBs who ran air raid offenses. In fact, all three of Minnesota's QBs ran air raid offenses.

Brees ran an air raid. New England has adopted large parts of the air raid.

This continued obstinacy is without purpose or basis.

2 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

It's not a ridiculous idea, or at least, was not before this year. At some point, I think in the Rams chapter of FOA 2017, we go through the awful record of quarterbacks from Air Raid offenses prior to 2017. They were not only bad, but dramatically underperformed QBASE. Then 2017 happened, with good years from Keenum and Goff, and the Foles Super Bowl run, and now the problem looks a bit different.

And I don't think that Teddy Bridgewater's Louisville offense is properly described as an Air Raid offense. Nor is the Purdue offense of 1999-2001.

3 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

I was mixing up Bridgewater and Geno Smith.

Purdue in the Brees era was a spread with some air raid elements. Sumlin, who is a raid acolyte, was a long-time Tiller assistant. Air Raid is just a pass-heavy variant of the spread. The line between spread, run-and-shoot, and air raid is a flexible one.

Frankly, I think of Oklahoma as a spread team.

4 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

Geno Smith is an excellent example of a promising Air Raid college quarterback who fizzled on the NFL stage. But why he has failed is illuminating; to steal the words of Charlie Casserly, Geno has 'slow eyes'. He takes too long to read defenses. This isn't an issue Baker Mayfield has. If anything, staying in school for 4 years has helped Baker read defenses quickly. Mayfield's main issue is his footwork; it's terrible, possibly worse than Josh Allen's. That Mayfield can complete 70 percent of his passes while using a bad platform a large amount of time is a good sign for his accuracy, but his bad footwork also creates pressure when it isn't there. Matt Waldman has gone over this in a couple of videos.

A side issue that may only interest me; Mayfield's terrible footwork and pocket presence makes left tackle Orlando Brown look worse than he is, and Orlando Brown already looks really good to me. I'd be ok with the Jets taking him with the 6th pick in the draft, even though scouts have McGlinchey ahead of him and sometimes have Brown falling to the second round.

5 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

I did not mean that all Air Raid quarterbacks have failed or will fail, but rather that the NFL tends to be more skeptical about them. I firmly believe an Air Raid QB can be just as good a prospect as any other QB, and have even wrote about the Air Raid's presence in the NFL (as you also mentioned). I, personally, do not have a problem with Air Raid QBs. However, the NFL does seem more willing to look at other QB types, especially if the Air Raid QB does not have the impeccable physical tools that players like Patrick Mahomes or Robert Griffin had.

6 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

Jeff Tedford-system QBs had a similar reputation. Among his college QBs were Akili Smith, David Carr, Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington, and Kyle Bollar; a who's who of first round busts. The next Tedford QB was Aaron Rodgers.

7 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

I always wondered, if Tedford was able to get good results out of quarterbacks who had worse results after he left, why NFL team hired him to make their quarterbacks look better than they did the year before.

8 Re: Futures: Baker Mayfield

I won't apologize for Akili Smith, but Harrington and Carr were sacrificed behind deplorable offenses and never recovered from their PTSD. Dilfer and Rodgers have rings.

I'm struggling to think of a system that regularly results in quality NFL QBs.

Somewhat oddly, MSU seems to produce everyone's backup QB -- Cook, Hoyer, Stanton, Foles (1 yr), and whatever happens with Cousins.