Please stop reading if you have not put money down on Baker Mayfield as the MVP of the 2019 NFL season. Only the select few are allowed to continue.
In all seriousness, Baker's sophomore season is a dark horse for MVP candidacy, because -- never forget -- MVP is about storylines before it's about anything else, like stats or performance. If the Browns become a successful squad in 2019, Baker will undoubtedly have a big piece of that pie to claim as his credit, and MVP voting will reflect that accordingly.
Typically, I would never advocate for trusting a sophomore QB, no matter how much fun he is to root for or how well he played in Year 1. The sophomore slump is a real issue, especially for a player under a new OC. Baker's scheme change is a bit different, because of the in-season shift to Freddie Kitchens' offense and the familiarity there with new OC Todd Monken -- but it's still a small sample size we're going off of here, and the league is officially on Baker notice.
That said, Baker's rookie season was special. I can remember better rookie QB seasons in recent years (Prescott in 16, Griffin III in 12, Wilson in 12, maybe Watson in 17 when he was healthy) -- but Baker's 2018 campaign, especially coming off the bench and enduring a coaching change, stands out as one of the best. That can't be bad news.
Where I think Baker is the most impressive is under pressure. I've never seen a rookie quarterback who is as anticipatory as Baker is in locating pressure, as level-headed in responding to pressure, and as aggressive in its face. You can't teach the arithmetic that Mayfield does when the defense sends the blitz, as simple as it sounds: "The more of them that are coming at me, the less of them are deep." Yet that's what we see.
Remember, half of the battle when facing pressure is IDing it quick and planning a recourse. Mayfield doesn't check down often, and rightfully so -- he has every tool in the toolchest to extend plays and generate explosive gains. Athletic ability, risk management, excellent throw on move, full field command and vision, and gumption. Out of the pocket, he brought exactly what made him special in Oklahoma: elite play and a negligible drop-off in accuracy when on the move, on an adjusted platform, and/or under pressure. Under these contexts, no QB was better in the 2018 Contextualized Quarterbacking (or the 2019 Contextualized Quarterbacking, for that matter) than Baker.
Speaking of Oklahoma -- fun school, good QBs, #Boomer -- two major complaints on Baker Mayfield the prospect: a lack of tight window throws, and a concern regarding timing and footwork from under center. Both were predictably bologna, though I certainly thought Baker's success outside of structure meant marrying him to a timing-based offense was a bit silly. Mayfield attempted more tight window throws than any QB in the 2018 class, with his greatest strength evident in his ability to layer throws.
Mayfield can hit any bucket on the field, in terms of dropping a ball over the top of sinking linebackers and flat defenders, but ensuring it arrives before a closing safety. These are tight window throws that require more than just great accuracy, but also an inherent ability to manage accuracy at different velocities/flight paths. Mayfield can drive balls and throw touch balls alike with great accuracy, but it's how the context of the throw dictates the necessary velocity that makes Mayfield eye-poppingly special.
We've got outside-the-number, three-step-and-hitch throws with mustard and with grace. These are irregular, silly, fantastic, and head-shaking. These are "Nothing the defense can do, Coach" plays. These are what get you so stoked about Mayfield's future.
There isn't a throw Mayfield doesn't think he can make, and gutsiness led to many of the high-quality throws we've seen thus far -- but as you'd expect and as we've seen with Mayfield since his days at Oklahoma, his aggressiveness is what gets him into trouble. Namely, I think Oklahoma's wide-open offense and sublime skill talent spoiled Mayfield a bit coming into the league: he was accustomed to being able to come late to isolation routes, or hold the ball to see a route break and uncover, before uncorking the throw.
Mayfield, CeeDee Lamb, Hollywood Brown, Mark Andrews -- they were all playing at a different speed than most defenses they faced -- and Lincoln Riley made sure they had tons of space to operate in, as well.
You can't get away with being as late at the NFL level -- or, more accurately, when you're late, you can't force balls into windows that don't really exist. Mayfield was regularly on-time with his footwork and delivery, but at the times in which he get discombobulated by pressure, off-tempo with his wide receivers, or simply hung too long on his first read (the cardinal and common sin of all rookie QBs), he made his worst plays.
It's a tricky situation, because the worst thing here is the gumption -- and as I said above, Mayfield's chutzpah cleaves to that which makes him great. They are one and the same: that's what it is to be a gamer. Cleveland likely has to be comfortable with both sides of the sword.
Mayfield will likely cut down on those mistakes as he continues to grow into the pace and space of the league, though they'll never really go away -- he had more than a few explosive plays and touchdowns this year that just as easily could have been INTs with better plays from defensive backs. He is a risk-prone quarterback, and that's scary and electric and fun and Mayfield. Just part of the ride, folks.
I'm beyond stoked to see Mayfield in Todd Monken's offense after a full offseason of work as the starter, and I don't even know where to put the ceiling on his potential with a weapon like Odell Beckham Jr. at his disposal. The Browns' offensive line has some questions to answer in camp, but if they can regularly protect Mayfield, there is no reason to believe this Browns offense will not become one of the league's top units.
And in the AFC North, and honestly, the AFC as a whole...no. Not yet. That's a take for another day.