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BEREA, Ohio – The Cleveland Browns felt nothing but certainty when they made quarterback Baker Mayfield the first pick in the NFL draft.

Concerns about size and behavior had been answered for a few weeks before the card was turned in; Mayfield’s tape and interviews told the Browns what they needed to know.

"The guy knows how to play the game, and knows how to win," general manager John Dorsey said the first night of the draft.

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It’s as succinct a summary as there is of the way the Browns feel about Mayfield, the guy they believe will be their future. The team’s work and research, first-person and otherwise, had pointed them to the former Oklahoma quarterback with surety.

The importance of the pick cannot be minimized. If it works, the Browns have solved an issue that has plagued them since 1999. If it doesn’t, it’s another four-year wait for the next guy, and the people who will be picking the next guy could be different as well.

How this came about involved research, a "hee-hee," a whiteboard and endless observation. The Browns became convinced that Mayfield could play the position and read defenses simply by watching him play. "Trust your eyes," Dorsey had said before the draft.

But the one key fact driven home by the Browns' observations and research was that Mayfield, whose Cleveland journey begins Friday with a rookie minicamp, had almost a gravitational pull with people, and that his teammates liked, admired, respected and followed him.

"In pregame, he would walk by a group of Oklahoma players and there was just that instant energy that everyone had," assistant general manager Eliot Wolf said of a game against Texas.

When Mayfield did his initial news conference in Cleveland, he sat next to fourth overall pick Denzel Ward. In those settings, the first pick often gets the majority of the questions. Twice in an answer, Mayfield adeptly drew the question in a complimentary way toward Ward -- a small gesture that teammates no doubt appreciate.

imageBaker Mayfield checked all the boxes for the Browns as they deliberated over whom to take with the No. 1 overall pick. Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

Browns coach Hue Jackson spoke almost comically of Mayfield’s arrival at his pro day workout at Oklahoma, relating how Mayfield walked into the team’s facility and let out a rallying cry that Jackson equated to a high-pitched "hee-hee." When the players there to work out with Mayfield heard it, they all responded in kind and trotted to his side. That led Jackson to call Mayfield the "Pied Piper of Oklahoma football."

"It’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen," Jackson said.

Alonzo Highsmith, a standout during the Miami Hurricanes' glory days and the Browns’ vice president of player personnel, told a Hall of Fame luncheon this week that he had USC’s Sam Darnold rated first through the college season. But the more he learned about Mayfield, the more he liked him.

Highsmith said it came down to one word: efficacy. Which in its less formal verbalization comes down to effectiveness and how one person affects another.

"I have always wondered, when it comes to being a great football player, whose standards are we judging them by?" Highsmith said. "It is about playing the game. It is about being a good football player."

"It is about wins," Wolf said, sitting next to Highsmith on the podium during the draft.

"It is about wins," Highsmith said. "I thought Mayfield made all of those checks to me and he had the ‘it’ factor to me."

That "it" factor can’t be quantified. It’s built on inner confidence and security and can approach swagger. A player has it or he doesn’t. It’s why some can lead, and others can't. It also is wrapped up in a competitive streak that few matched in college football. Jackson compared Mayfield’s fire and desire to win to Philip Rivers'. Highsmith watched Mayfield intently at several college games.

"I said, ‘You know what? You could have played with me back at Miami,'" Highsmith said.

This is not a statement to be taken lightly. It took a special kind of player to be part of those Hurricanes teams.

Of all his well-known high jinks, probably the least offensive thing Mayfield did in college was plant the Sooners' flag on the Ohio State logo after a win in Columbus. This is not something players are supposed to do; the logo is sacred ground. But it was a touchstone moment after a big win. It also was something the old Hurricanes would have done in a second.

In the evaluations, Dorsey, Wolf and Scot McCloughan -- the former Redskins GM who worked as a consultant with the Browns on this draft -- all graded Mayfield individually before the end of the season. At the time, Dorsey and McCloughan were unemployed and Wolf was with the Packers. All used the same system that came out of Green Bay that Dorsey uses in Cleveland. All came up with the same evaluation: Mayfield was the best of the quarterbacks.

imageThe Browns were impressed that Baker Mayfield completed better than 70 percent of his passes and did so with a lot of pre-snap responsibility at Oklahoma. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

The Browns did not ignore Mayfield’s off- and on-field antics -- his arrest after he ran from police, his taunting of Kansas players by grabbing himself. Information gathering went deep. Dorsey said he even knew what Mayfield ordered the night of his arrest, which took place near some food trucks. The Browns confronted Mayfield and said he spoke truthfully, which he also did in his introductory news conference when he said it would be an easy decision to stop the silliness. He also conceded that some of his actions would not indicate humility, a trait he believes he has.

"I'm not blind to that," he said.

The Browns also looked inside the numbers. They saw Mayfield had 43 touchdowns and only six interceptions last season. They saw he completed better than 70 percent of his passes, and he did so with a lot of pre-snap responsibility. In games and his workout, they saw his quick feet, which enable him to drop back quicker than most, which the Browns feel will negate the limitations of his height (6 feet, 5/8 inches) and, in effect, make him play like he’s 6-foot-3.

"That gives him an extra couple of yards to see the field, extend the play and make those plays downfield," Dorsey said.

They also saw that of all the passers in college football, nobody had fewer passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage. That showed his ability to get back quickly, get rid of the ball in a hurry and find throwing lanes.

It’s an irony of great proportions given former VP Sashi Brown’s previous emphasis on analytics that analytics sites favored Mayfield as the top quarterback. ProFootballFocus.com had him as the top quarterback through the entire draft process.

There also was his ability to read defenses, which is one area where any comparison to Johnny Manziel is especially unfair. Mayfield simply is far more advanced. SI.com did an in-depth series on Mayfield leading up to the draft, with one of the stories being about how much responsibility he had and how much he grew the more he played.

The Browns do whiteboard tests during interviews, in which they will ask a player to diagram one of his plays and explain his reads. They will tell a player a play and ask him to diagram it.

"Baker Mayfield from a football IQ standpoint is as good as I have been around," Jackson said.

imageBrowns coach Hue Jackson marveled at Baker Mayfield's leadership ability, calling him the "Pied Piper of Oklahoma football." Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

"The one thing I really love is when you talk to the Oklahoma staff. When he gets to Oklahoma, he begins to learn the playbook in three days," Dorsey said.

It’s that ability to process information that allows Mayfield to almost shrug off the jump from college to the pros. He said the Air Raid that Oklahoma ran was far more complex than some read-option offenses, and it was predicated on running the ball first.

"You watch the Chiefs, the Eagles and the Rams, and they have been doing it for a while, the Chiefs especially," Mayfield said. "They are doing different versions of it -- no matter what you want to call it, RPOs, true play-action or bubble screens on top of your run game -- it is just a different way to create mismatches with the defense. It puts them in a numbers game. You see it everywhere. It is just little variations."

Mayfield’s workout was key to confirming to Dorsey and Jackson what they already felt. He threw the usual routes, but he made a point to drop back as if he were taking every snap under center, because in college he threw only seven passes from under center. He also sprinted between workouts to show that he could keep the same efficiency when he was winded or even tired.

Drafts are about judgments, and the Browns had Mayfield and Penn State running back Saquon Barkley ranked almost equally in their overall grade. But the team’s lengthy struggles at the position meant quarterback was a priority. Dorsey also felt comfortable he could get a good back early in the second round, which he did when he took Georgia’s Nick Chubb.

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Matt Hasselbeck says he respects Browns GM John Dorsey, but he would have gone in a different direction with the No. 1 pick.

The last quarterback to be picked first overall by the Browns was Tim Couch, the first choice of an expansion team in 1999.

"He’s tough as hell," Couch said of Mayfield. "Competitive. He will bring some positive energy to the team. I watched him a lot this year. He can play. I really like his game."

The height?

"Doesn’t bother me at all," said Couch, recently hired to be the Browns’ preseason TV analyst. "The game has changed, and smaller guys can play now. He’s very sharp mentally. Accurate, tough, a leader, competitive. He checks every box of a high draft pick except height."

Why doesn’t height matter more?

"It’s more about pocket awareness and footwork and finding lanes to throw," Couch said. "Even if you’re 6-4, you can’t see over the line anymore. Those guys are massive. You have to be able to shuffle around and find throwing lanes. He can do that."

Mayfield’s journey also impressed the Browns. He walked on at Texas Tech and Oklahoma. He sat out a year after he transferred to the Sooners. He was the first walk-on to win the Heisman Trophy and first to be the first pick in the draft.

"He's tough as hell. Competitive. He will bring some positive energy to the team. I watched him a lot this year. He can play. I really like his game." Tim Couch on Baker Mayfield

"He has earned it," Dorsey said. "From high school to college, he has earned it."

Since the draft, Dorsey has heard from several peers who told him Mayfield was the top quarterback on their team’s draft board. The Broncos were believed to have had Mayfield rated highest at the position. Rams coach Sean McVay sat next to Mayfield on a flight to the combine, and not only did McVay steal a couple of plays from Mayfield, he, according to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, told Mayfield that if he didn’t have Jared Goff, he’d have gone after the rookie from Oklahoma. Cleveland.com reported that four teams had Mayfield rated first, and in a podcast with Andrew Brandt of the MMQB, Mayfield’s agent said he believed the Patriots might have traded to the second spot to take Mayfield had the Browns passed.

He now has the chance to do what so many draft picks before him did not do: take hold of the Browns' quarterback job, hang onto it and win games.

"I have no qualms about him," Dorsey said, "as a man and as a football player."

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Saturday, 20 October 2018