2020 NFL Draft Rookie Profile: Joe Burrow (Fantasy Football)

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I begin this article with a bit of trepidation as Joe Burrow looks like the clear No. 1 choice by the Cincinnati Bengals in our soon-to-be “virtual NFL Draft”. In other words, we’ll be chilling on our couches along with the rest of the NFL GMs, scouts, and executives watching the Heisman trophy winner as we pray the internet doesn’t break. His unbelievable and almost unthinkable 2019 college football campaign is one NCAA fans will be talking about for years.

The goal of this rookie profile is not to offer a contrarian take or poke too many holes in Burrow’s game. However, when analyzing the game film and taking into account every part of his game, I want to offer a sobering overview of Burrow’s tape highlighting his immense abilities, his clutch moments, and also mentioning a couple of avenues where his transition to the NFL could be more of an adjustment. Hopefully, this removes the hype and aura that comes with Burrow’s cigar-smoking swagger and simply views him as another NFL draft prospect. As I did with Justin Herbert and Jordan Love’s rookie profile, I’m trying to come in with no expectation, although I recognize this player carries more gravitas than almost anyone.

Note: For more on the 2020 rookie class, check out all of our 2020 NFL Draft content and stay tuned to the Fantasy Footballers podcast for April’s Rookie Preview show where the Ballers breakdown each position heading into the draft.

College Production Profile
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Burrow has a fairytale, almost Hallmark movie ending to his college career. From overlooked QB at Ohio State to transferring to LSU to becoming the Heisman trophy winner and putting up arguably the greatest college football statistical season ever for a QB, it was a wild ride. Much has been made about the shift in the offensive scheme as LSU went from middle tier (67th in passing yards) to leading the nation in passing yards, completion percentage, and TD passes.

NFL Scouting Combine Measurements
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Much has been made about Burrow’s hand size measuring lower than desired but we can also point to a number of established, elite NFL QBs who are in the same ballpark. His size is solid and he has the frame and ability to gain more muscle at the next level to absorb sacks and develop arm strength. While he didn’t test or throw at the combine, Burrow did discuss his combine visit with the Bengals and the excitement that came with his senior year celebrity status.

What’s On Tape

My method for watching film is simple: get out a pen and pad of paper. Watch each passing attempt taking note of the down and distance and simply write down what I see. For a QB, I focus on accuracy, aDOT, footwork, locating 2nd reads, and how they stand in the pocket under pressure. For Burrow, I took six of his highest-profile games from the 2019 season.

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Games viewed: Clemson (2019), Oklahoma (2019), Georgia (2019), Alabama (2019), Auburn (2019), Texas (2019)

1. His decision-making made him look unshakeable.

This has been widely covered, but Burrow was an all-state point guard in high school and you can see how he visualizes the field, finds his teammates and executes as if he was on the basketball court. Playing almost exclusively in the shotgun helps a QB analyze, assess, and deliver the ball with authority. He repeatedly made opposing linebackers and cornerbacks bleed on the short-to-intermediate passing game. Honestly, it seemed like every play Burrow was able to not only read the defense but the deliver the ball where it needed to be. If teams pressed up on WRs, he either found them deep or anticipated TE Thaddeus Moss or RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire on short releases.

It’s also apparent that some of his rushes were absolute back-breakers in huge moments. Against Alabama, in the SEC Championship against Georgia, Oklahoma in the CFP Semifinal and in the National Championship against Clemson, there were legitimate runs that made me notice his vision in the open field. As discussed later, this playmaking ability on the ground is a double-edged sword waiting to happen in my opinion.

2. Sometimes his accuracy just isn’t fair.

Going back to his college production profile, it certainly makes you jump out of your seat to see a QB launch from completing less than 58 percent of his passes his junior year to an other-worldly 76.3 last year! But realize this LSU offense wasn’t just built on dink-and-dunk tactics like Texas Tech or Baylor teams that put up major offensive numbers. When watching the film, the amount of on-time, money throws from Burrow to intermediate levels of the field seemed just as effective as the short passing game. As if 60 passing TDs isn’t enough, I spotted another five(!) would be TDs just in these six games alone that were negated as a result of drops/penalties.

Beyond the clear drop by wideout Ja’Marr Chase, I want to point to the timing, rhythm, and ball placement by Burrow. That’s an absolute dime put in a spot where only his wide receiver could make a place. Accuracy isn’t just a measure of comparing attempts and completions but the elite marksmen of NFL QBs (Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson) know the catch radius of their pass-catchers and are able to time their throws so their wideouts don’t lose a step in pursuit of a reception. For down-the-field throws, that is what makes Burrow special as a prospect.

Here is a perfectly thrown and perfectly timed ball 40 yards downfield to Justin Jefferson against Oklahoma in the CFP Semi-Final. Burrow’s mechanics are pristine but it’s the “in-stride” throw that makes this look easy. For more on Jefferson, check out Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception profile on the talented LSU wideout.

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Here’s one more for good measure that caught my attention against Clemson in the National Championship.

3. His arm strength is fine but not special.

Arm strength is an enigmatic physical trait when it comes to grading QBs. Some might’ve gushed over the eye-popping arm of Josh Allen coming out of Wyoming. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are guys like former Marshall QB Chad Pennington who made his mark in the NFL as an accurate, albeit dink-and-dunk artist always throwing ducks when it went 30+ yards downfield. Regardless, QBs rarely make more than four-to-five throws of this nature in a game; honestly, who cares if someone can throw it 75 yards in the air when the NFL game is won in the short-to-intermediate zones most of the time.

Burrow is by no means weak and his football usually comes out with enough zip. On film, there were a couple of instances where the ball “fluttered” and it wasn’t because of being off-balanced.  With his decision-making being off the charts, it ultimately comes down to Burrow being able to time his throws and make sure he drives off his back foot. When he gets “ahead of himself” like a baseball pitcher, it seems like he’s using more “arm” than his entire body to step into throws thus resulting in less than acceptable velocity. Here’s one in the National Championship game on a 3rd-and-19 although a pass interference call saved him.

What’s Not on Tape

This is arguably the most crucial part of any scouting analysis, in my opinion. It is easy to splice together highlight reel takes and forget that we are looking at college football players; in other words, the majority of players the prospect faced will never be playing on an NFL field and likely will be vying to be your financial planner or turning to high school coaching. We cannot only glean from film watching based on what our eyeballs are showing us. Sometimes it’s best to ask yourself the question: What am I not seeing? This involves asking questions and reflecting.

Here are a couple of takeaways of what didn’t show up:

1. He didn’t get rattled.

Now that might be a bit of an understatement considering the Tigers were always playing from ahead and making some lower-tier SEC teams look like JV squads from the number of points they poured on their opponents. We need to take into consideration not just the quality of his opponents in the SEC, the big-time matchups in the College Football Playoff, but the sheer quantity of games this guy has played in the last two years. 28 games played over two years is almost three seasons worth of tape to see. While comparing 2018 to 2019 might be difficult given the drastic change in offensive philosophy, it seemed like he was calm and collected every drive regardless of what previously happened.

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Burrow posted the highest passer rating under pressure (143.2) per Sports Info Solutions. For more film on Burrow’s insane ability to perform when the play breaks down, I recommend Brett Kollman’s video where he compares him to Patrick Mahomes. While that might be a bit of a leap, it seemed like he always responded with a vengeance whenever the Tigers were down or the next series after a punt. I was waiting for a visible emotional response but he certainly was Joe Cool in the game film I watched.

2. He didn’t take huge hits.

You can look at this from a couple of different viewpoints:

  • Burrow is a smart runner who knows when to avoid pressure.
  • Burrow’s offensive line was elite and he received as good as protection as anyone in the NCAA.
  • He avoided “big hits” at an unsustainable rate. In other words, they will come.

If you’re asking yourself which one is most true, the answer is likely… YES. All of them need to be taken into account especially for a QB with underrated escapability and a knack for taking off and not always getting “down”. Check the Alabama tape. There were a couple of scrambles (against future NFL draft picks) where Burrow tries to make a play outside the pocket where he doesn’t throw the ball away but sticks in a bit longer than I would’ve liked. I also spotted designed draw plays where, once he got past the first line of defense, he tried to spin and avoid tacklers more than I would want than my NFL franchise QB. Here is one of those “back-breakers” defensive coordinators have nightmares over on a 3rd-and-10 right before halftime against Clemson.

I counted three or four other instances on tape where Burrow picked up massive chunks of yards on the ground but was fortunate to not absorb a massive hit from a linebacker and safety way downfield. It is usually when the runner fails to step out of bounds or slide to pick up an additional five yards where they get shellacked and endure a concussion or broken bones.

3. The sacks are coming.

Here’s where it could go wrong for Burrow. Rookies are notorious for trying to hold onto the ball too long to try and make something happen. See recent mobile guys like Deshaun Watson and Kyler Murray. While we applaud the incredible escape artists, learning how to throw the ball away will be part of his maturation process at the next level. He had the benefit of playing behind one of the top offensive lines in the NCAA on a pass-first offense. In 2019, Burrow was credited with 34 sacks, one fewer than his 2018 campaign despite playing in two more games and having nearly 600 dropbacks.

On many occasions, I found Burrow a bit too comfortable dancing around in the pocket including often sprinting away from defensive linemen towards the right sideline in hopes of magically finding someone downfield while on the run. I can’t knock the guy for his instincts avoiding pressure. However, I think the lumps of experiencing life as a rookie signal-caller in the NFL are coming.

2020 Fantasy Outlook

Burrow is going to be a breath of fresh air in Cincinnati after Andy Dalton has been at the helm for more than a decade. (That is insane.) He steps into Zac Taylor’s offense which is an ode to the Sean McVay system that stresses three WR sets and timing routes that feasts on a QBs ability to be accurate. For fantasy, Burrow could be thrust into a situation where sheer volume in the passing game on a bottom tier NFL team makes him a streaming consideration out the gate. Beyond the overly hyped owner in your redraft league who drafts the LSU QB late, Burrow is best starting out the season on the waiver wire as a rookie.

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In dynasty leagues, aside from being the first QB off the board and a mid-to-late first-rounder, he’s in consideration as the 1.01 in Superflex leagues. With Burrow’s pedigree, he’s set up to be the Bengal’s franchise QB for the next decade. While the weapons might be changing (A.J. Green), he now possesses the swagger for free agents and draft picks to get behind him and make Cincinnati an actual destination for something special.

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