Mayfield, Jackson, and Rosen will all likely be selected in the first round next Thursday (with only Jackson having any real risk of slipping beyond that). But where exactly they are picked, especially relative to Darnold and Allen, will say a lot about how the modern NFL views players, and quarterbacks in particular, who deviate from the league’s prototype.
The criticisms Rosen has faced tell a particularly interesting story. Despite impeccable mechanics, enviable stature, and impressive college statistics, the UCLA alum has fallen in some mock drafts due in part to off-field concerns that would sound strange in most other industries. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King has reported that teams worry “football isn’t that important to [Rosen] because he’s a rich kid,” that he’s “a crappy leader,” that “he’s too smart for his own good,” that the anti-Trump hat he once wore suggested an inclination toward politics, and that he “cares a lot about the planet.” Some analysts have questioned whether he loves football as much as other prospects do, while others have dinged him for being “a Millennial.”
To observers outside the NFL bubble, such criticism can seem awful silly. As Deadspin’s Patrick Redford wrote last month, after listing the gripes about Rosen, “None of those personal characteristics have anything to do with whether Josh Rosen will be a good football player or not.” And indeed, the specific criticisms of Rosen don’t always withstand scrutiny. Plenty of previous great quarterbacks have come from relative wealth and possessed substantial intellect. Rosen’s teammates speak highly of him. And as for political headwear? Consensus greatest-quarterback-ever Tom Brady made headlines in the fall of 2015 for the “Make America Great Again” hat he displayed in his locker—a fact that has caused Rosen’s defenders to cry hypocrisy.
But the NFL has long been known to prefer conformity over individuality, as it has restricted touchdown celebrations, banned personalized cleats, and fined players for offenses such as wearing the wrong color of socks and running backward into the end zone. And the league’s conservatism seems to become particularly pronounced where politics are involved. When dozens of players last fall demonstrated during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, most owners suggested (or demanded) they stop, while pointedly declining to sign player-activists like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. It’s likely that teams see Rosen’s anti-Trump hat (and other anti-Trump remarks) and brazen comments opposing NCAA amateurism and worry that he might, as the Fox Sports Radio host Colin Cowherd put it, “go political” during his pro career.
Jackson and Mayfield face different sets of criticisms than Rosen, but they buck the standard quarterback mold in their own ways. Mayfield is known for his fiery passion, which has led him to demonstratively “plant” an Oklahoma flag on Ohio State’s field after a Sooners victory and profanely taunt Kansas players who provoked him—actions that strike some observers as unbecoming of a team leader. And although Jackson inspires no notable off-field concerns, he prompts the usual skepticism about quarterbacks who run, to the point that multiple teams reportedly asked him to work out as a wide receiver during the pre-draft process.