The 2018 NFL Draft had five quarterbacks go in the first round. The 2021 NFL playoffs saw three of them help their teams get to the divisional round.
The Browns’ Baker Mayfield (No. 1 overall), the Bills’ Josh Allen (No. 7 overall) and the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson (No. 32) can alll celebrate and look for more with initial playoff wins under their belts. Meanwhile, Sam Darnold (No. 3) already is on the verge of being replaced by the Jets and Josh Rosen (No. 10) was given up on quickly by the Cardinals, since bouncing around with the Dolphins, Buccaneers and 49ers.
Jackson has won NFL MVP already and now Allen has had an MVP-caliber season, too. Mayfield hasn’t earned individual accolades yet, but more important, he finally has given the Browns a franchise QB solution and great on-field leader.
Here’s a look at the selection process that led to all three teams making the smartest quarterback decisions almost three years ago:
Why the Browns drafted Baker Mayfield
The Browns, for most of the months leading up to the 2018 draft after the 2017 season, were tied to taking Darnold No. 1 overall from USC. But throughout the process, Darnold didn’t do anything to stamp his status as the best QB in a top-heavey class, simply checking most of the traditional NFL passing boxes but not having standout qualities, lacking a good big-game resume and “it” factor.
Both on and off the field, outside of the Browns’ building, there was also unfair, lazy comparison of Mayfield to Johnny Manziel, the Browns’ faiiled first-round pick from the 2014 draft. Mayfield had fought more adversity to develop into a Heisman Trophy-winning QB at Oklahoma. He was a much smarter quarterback in college and his “attitude” was more based on his fiery, competitive nature.
With Mayfield separating from Darnold in the Browns’ minds, the real decision came down to Mayfield vs. Allen. John Dorsey, then the Browns GM, and Alonzo HIghsmith, then the Browns’ vice president of player personnel, were more comfortable with Mayfield’s accuracy and efficiency than Allen, who had the bigger arm but bigger question mark related to downfield completion percentage and touch on short-to-intermediate passes.
Mayfield came from the better offensive system and had the bigger-school pedigree, which for the Browns, seemed to limit his bust factor should they put him with the coaching and right personnel.
Mayfield looked like a shaky choice at times in his first two seasons but hindsight says he did his best to deliver for Hue Jackson and Freddie Ktichens, who weren’t good at catering the offense to his strengths. Then came Kevin Stefanski, understanding that Mayfield needed support from the offensive line and running game to take advantage of his play-action and bootleg passing skills.
The Browns had some interest in Lamar Jackson, but just like other teams that passed on Jackson, weren’t sure if Jackson could be the same kind of complete quarterback. Cleveland needed the right blend of accurate passer and alpha personality, and Mayfield was exactly that. Three seasons later, they have been rewarded with a playoff trip with Mayfield just starting a long winning relationship with Stefanski.
Why the Bills drafted Josh Allen
For Allen, with his great size (6-5, 237 pounds), arm and athleticism, there were two big pre-draft concerns. The first was, despite the ability to make every throw and impress with the deep ball, Allen was often wildly inaccurate at Wyoming, completing only 56 percent of his passes. The second was playing against a lower level of competition but still not dominating as much as his physical talent said he should have.
The Bills, however, focused on the positives, helped by the background of coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane. Both had been part of the Panthers’ organization and experienced the rise of Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Allen’s arm strength also had been likened to Patrick Mahomes, whom the Chiefs took No. 10 overall in 2017.
There were the MVP elements of Newton and Mahomes, but one more highly drafted QB factored into the mix — Carson Wentz. The Eagles’ No. 2 overall pick in 2016 had a simliar college pedigree from North Dakota State. The fact that Allen was favorable composite of all three made the pick more comfortable for Beane and McDermott.
The Bills, once Mayfield and Darnold were gone in the top three, knew the Browns, picking a second time, wouldn’t take a QB at No. 4. The Broncos, who were picking No. 5, liked some of Allen’s attributes, but passed and went for edge pass rusher Bradley Chubb. The Colts, with Andrew Luck, were out on Allen at No. 6. The 49ers, after the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, were out at No. 8. The Bears, after taking Mitchell Trubisky No. 2 overall the previous year, were out at No. 9.
The Cardinals, however, were looming at No. 10, and the Bills were originally picking at No. 12. The Buccaneers, with 2015 No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, were glad to trade down five spots from No. 7 to No. 12. The Bills were willing to part with two second-rounders (No. 53, No. 56) because they believed in Allen that much.
The big three for the Jets in the 2018 draft always came down to Mayfield, Darnold and Rosen in that order. The Browns liked Allen but warmed to Mayfield more. The Giants had some interest in Allen, too, but they locked into running back Saquon Barkley. Darnold was sure to be a top-three pick with none of those teams trading down and the Bills accepted he wouldn’t be available at No. 12.
The Cardinals, however, really wanted Allen and the Bills had to be somewhat aggressive to grab him post Mayfield and Darnold. He was the guy they really wanted to build around to solve their long, post-Jim Kelly franchise QB woes. To their credit, they have done just that, with their offensive line, wide receiver, running back and tight end overhauls since taking him. Allen now is being lifted by the ideal supporting cast of protection and skill players.
Darnold was the Jets’ choice with then general manager Mike Maccagnan and then coach Todd Bowles, before Adam Gase was hired to replace Bowles in 2019. eventually winning a short power struggle with Maccagnan. According to the New York Daily News, Gase, then Dolphins coach, preferred Allen to Darnold in the 2018 draft. That might explain a little why Gase didn’t get the best out of Darnold and Darnold didn’t look good under Gase, contributing to Gase’s firing after the 2020 season. The Bills then were smart to also get ahead of No. 11-picking Dolphins and Gase, too to get Allen.
Why the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson
The Browns became definitive on Mayfield and the Bills were all about Allen. In relation to them, the Jets settled for Darnold. vs. being really excited that he was their guy, while Jackson was never really on the Jets’ radar.
Given the Jets were desperate to be inside the box with Darnold, there was no way they would have been willing to adapt their offense to Jackson with then offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Looking back, the fact that Jets never took Jackson seriously as a pro prospect since his dynamic rise at Louisville is more a reflection on their dysfunction than his talent.
As for the Bills taking Jackson over Allen, before the draft in 2018, Jackson told reporters he didn’t have a “single meeting” with Buffalo officials. With Jackson hailing from South Florida, the Dolphins had one reason to think about him at No. 12. But again, Gase, even with his Tim Tebow experience in Denver, wasn’t about to drastically change his offensive ways again for Jackson in Miami, where he was coach then.
Once Jackson got past the bad, needy teams, there was a thought that a good team with an established veteran QB would stash Jackson behind their starter. The top of that list were the Saints and Packers, who ended up picking No. 14 and No. 18.
The Ravens passed on Jackson at No. 25 overall, taking tight end Hayden Hurst (since traded to the Falcons) instead. Once the Steelers (No. 28) and Patriots (No. 31) didn’t jump on Jackson, it made sense for the Ravens to trade back into No. 32 ahead of the second round to snag him before several other teams would consider a run at him.
With Joe Flacco hitting his peak during the Ravens’ Super Bowl 48 run after the 2012 season, they finally found the ideal time to make the transition, knowing they had Greg Roman, known for getting the best out of dual-threat QBs in the NFL, on their offensive staff. Although teams such as the Patriots and Cardinals since also have been OK tailoring their offense around their quarterbacks’ running ability, the Ravens were best equipped to do so then, making them the perfect fit to maximize Jackson’s unique skill set.
Based on what we know now, Mayfield to the Browns, Allen to the Bills and Jackson to the Ravens were all meant to be. It’s hard to see any other combination of team and quarterback involving those three picks working out so well because Cleveland, Buffalo and Baltimore all die a great job tailoring offenses to their unique athletic and passing talents.