APRIL BRINGS WITH it many things. For your average Brit, it brings the first chance to adopt to the reddish hue of a lobster courtesy of the spontaneous appearance of the sun for a few meagre days. And for the 32 teams of the National Football League, it is when the annual draft comes around.
This year the draft – or the Annual National Football League Player Selection Meeting to provide the official title – took place between 26 and 28 April, with the Cleveland Browns holding the first overall pick, which they used to select Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy winning quarterback out of the University of Oklahoma.
The Browns came into the draft off the back of a run of historic futility that saw them win only one out of a possible 32 games, and complete only the second winless season since the NFL adopted a 16 game season in 1978.
Blame for this appeared to be cast at the door of Sashi Brown, the General Manager throughout much of this accursed run. Brown had attempted to take a more analytical approach to player evaluation, relying more heavily on data than traditional NFL General Managers.
His replacement, John Dorsey, was expected to take a somewhat different approach, with his reputation as an old-school “football guy” preceding him. And then came the Mayfield pick. The 2018 quarterback class was considered to be one of the strongest in recent memory, and so it proved on draft night with five passers being selected in the first round. Mayfield went first to the Browns, followed by Sam Darnold (third overall, to the New York Jets), Josh Allen (seventh, to the Buffalo Bills), Josh Rosen (tenth, to the Arizona Cardinals), and Lamar Jackson (32nd, to the Baltimore Ravens).
Even more remarkably, Mayfield was the only of the quarterbacks taken without a trade from a team to move up and grab them, showing the high esteem the class was held in by the NFL community.
However, Mayfield was considered somewhat of an unconventional choice by the Browns. Standing at little over six feet tall, he was considered by old-school football types to be too short to play football in the NFL – the traditional threshold for quarterback height in scouting is 6”2. Yet the success of Russell Wilson and Drew Brees, both Super Bowl winning quarterbacks despite being below that threshold, suggests that in fact height is not a barrier to success.
Analytics was the buzzword surrounding the Brown era in Cleveland, but with Dorsey in charge the expectation was that data would be discarded as an evaluation tool and the focus would once again be on watching tape above all else. Yet Mayfield was the prototypical analytics pick, grading out as the best quarterback in the class according to a number of number based models based off college production, and even in some cases high school production. Contrast that with Josh Allen, taken seventh overall, who was for many the top quarterback in the class based off his physical traits – many scouts believed him to have the strongest arm of any prospect they had seen, but his accuracy and lack of college production point to him struggling at the pro level.
Mayfield was the pick that the old Browns’ regime would have been expected to make, Allen or Darnold the one most NFL sources expected the new regime to make. And yet when it came to it, data won out over pure observation, suggesting that the NFL may just be embracing analytics for player evaluation after all.