Will Baker Mayfield, 2018 quarterback class dominate the AFC North?

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26: A video board displays the text "THE PICK IS IN" for the Cleveland Browns during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium on April 26, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 26: A video board displays the text "THE PICK IS IN" for the Cleveland Browns during the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft at AT&T Stadium on April 26, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns may have selected the first quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft, but the rest of the division is getting help from the 2018 quarterback class.

In case anyone failed to notice, the AFC North now features three starting quarterbacks from the much-ballyhooed 2018 quarterback class in Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph.  Many pundits, including this one, felt that the 2018 group of gunslingers was the best class since the fabled 1983 group, which was headlined by Hall of Famer’s John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.

Most analysts grouped the top four quarterbacks as sure-fire successes: Mayfield, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold were all thought to be safe first round picks. There was less consensus on the dynamic Lamar Jackson because he is not a pocket passer, and Mason Rudolph, though this analyst – incorrectly it turns out – believed that all six would be first round picks.

While excited about the Cleveland Browns getting Mayfield first overall, it was a downer realizing that both Baltimore and Pittsburgh had drafted a potential franchise quarterback as well. How did the rest of the NFL let Jackson slide all the way to 32nd overall, and Rudolph all the way to round three?

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Last year, the quarterbacks’ rookie year, the reviews were mixed. After an up and down first half of the 2018 season under quarterback whisperer Hue Jackson, Mayfield ranked among the NFL’s best for the second half of the season. Arch-rival Lamar Jackson went 6-1 last year as the starter and led the Baltimore Ravens to win the AFC North. Believe it or not, Jackson was the most accomplished 21-year-old NFL starting quarterback in history. Previously the best win/loss record for a 21-year-old was owned by David Woodley of the 1980 Miami Dolphins, who went 6-5. As for Rudolph, he was forced to spend his rookie season as Ben Roethlisberger‘s apprentice.

Elsewhere, the other two 21-year-old starting quarterbacks suffered through losing seasons, as is more typical at that age. Sam Darnold was anointed as the savior of the New York Jets, going 4-9.  Josh Rosen suffered through an even worse 3-10 season with the untalented Arizona Cardinals, for which he was punished by being traded to the Miami Dolphins, who have even less talent. Let us agree to not judge these quarterbacks based on their performance on poor teams. 2021 might be different for both of them.

This year, Mayfield has not played his best ball, but there he is sitting at seventh overall in passing yards with 1,147. The Browns seemed to collect themselves against Baltimore, with Mayfield going 20-30 for 342 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That is the type of game we saw from him during the second half of the 2018 seasons. Despite howls from the national media complaining that the Browns are overrated, they are currently in first place in the AFC North, and they own the tiebreaker versus the Ravens.

Jackson started like a house on fire, beating up on the Dolphins and Cardinals. The Chiefs and Browns brought him back to earth somewhat, but he still has the 11th most passing yards in the NFL and also has 10-2 touchdown to interception ratio. His passer rating is 109.4, while also adding 238 rushing yards and a 6.8 yards per carry average. He is the most dangerous run-pass option quarterback in the NFL. The Ravens are currently the number one rushing team in the NFL, and much of that success should be credited to Jackson.

After an arm injury to six-time Pro Bowler, Ben Roethlisberger, Rudolph is the starter in Pittsburgh for at least the rest of the year. Roethlisberger and the Steelers were off to a terrible start and Rudolph has righted the ship, at least for the moment, by leading the Steelers to a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Rudolph was lights out versus the Bengals, completing 24 of 28 of his passes for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. This is exactly what he did in college, making quick reads, identifying the open receiver and hitting him with a short pass.

Rudolph does not have quite the Howitzer that the “Big Four” do, but he did have four years of throwing the football in a major conference and threw for 13,618 yards with only 26 interceptions, or 524 yards per interception. That tells you he can identify the open receiver and hit him with an accurate pass.

The Cincinnati Bengals are the one team that is making do with a veteran quarterback in underrated, under-loved Andy Dalton. Without seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green, Dalton has nevertheless put up very respectable numbers. However, the Bengals are currently in the basement of the division, looking up at the three teams with young quarterbacks.

Who knows whether it is new training methods or what, but the kids throwing the football are doing it better than it has ever been done before. The 2018 class is the focal point, but the Class of 2017 was not too bad with Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, although second-overall pick Mitchell Trubisky has to be considered to be a disappointment so far. Early returns are also very good on the class of 2019, led by Kyler Murray and Gardner Minshew. These guys are throwing the ball at higher velocity and with greater accuracy than the previous generation of quarterback. Josh Allen got some attention by throwing footballs 70 yards or more in workouts. Mayfield threw a ball to Breshad Perriman in a game that traveled at least 65 yards in the air.

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For all the world, it looks like the AFC North is set at the quarterback position, with the Browns, Steelers and Ravens prepared to duke it out for the next several years. It is going to be great.