This is the first in a series of in-depth features on potential quarterbacks for the Bills.
MOBILE, Ala. — The notion that Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield is a loose cannon and a character risk for NFL teams was under assault as fake news from all angles at the Senior Bowl.
Mayfield's improvisational genius on the field and some of his antics off it have drawn comparisons with similarly undersized NFL bust Johnny Manziel.
"Everybody wants to portray the bad boy, the Johnny Manziel stuff, but I love the game of football," Mayfield said. "There's no doubt about that. Emotional player. I'll do anything it takes to win. I love being around my teammates, and I love leading and having responsibility."
"Hardest working guy on the team, for sure," said Oklahoma linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. "He's a great leader, great competitor, great teammate."
“If I hear another guy compare this guy to Manziel . . . get out of here," former NFL general manager Charley Casserly said on the NFL Network. "Let’s talk about Drew Brees. He’s 6 foot. Let’s talk about Russell Wilson. He’s 5-10. This guy’s a player. He don’t have half the problems Manziel had off the field."
Look for Mayfield to dispel most doubts about his character in the next three months leading up to the NFL Draft. He has widely been viewed as a first-round draft candidate since late in the college season. He looked outstanding during Senior Bowl practices. Given the need for quarterbacks in the 2018 draft, he might even end up being a top-10 pick.
That means the Bills probably would have to move up to get him, which makes him a longer-shot candidate to fill Buffalo's quarterback need. Nevertheless, the Bills were among the teams that met at length with Mayfield in Mobile, since Senior Bowl meetings have no time restrictions. All the QB-needy NFL teams surely will meet with all the QB draft prospects over the next 12 weeks.
A case can be made that Mayfield is a special talent who merits a move up.
Mayfield has a ton of experience, and he's a winner. He was 39-8 as a starter. He's accurate, with a four-year career completion percentage of 68.5. He's prolific, passing for 330 yards a game with 43 TDs and six interceptions as a senior.
Mayfield has a quick release. His arm strength is above average. He's instinctive. He anticipates throwing windows. He makes tight-window throws. Like Brees, he manipulates his position in the pocket to find throwing lanes. He's good on the big stage, with top performances this year against Ohio State, Texas Christian and Oklahoma State. He's fiery and charismatic.
Those last traits have made him a lightning rod at times. He planted the OU flag at midfield of Ohio State's stadium after beating the Buckeyes. He grabbed his crotch and mouthed an expletive during a blowout of Kansas. (Some Jayhawks had refused to shake his hand at the coin toss.) That prompted him to be stripped of his captaincy for the final OU home game. Is it false bravado? NFL teams will want to assess it in interviews. He also was arrested last February for public intoxication in Arkansas.
However, Mayfield is known has a hard worker and a preparation fanatic when it comes to football. Manziel was known for the opposite at Texas A&M. And Mayfield hasn't been coddled like Manziel and some five-star prep recruits.
Mayfield had to walk on at Texas Tech in 2013 and became that school's first true freshman to start the season opener. (He threw for 413 yards against Southern Methodist that game.)
Then Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma without a scholarship, walked on, sat out a year and won the starting job in 2015.
Some pampered QBs have trouble dealing with adversity early in their NFL careers. (Vince Young is one famous example.)
"Nothing was given to me," Mayfield said. "I had to go earn it, starting from the lowest part of the totem pole. That's how you start as a rookie. You've got to go earn everything. You've got guys who are veterans, grown men who have been doing it a long time. For me, I have to treat it the same way."
"I think I'm ready for any adversity that's going to hit," Mayfield said. "Life's a bunch of up and downs. It's how you handle it. It's not about what it is in the moment. It's how you react to it."
Lack of ideal height is one thing that Mayfield can't deny.
He measured 6 foot and 3/8ths this week, better than some expected. For every Brees and Wilson, there are 1,000 shorter QBs who didn't make it in the NFL.
Will Mayfield be able to run a precision, rhythm passing game from the pocket in the NFL, as Brees does so brilliantly?
That's expected to be the kind of attack Bills coach Sean McDermott and his new coordinator Brian Daboll would prefer.
Mayfield operates outside of the structure of plays well. He's good unscripted.
Will his NFL coaches have to compensate, move the pocket more, run a read-option and run-pass option (RPO) game, as Mayfield did a lot at Oklahoma?
"I think he's better in the pocket than Manziel was," former NFL QB and Sirius NFL Radio analyst Jim Miller said. "Obviously Manziel could go off script and do backyard football, and Mayfield's able to do that, too. But this week I saw some stuff I liked. He's got really quick feet. He can set them quick to deliver a quick strike. Wednesday he did an RPO, got his feet popped and hit a nice slant route. I saw him do a nice back-shoulder to a seam route from the pocket, as well. I think he's extremely accurate with the football."
"The other things that bother you," Casserly acknowledged, "is you don’t see enough of the pro-system stuff because he isn't in it. So can he adapt to that? Against Georgia, the rush got to him in the third quarter, he started looking down at the rush. You don't want a quarterback looking down, you want him looking up. He kind of got better as time went on."
Mayfield better learn to be good from the pocket because while he's mobile, he's not as phenomenally athletic as Seattle's Wilson. If Mayfield takes a lot of hits, given his smaller frame, will his body hold up? That derailed the career of Jeff Garcia, a quality smaller QB.
"When Russell was down here, there really wasn't a buzz about him," Miller said of the Senior Bowl. "You figured he was a smaller quarterback. But he had a nice high release, which allowed him to play higher. . . . When you see Mayfield throw, I thought he was going to be more of a three-quarter guy. He's not. He's got a higher release, too, which helps him play bigger."
Miller thinks Mayfield's arm is good enough to play in any offensive system.
"His arm is very live," Miller said. "He has a little Brett Favre in him. You know how Brett would hit the back foot and kind of crow-hop into it when he really wanted to put some steam on the ball? I saw that from the pocket, too, from Baker Mayfield."
Brett Favre? Now there's a comparison Mayfield and his supporters will love.