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Pros and cons for the 2018 NFL Draft’s top 5 quarterbacks

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For the first time in 19 years, five quarterbacks are likely to be picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The 1999 NFL Draft is the last time a total of five quarterbacks were picked in the first round. In that draft, passers went with each of the first three selections and then two more with picks No. 11 and 12.

Barring something unexpected, that number will be matched in this draft, 19 years later. Wyoming’s Josh Allen, USC’s Sam Darnold, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and UCLA’s Josh Rosen (listed alphabetically) will all likely to hear their name called on the first night of the draft. Even Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph has a chance at sneaking into the first round during a draft that will be defined by its quarterback class.

The 1999 class didn’t pan out. Tim Couch, Akili Smith, and Cade McNown are among the biggest busts in NFL Draft history. But the Eagles and Vikings likely didn’t regret their choices of Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper.

Taking a quarterback is always a risky venture. There are clues that indicate the 2018 class could be similarly peppered with doomed selections.

The future of several NFL franchises will depend on their ability to identify which passers in the class are franchise quarterbacks and which will be busts.

Here’s why each quarterback could be a great choice, and why each could end up being a mistake:

Josh Allen, Wyoming

Strengths

  • Tall
  • Athletic
  • Bazooka arm

Weaknesses

  • Bad at football
  • Awful statistics

Did I say bad at football? No, that can’t be right. What I meant to say was ... wait no, bad at football is apt.

The idea behind drafting Allen is that his days of being a good football player are ahead of him. The hallmarks of potential in a quarterback that NFL teams mine for are size, athleticism, and arm strength. Those are the elements of a passer that can’t be coached or significantly developed.

Allen has all three in spades.

He’s 6’5, 237 pounds and did excellent in workout drills — finishing in 89th percentile in the broad jump and 83rd percentile in the three-cone drill. His height, weight, and times in drills at the NFL Combine were comparable to the performance of Carson Wentz a couple years ago.

Then there’s his arm. A quarterback coach who worked with Allen to prepare him for the 2018 NFL Draft told NFL Network the Wyoming passer could throw the ball about 90 yards and about 70 miles per hour. He ended up only throwing 62 miles per hour at the NFL Combine, but no other quarterback topped 60.

So it’s not confusing why he’s in the conversation. The problem is that his gigantic arm and Wentz-esque athleticism haven’t resulted in much success on the field.

His statistics are among the worst of the last decade posted by first-round picks. And he spent his collegiate career accumulating those numbers against lesser competition than the other passers likely to go early.

No quarterback has a higher ceiling than Allen. And no quarterback is more likely to be a colossal bust. Good luck rolling those dice.

Sam Darnold, USC

Strengths

  • Thrives in chaos
  • Prototypical build

Weaknesses

  • Propensity for turnovers
  • Inexperienced

After breaking out as a redshirt freshman in 2016 with 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions, Darnold was touted as a clear-cut future No. 1 pick. But he came back to Earth a bit in 2017 when he threw 26 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and fumbled 11 times — although, he wasn’t helped by the loss of left tackle Chad Wheeler after the 2016 season.

Ultimately, it was a relatively Blake Bortles-y year for a player who had Andrew Luck-y expectations.

Darnold — like Bortles and Luck — is built like a linebacker capable of playing quarterback at 6’3, 221 pounds. He’s also capable of making plays as a rusher too.

But where Darnold truly excels is when things break down. When things get chaotic and pass rushers are breathing down his neck, Darnold has a natural feel for the game and the ability to throw on the move.

This is the part where it’s important to remember just how new to the position Darnold still is. He played limited time at the position in high school before starting as a senior and then starting two years at USC before entering the 2018 NFL Draft.

The positives of his inexperience are that they explain his inconsistent mechanics and suggest there’s a high ceiling for a player who has such a natural grasp on what it takes to succeed at quarterback. The huge negative is that inexperienced passers rarely work out.

Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton are the two biggest success stories among players with just two years of starting experience in college, but both transferred from junior colleges. After that there’s Michael Vick, Joe Flacco, or Alex Smith to point at as success stories.

But those names are among some of the biggest busts ever like JaMarcus Russell, Ryan Leaf, Mark Sanchez, and Blaine Gabbert.

If Darnold has time to correct his inability to avoid turnovers by cleaning up his mechanics and footwork, he has every chance to be the best quarterback of the class. But he’s certainly a work in progress.

Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Strengths

  • Absurdly athletic
  • Effortless thrower

Weaknesses

  • Thin
  • Inconsistent mechanics

First things first, he’s a quarterback.

For some reason, that’s just so difficult for me to put my finger on (it’s because he’s black), some people want to evaluate him as a wide receiver. But that’s silly.

At the top of the list of reasons why Jackson should be a quarterback is the fact he has every bit the arm to find success in the NFL. Jackson will undoubtedly be compared to Michael Vick for most of his professional career because of both quarterbacks’ unique ability to make plays with their legs. But Jackson’s ability to launch a ball more than 50 yards downfield with a flick of the wrist is also Vick-esque.

Jackson chose not to run at all in the pre-draft process, so we don’t know exactly how fast his 40-yard dash time is. But we really don’t need to know. It’s already obvious that he’s a special kind of athlete at the position. He proved it over and over and over again.

His ability in the open field with the ball in his hands is a skill that Jackson’s eventual team will undoubtedly need to find a way to put to use.

But his viability as an NFL quarterback will depend plenty on his capabilities as a pocket passer. And that’s something he’s already more adept at than you may think. He’s not a run-first quarterback, he has a good feel for pressure in the pocket, and typically only uses his ability to escape after a play breaks down.

There are still some concerns, just like every other quarterback in the class. His footwork has caused some inaccuracy — particularly in the middle of the field — and that led to some interceptions. He completed 57 percent of his passes over his three-year career — ahead of only Allen in this five-player group — although he wasn’t done any favors by his receivers.

Another concern is his slight build, although that’s a tad overblown. He’s grown through his college career and has shown an ability to absorb big hits. Still, questions of being “too skinny” and even knee circumference were attached to Teddy Bridgewater and Marcus Mariota, and both have struggled with injuries in the NFL.

If Jackson’s accuracy can improve as his mechanics develop and he stays away from he injuries, the 2016 Heisman winner has a chance to be a special and unique player at the position.

Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma

Strengths

  • Great leader with a chip on his shoulder
  • Extremely accurate
  • Great statistics

Weaknesses

  • Small
  • The chip on his shoulder is maybe a little too gigantic
  • Got arrested

Good luck finding any statistic that suggests Mayfield isn’t going to be an absolute star in the NFL. Football Outsiders’ QBASE system provides a score based on collegiate production, experience, and projected draft position and Mayfield’s is the fourth-best score in the last two decades.

Just ahead of him are Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, and Donovan McNabb. Right behind are Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning.

Despite measuring in at 6’1, 215 pounds — smaller than the rest of the quarterbacks in this group — he was tremendously successful at Oklahoma, earning a Heisman Trophy as a senior by throwing 43 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Mayfield completed 70.5 percent of his passes — no other player in the nation topped 70 percent — and didn’t just rack up those stats with high-percentage throws underneath. Statistically, it’s hard to find any reason to doubt his ability to succeed in the NFL.

Instead, much of the talk about Mayfield and the thing that may chase NFL teams away is his personality. It doesn’t help that just a few years ago, an undersized Heisman-winning quarterback with character red flags crashed and burned spectacularly in the NFL.

Yes, there are some similarities between Mayfield and Johnny Manziel. But that doesn’t mean their careers will run parallel.

Mayfield’s arrest came in February 2017 for public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and fleeing and resisting arrest. That — and his tendency to be petty as hell, always — will scare teams that are banking on Mayfield to become a reliable star for at least a decade.

But there hasn’t been much reason to believe Mayfield isn’t extremely dedicated to football and determined to prove doubters wrong. Manziel just didn’t care much.

As long as Mayfield stays off the Manziel track, every indication is that he’ll thrive in the NFL.

Josh Rosen, UCLA

Strengths

  • Extremely accurate and gifted thrower
  • Smart

Weaknesses

  • Smart, because apparently that’s a bad thing too?
  • Injury prone

Rosen has been on a one-way road toward the top of the NFL Draft since he was a five-star high school recruit who played in the Under Armour All-American Game. He started at UCLA as a true freshman and checks off all the boxes of a franchise quarterback.

Size? He’s 6’4, 226 pounds. Check.

Arm? He’s as technically sound and accurate as it gets. Check.

Leadership? His teammates sure seem to love him. Check.

Smart? He’s so far ahead of the curve that some think it’s a problem. Wait, what?

Former UCLA coach Jim Mora Jr. has been one of the sources of that line of criticism. While overall, his comments have been positive, Mora said he’d take Darnold at No. 1 if he was the Browns and seemingly raised red flags about Rosen’s tendency to question coaching.

“I think he needs the right coaches around him,” Mora said of Rosen. “I think he needs the guys that can challenge him intellectually, because Josh is a guy that wants to know why. And he’s not questioning in terms of ‘why are we doing that?’ it’s like ‘tell me why.’ And that’s kind of the millennial now — if you can tell them why, they respond, and Josh is very much like that.”

“Josh Rosen the Millennial” is the personality that may chase away teams afraid of getting a quarterback who’s too interested in ventures outside of football and unwilling to listen to coaching. Dodging him for that personality type may be the bigger mistake, though, considering he’s done everything possible to dissuade those concerns.

Maybe a more fair negative to apply to Rosen was his difficulty staying on the field. His toughness was questioned during the 2017 season, and that appears unfair, but there is reason to be worried about a quarterback who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 2016 and two concussions that ended his next season early too.

It could be nothing and Rosen could have a long and healthy career in the NFL. Or it could be a sign of things to come. That’s a risk one team is going to take, because just about everything else about Rosen indicates he’s worth taking that chance on.