ARLINGTON, Tex. — Baker Mayfield was a walk-on at Texas Tech, and then a walk-on again at Oklahoma. Yet on Thursday night, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the N.F.L. draft, with the Cleveland Browns selecting Mayfield, the gunslinging Heisman Trophy winner, over three other highly regarded quarterbacks.
The others were Sam Darnold of Southern California, who was picked third by the Jets; Josh Allen of Wyoming, who went seventh to Buffalo after the Bills traded up to get to that slot; and Josh Rosen of U.C.L.A., who went 10th to the Arizona Cardinals, who also traded up.
It was the first time since the N.F.L. and the A.F.L. held a common draft in 1967 that four quarterbacks were selected in the top 10 — further emphasizing, not that it was needed, the pre-eminence of the position in the modern game. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — like Mayfield, a two-time Heisman finalist and one-time winner (2016) — was selected with the final pick of the first round by the Baltimore Ravens, who traded for the pick.
At No. 2, the Giants selected the player many scouts deemed to be the most purely talented in the draft, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, eschewing a quarterback and instead keeping their trust in 2004’s top overall pick, the 37-year-old Eli Manning.
The Browns also held the No. 4 pick, and delivered a mild surprise by drafting Denzel Ward, a cornerback from nearby Ohio State, filling a specific need rather than selecting the consensus best available player — which at that point was Bradley Chubb, a dynamic pass rusher from North Carolina State. Chubb was instead selected fifth by the Denver Broncos, where he will play alongside Von Miller, the Super Bowl 50 most valuable player.
This was the first N.F.L. draft held in a stadium. Roughly two-thirds of the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium was cordoned off and left vacant, while thousands poured into the remaining section, from the chairs set up on the floor abutting the stage to the top concourse. If that atmosphere seemed strange, the boos that accompanied Commissioner Roger Goodell every time he walked onstage to announce a pick provided a reassuringly familiar soundtrack.
A much different reception greeted the Steelers’ 28th pick, which was announced by Ryan Shazier, the Steelers linebacker who sustained a gruesome spinal injury during a game in December. Accompanied by his fiancée, he walked to the podium with a pronounced limp.
After the Broncos took Chubb at No. 5, Indianapolis selected Quenton Nelson, a guard from Notre Dame, who Colts fans hope will help protect quarterback Andrew Luck, who is still working his way back from a shoulder injury.
The Bills’ selection of Allen, who earlier in the day apologized for racially insensitive tweets he had sent several years ago, was followed by the Chicago Bears’ nabbing Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith and the San Francisco 49ers’ picking offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, the second Notre Dame lineman to go in the top 10.
But the Browns, who have two of the first three picks in the second round Friday night (thanks to a trade that helped the Eagles net their starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, in 2016), were unquestionably the central players of the draft. Recently and historically, they have been the N.F.L.’s most hapless franchise. They have sustained more than one front-office overhaul in the past few years, and their record over the past two seasons is 1-31.
At this point, though, there is method to the Browns’ madness. In the N.B.A. and Major League Baseball, some franchises have adopted “tanking” — intentionally fielding a less-competitive team in order to stockpile and develop younger players — as a rebuilding strategy. After years of what the N.B.A.’s Philadelphia 76ers have labeled “The Process,” anchored by a few young stars, that team is a series away from its first Eastern Conference finals since 2001. Baseball’s most successful recent tankers were the Houston Astros, the reigning World Series champion.
After a few years of counterproductive mediocrity, the Browns got the losing thing right, going 1-15 in 2016 and a perfect 0-16 last season. That made them the first team to receive the top overall pick in consecutive years since 1999 and 2000. Of course, the Browns held the top spot those years, too.
Cleveland secured the fourth pick this year after trading the 12th pick last year to the Houston Texans, who used it to select a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson.
The Browns came away from this year’s draft with what they hope will be their own franchise quarterback along with an immediate contributor on defense to go along with last year’s top pick, Myles Garrett, an electric defensive end at Texas A&M who managed to lead the Browns in sacks last year while playing barely half their games because of injury trouble.
Garrett was a no-brainer. Mayfield will prove much more controversial. His character is bold or brash, depending on one’s perspective, as illustrated by his infamously planting an Oklahoma flag at Ohio Stadium’s midfield last year after beating Ohio State. He also pleaded guilty to public intoxication last year.
He is shorter than a typical top quarterback prospect, and smaller than the other three selected high this year. But he is a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist — and the reigning winner — who led Oklahoma to the national semifinals with a sure and accurate arm.
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