Baker Mayfield Is Being Overdrafted in Fantasy Football
To me, the most exciting moment of the entire 2018 NFL season was in Week 3, when Baker Mayfield stepped onto the field on Thursday Night Football to replace an injured Tyrod Taylor. At that time, the Hue Jackson-led Cleveland Browns were characteristically losing 14-0, and Mayfield engineered a comeback that snapped the Browns' lengthy losing streak.
The direction of the entire Browns franchise has been pointing up since then, and expectations are high for Mayfield's sophomore season -- both for the Browns and for Mayfield in fantasy football.
Mayfield is fun (on and off the field), unfiltered and undoubtedly one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL; he's great. But he is being taken as the QB5, per early average draft position data (ADP) at Fantasy Football Calculator, and Mayfield will not finish as a top-five quarterback in fantasy football in 2019.
Diving Into His 2018 Season
Mayfield is absolutely deserving of the buzz his rookie season has generated. He worked through a less-than-stellar coaching staff in his first five-and-a-half games, putting up a mediocre stat-line in the process -- a 58.3% completion rate and 6.6 yards per pass attempt. In that span, Mayfield flashed moments of brilliance, but until both the aforementioned Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley got the boot, which happened eight games into the season, it appeared Mayfield was doomed for a statistically unimpressive rookie campaign.
Fortunately, Freddie Kitchens' promotion from running backs coach to offensive coordinator salvaged the entire offense's trajectory, especially Mayfield's. His completion percentage leapt to 68.4% in the post-Hue era, and his yards per pass attempt spiked to 8.57, both premium rates in the league. If Mayfield sustained those clips over the entire year, he would've ranked seventh in completion percentage and third in yards per attempt.
During the last eight games of the season, including the fantasy-irrelevant Week 17, Mayfield was one of the better quarterbacks in football. By most measures, it appeared that Kitchens had completely turned around the offense.
I hate to rain on the Browns' parade, though, but Mayfield's second-half stats do require a little more context.
The Browns played one of the easiest schedules of opposing passing defenses in the weeks following Kitchens' promotion. According to SharpFootballStats.com's strength of schedule numbers, the Browns faced the league's fifth-easiest schedule of opposing passing defenses over the final seven weeks. Their schedule included two bouts with the injury-ravaged Cincinnati Bengals (24.96 and 25.92 fantasy points for Mayfield), a home game against a decimated Atlanta Falcons secondary (22.64 fantasy points) and a home clash with the Kansas City Chiefs (17.88), who had one of the league's worst pass defenses.
Mayfield fared well in most of those games -- which is exactly what you want and expect from a top fantasy quarterback -- but he was considerably worse when facing more challenging defenses.
The Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers had, at best, middling defenses, and Mayfield struggled in both matchups. He tossed three picks against Houston on his way to 13.88 fantasy points, and Mayfield totaled just 13.72 fantasy points against Carolina.
Over the stretch with Kitchens, Mayfield faced two top-tier defenses. He threw three interceptions against the elite D of the Baltimore Ravens in Week 17 -- though he did finish with 21.04 fantasy points in that one thanks to 376 yards and three scores -- and he had a clunker against a strong Denver Broncos defense, throwing for just 188 passing yards on 31 attempts (12.12 fantasy points).
In all, Mayfield scored at least 17 fantasy points in five of his eight games with Kitchens at the controls of the offense. That's pretty darn good, especially for a rookie quarterback. There's obvious reasons for optimism -- we haven't even mentioned Cleveland's offseason additions yet -- but most of Baker's good fantasy days came in predictably nice spots while he was, for the most part, not worth starting in fantasy outside of the cushy matchups.
In short, he performed more like a great quarterback streamer than like a set-it-and-forget-it every-week fantasy starter.
Some improvement in Year 2 is certainly likely, as it is with any young player, but Mayfield's current value of QB5 is more reflective of our expectations of a pretty huge sophomore leap than it is based on his past production. And our expectations -- or at least the expectations of early drafters -- seem to ignore the fantasy production of other top-level quarterbacks across the league.
What Does a Top-5 Fantasy Quarterback Look Like?
When looking at the top-tier of fantasy signal callers in recent years, one thing Baker lacks that a lot of those quarterbacks possessed is rushing ability as he averaged just 9.4 rushing yards per game last year, with just three outings of 20-plus yards.
Scanning the 20 top-five fantasy quarterback seasons over the past four years, 10 of the 20 quarterbacks averaged at least 20 rushing yards per game in their top-five campaign. Baker had just 40 total rushing yards over the eight games with Kitchens calling the shots.
Rushing quarterbacks always have been and still are -- as our own Jason Schandl dove into earlier this offseason -- game changers in fantasy football. Mayfield did nothing as a rookie to make us think he'll do too much with his legs as a pro, and his athletic profile doesn't indicate that he'll be adding a fantasy-relevant amount of rushing production to his portfolio in 2019.
Those top-five quarterbacks who did provide 20 or more rushing yards per game averaged 33.3 pass attempts per game, while the remaining 50% of the top-five performers averaged 37.9 passing attempts per game. If a quarterback doesn't provide much value on the ground, he typically needs immense passing volume to keep up with the league's elite fantasy passers. Mayfield averaged 32.9 attempts per game over the final eight weeks, less passing volume on a per-game basis than even the good running quarterbacks saw.
That means he's fighting an uphill battle to elite -- top-five -- fantasy production. He needs to either do more on the ground or garner more passing attempts.
With a full offseason under Kitchens, Mayfield absolutely could see more passing volume in 2019. In fact, our models project just that. We forecast him to attempt 577.7 passes in 2019. But that's just the 10th-most among all quarterbacks, and it works out to 36.1 pass attempts per game -- a touch under the 37.9 clip -- if we assume a 16-game season from Mayfield.
Mayfield can't take the easy road via rushing production to an elite fantasy finish, and while he's likely to see a bump in passing volume, it may not be enough of a boost. And in addition to the rush-aided signal callers (Cam Newton, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, Russell Wilson and so on), Mayfield is going to be competing with the best passing quarterbacks in football -- guys like Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger -- for a top-five spot. Mahomes is the only one from that group who doesn't have a lengthy history of superb fantasy production, and Mahomes is, you know, everyone's QB1 for 2019, including ours.
The 2019 Season
So what does the 2019 season hold for Mayfield? According to our models, he's projected for 307.87 fantasy points and a finish as the QB9. That would be an undeniably impressive showing for a second-year quarterback, but it wouldn't return value on his price as the QB5.
Let's take a look at the state of the Browns heading into the season to get a better sense of where those numbers might be coming from.
Cleveland has made a number of splashy moves this offseason, headlined by their acquisition of star receiver Odell Beckham. You don't need me to tell you that Beckham is an elite wide receiver and will surely be a boon to the Browns' offense. With OBJ, Cleveland should have one of the top receiving groups in the league.
Jarvis Landry didn't thrive in 2018, but he should be more comfortable in his second year with the team and in his role as the team's second-best receiver. Former first-round pick David Njoku is now entering his third season and is coming off of a low-key breakout effort in which he finished with the eighth-most yards among tight ends in the league in 2018. Antonio Callaway flashed last year, averaging a shade more than 10 yards per target after Kitchens took over, which would have been the third-highest rate among all rookie wideouts last season. And Rashard Higgins showed well as a reliable option.
A good quarterback -- like Mayfield -- will do a lot to raise the level of play of the receivers around him. Good receivers do the same for their quarterbacks. The Browns' passing game may be one of the more pure symbiotic quarterback-pass catcher relationships in the league.
But even with an elite receiving group around him, can Mayfield be an elite passing quarterback for fantasy?
Over the course of the final seven games of the 2018 season, the Browns had a pass-to-run ratio of 1.43 in two-score situations. That would have been a slightly above-average passing rate compared the rest of the league's average over the whole season. The Browns also hired passing-game truther Todd Monken to be their offensive coordinator for the 2019 season. The same Monken who extracted extreme fantasy value from Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston in 2018 and whose offense finished top-five in pass attempts in each of the last two seasons. That volume was partially driven by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' tendency to fall behind in games, but Monken's history of emphasizing the passing game bodes well for Mayfield.
Another note on Monken's time with the Buccaneers -- the Bucs called the sixth-most plays in the NFL last season, meaning that Mayfield's passing volume should be dependably high on a game-to-game basis.
Putting It All Together
Mayfield is one of the more hyped players in the league heading into the 2019 season, and that hype is well-deserved. The Browns' acquisition of Odell Beckham Jr. launched Mayfield's ADP into the stratosphere as his price rose almost four full rounds between January and June.
But Mayfield has a tougher-than-average schedule of opposing defenses this year -- 12th-toughest for quarterbacks fantasy-wise, per Fantasy Football Toolbox -- after mostly struggling against strong defenses in his rookie season.
He also doesn't provide much fantasy output with his legs, which means he will need either elite passing volume or stellar passing efficiency to finish as a top-five fantasy quarterback. Mayfield getting a full offseason as the starter under his belt plus the team's new offensive coordinator suggest that he will see greater volume, which bears out in our projections, and the skill position players surrounding him give him an opportunity to produce with elite efficiency.
When you take it all together, Mayfield looks like a strong candidate for a top-10 finish, but taking him as the QB5 is likely drafting him at or near his ceiling, making it hard to get much of a return on your investment.