It’s amazing how much good quarterback play there is when you look at the totality of the National Football League. It’s natural to pit Baker Mayfield vs. Joe Burrow given their similar playstyles, draft statuses, ages, situations in college, and starts to their careers in the NFL.
Despite their admirable play in 2020, neither player sniffed the Pro Football Network’s top 10 quarterbacks heading into 2021. That is no slight on either player, however. The question remains, if we were to start a team with one of them tomorrow, who should be the pick?
Naturally, I asked Twitter who they believe should be the winner of the franchise starting question. In true Twitter fashion, both fanbases came to the defense of their young quarterbacks. Ultimately, Burrow won out with 50.3% of the 4,557 total votes in the 10-hour poll. Did they get it right?
Joe Burrow vs. Baker Mayfield | Accuracy
It’s important to look at each player trait-by-trait before concluding who we will start our franchise with. It’s important to reiterate that these quarterbacks have a lot of similarities.
We’ll go through and talk about each player’s accuracy overall and how it is affected by their depth of target and pressure.
Mayfield is a generally accurate passer who shined in 2020 on his downfield attempts due to the consistency of that general accuracy. Brick Wall Blitz does a fantastic tape study of eligible quarterbacks to track their downfield ball placement.
The 2020 season was the first time Mayfield did not find himself inside the top five of deep-ball accuracy. Still, he finished eighth — a very respectable finish. Next Gen Stats conducted a similar study, and Mayfield finished sixth.
However, despite the deep-ball exploits of Mayfield, he finishes with just his first positive CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) season with the Browns. Mayfield’s accuracy, in particular, dips when he’s forced off his natural base or forced to adjust his arm angle. He’s improved under pressure remaining calm, manipulating the pocket, resetting, and delivering. He’s not as stoic as Burrow.
Burrow is deadly in the intermediate areas of the field, just as he was in college. It’s part of what made him my highest-graded quarterback coming out of college since I started grading the position in 2015.
Burrow’s overall ball placement was a bit more scattered inside 10 yards than his monstrous year at LSU, but he played in a different climate with a Swiss cheese offensive line.
It’s crucial to note the climate. The frigid air of the North has at least a bit to do with the horrific downfield passing of Burrow in 2020. He finished 31st in Brickwallblitz’s Deep Ball Study, and the tape tells a very clear story (stay tuned).
Oh, and you can’t blame this on “the receivers couldn’t separate downfield” either, Bengals fans. Burrow’s accuracy, like Mayfield’s, really appeared to dip when he was forced to work on the hoof.
Advantage – Burrow
Being able to throw the ball deep is essential. Yet, the NFL has become less predicated on taking downfield shots. The 11-19 yard window that Burrow excels in is the sweet spot, in my opinion. That area helped grab him an overall CPOE of 3.7%, the sixth-best in the league last season.
If Burrow can improve on his downfield passing moving forward, there’s no question he wins this category. Still, I’m not sure if he will ever become better than average there. In the Burrow vs. Mayfield debate, accuracy might be the most difficult physical trait to deliberate.
Burrow vs. Mayfield | Mental processing/decision-making
This considers a quarterback’s ability to process information as a passer, before and after the snap, and deliver a timely pass.
In all of the conversations in my social media mentions, this was the one attribute I’m not sure anybody brought up in Mayfield’s game.
That’s a shame. Toward the end of last year, his grasp of head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense really tightened up. His growth in this area over the past three seasons is promising as well. He’s much more comfortable and quick with his ability to read a defender’s leverage and deliver a timely pass against man and match-coverage schemes.
Furthermore, Mayfield has improved his ball security. In Football Outsiders’ study of adjusted interception rate, he had a 2.5% interceptable pass rate in 2020. In his sophomore season under Freddie Kitchens, that number was at 4.3%. As a rookie, he was at 2.9%.
Nevertheless, the one thing I noticed about both of these quarterbacks is that although they take care of the ball, neither are gun-shy.
This is Burrow’s bread and butter. Mashed potatoes and gravy, too. Mental processing is why he was the highest-graded quarterback prospect I’ve studied. It’s why I believed, no matter what situation he found himself in the NFL, he’d be at least relatively successful. He has a hairpin trigger, and his ability to process information both pre and post-snap is sublime.
Other quarterbacks can do this as well, even while young — Jameis Winston and Josh Rosen come to mind. The difference becomes confidence versus arrogance. Both Winston and Rosen possess an arrogance in their process that leads to interceptions and near misses.
Burrow, meanwhile, very rarely makes poor post-snap leverage reads. It helps him take care of the football, hence why his adjusted interception rate was also just 2.5%.
What is most impressive is how he does it.
Zac Taylor…tailored…a passing attack that suited Burrow quite well. In tape viewed, it appeared the Bengals ran many concepts out of empty sets. That’s something Joe Brady had Burrow doing at LSU.
It allows Burrow to deal with less visual trash at the line. He’s able to immediately identify if pressure is coming so he can tweak his mental clock. They also ran many RPO’s, utilizing passes around the line of scrimmage plus in and out-breaking routes against one-on-one coverage on the outside.
Advantage – Burrow
Neither quarterback struggles in this area, but Burrow excels in it. There’s always room for improvement, but the Bengals’ quarterback is as finished a product as one could ask for at his age.
Burrow vs. Mayfield | Arm Talent
This may be the most argued-about topic when it comes to quarterback play. After all, it means a lot of things to a lot of people. Accuracy is a part of overall “arm talent,” for instance. I look at it more as an ability to drive passes with velocity, know when to throw the changeup, and the ability to make plays outside of the natural confines of an offense.
Do not listen to someone who says Mayfield doesn’t have a strong arm. They either haven’t watched him or don’t like him. Mayfield generates velocity well by maximizing torque in his midsection and bringing the elbow and arm through quickly. He also possesses a quick, whip-like release which is just generally appealing to watch.
What makes Mayfield an excellent deep passer is his ability to push the ball downfield with the right trajectory and placement. If he didn’t have the arm talent to do this, he wouldn’t be able to drive the football through the frigid winter months playing in the AFC North.
This is where things become difficult to talk about. I was a big proponent of Burrow coming out and believed that his lack of high-end velocity wouldn’t be as big an issue as some thought. And in a domed environment, it really isn’t. Unfortunately, the AFC North boasts four outdoor stadiums in freezing winter climates. Likewise, many of the usual AFC playoff contenders also have similar temperatures.
Burrow struggles to push the ball outside of the numbers deeper downfield. It’s why he was accurate on just 2 of 10 passes traveling 30+ yards in the air with 0 completions in that area. Burrow’s lack of arm strength occasionally forced him to flatten his deep ball out, and in turn, never giving it a real chance to be caught.
The lack of velocity isn’t just an issue downfield, though. It extends to outside of the numbers in the intermediate and when he’s forced on the hoof .
Advantage – Mayfield
This one is the only landslide victory in any trait in the Burrow vs. Mayfield debate. It’s as clear as a Yuma day. It’s the most significant issue Burrow faces in his return to the game. He’ll continue to find a way to win elsewhere, but it’s difficult to see how he improves in Year 2 without having an entire offseason to work on ways to thwart this issue.
Burrow vs. Mayfield | Pocket presence and playmaking ability
How does each quarterback handle pressure, and how good are they at creating when things break down offensively?
This is an area in which Mayfield’s game didn’t translate as well from college to the pros. The definition of a “pocket passer” is convoluted. In the modern game, I’d consider Mayfield one. He possesses the ability to make plays outside of structure, but he’s not necessarily a weapon outside of the pocket.
His ball-handling on play-action could be a bit more consistent, so he’s not forced to find creativity he doesn’t possess to create a throwing window over or to the side of a much larger unblocked human being on the backside.
When it comes to handling pressure, Mayfield has improved drastically. Some skittishness came with playing behind a rebuilding offensive line and a bad coach during the Kitchens days. He now stands taller in the pocket (not a short joke) and is more comfortable delivering under pressure.
Like Mayfield, Burrow doesn’t have the high-end athleticism to be too creative at the NFL level. He’s quite adept at sliding about or stepping up to avoid pressure, but he’s not quick enough to capture the edge and outrun pass rushers and deliver passes consistently. Like Mayfield, he’s what I would consider a modern-day “pocket passer.”
Burrow’s creativity within the pocket and stoicism under pressure are both admirable traits of his. He’s impressive in avoiding the rush and creating throwing lanes despite playing behind a poor offensive line. He does not back down to that pressure. Unfortunately, that’s what got him hurt.
Advantage – Burrow
Neither are massive playmakers per se, which calls into question just how high either’s ceiling might be at the NFL level unless they get to a point mentally where they can sleepwalk through defenses like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees. With the new CBA taking players off the field more often, that might be more difficult than in the past.
Both quarterbacks appear well-liked by teammates, and both have a clear fire to their personalities that is easy to rally behind. Mayfield’s vocal nature that got him into hot water in college and early in his NFL career seems to have subsided, but his passion undoubtedly won’t. Burrow, on the other hand, just always seemed to have “it.” That is impossible to quantify.
Both appear to feel somewhat slighted for one reason or another. Each carries chips on their shoulders as they were both transfers from their first colleges after losing starting battles.
Similarly, neither signal-caller was on radars for draft scouts before their Heisman Trophy seasons. Mayfield had some buzz, but Burrow was widely seen as a Day 3 pick before his historic season.
I have a soft spot in my heart for both quarterbacks in the Burrow vs. Mayfield debate. I believe both franchises are in good hands with them. They have the right personalities to survive in the blue-collar AFC North. Additionally, I have no doubt that Burrow will come back and be okay after the knee injury.
I went into this exercise believing I’d prefer Burrow over Mayfield as the long-term option. I love his mind, his quiet confidence, and if he were significantly younger than Mayfield, the scales would tip in his favor.
Yet, as it stands today, almost an entire aspect of the game doesn’t exist for Burrow. If he can’t figure out his downfield passing woes, it seriously caps his ceiling as a player if we look at things in a vacuum.
I enjoyed both of their play in 2020 more than I anticipated. Regardless, if I were starting a franchise today, it would be with Mayfield.
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