There exists an unwritten code of conduct in draft evaluation, a pillar of tenets to follow. One such rule of draft evaluation is to avoid using hyperbole when describing players, as it may dissuade others from seeking out a complete understanding of a prospect’s composite strengths and flaws. The 2020 NFL Draft profile of LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, however, tempts us all to break this rule.
Just a year ago, Burrow was a castoff from Ohio State and another in a long line of LSU quarterbacks who failed to elevate the talented Tigers to the level of a legitimate contender. Now, he’s evolved into Joe Bureaux: Heisman Trophy winner, college football playoff champion, and future No. 1 overall pick, ahead of incumbent collegiate stars like Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, and Jake Fromm. The third incarnation of Broadway Joe.
Burrow’s 2019 season was a historical revelation. Not just on the stat sheet, where he became the first SEC quarterback in history to break 4,500 yards, where he broke the record for passing touchdowns in a season with 60, and where he completed 76.3 percent of his passes. It was also a revelation on tape, where Burrow transformed into a paradigm of quarterback excellence almost overnight.
The LSU offense was schemed masterfully by Joe Brady to accentuate Burrow’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses in 2019, but that can no longer be grounds for penalizing prospects. NFL teams are supposed to make similar changes to maximize their players, and Burrow has shown that if a team can tune an offense to his strengths, just as LSU did, he can be dominant. What makes Burrow such an exciting prospect, and what traits enabled him to take the college football world by storm?
Joe Burrow’s NFL Draft Profile
When watching Burrow’s film, the trait that stands out almost instantly is his contagious competitive toughness and resolve under pressure. Burrow doesn’t often panic when faced with a free rusher, and he always looks to keep plays alive. Burrow has the athleticism to do so, and he also has the rare ability to flip the switch when ad-libbing, keep his eyes downfield, and make plays out of structure.
Burrow is at his most dangerous outside of the pocket and he keeps defenses on edge. His passes are consistently precise when throwing on the run, but because of his underrated ability as a runner, defenses have to respect him in both phases, allowing him the flexibility to make plays. Burrow can sometimes run himself into a corner when trying to extend plays, but there’s a lot of upsides to glean from his built-in fearlessness.
Inside the pocket, Burrow is just as dynamic. He has an innate feel for pocket fluctuation, and his subsequent pocket movement is superb. Burrow has a torrid mental response to pocket collapses, and he navigates ever-changing lanes with ease and quickness, possessing the evasiveness and contact balance to stay on his feet more often than not. He also has the discipline to keep his eyes up through this chaos, always looking for the big play to make.
Burrow doesn’t need the chaos to thrive; as a passer in structure, he has plenty of positive traits to market as well. He generally has fluid mechanics, and he’s proficient at squaring his shoulders and feet before throwing, to generate the most torque. His footwork is very smooth, and he has a natural feel for when and how to reset. Although he does better with this when he has more space, he’s more than capable of throwing off-base.
Burrow has a quick, compact release, and he’s excellent at giving receivers run-after-catch opportunities in the short-to-intermediate ranges. When his feet are set and he’s properly prepared to throw, he can generate substantial velocity; his arm strength, while not top-tier, is far from a liability. His quick processing helps here, as he’s very good at pre-snap adjustments and diagnoses, and he knows how to put himself in a position to make a play.
When looking at Burrow’s NFL Draft profile, not everything is perfect. While arm strength isn’t a pressing issue, arm elasticity is. Burrow doesn’t quite have the elasticity required to give deep passes the requisite mix of velocity and cushion consistently. More often than not, his deep passes will either be lobs that allow defenders to close in, or line drives that overshoot their targets. When he times it right, Burrow can hit his man in stride, but he needs more consistency in this area.
Burrow has the situational awareness to determine what type of throw he needs to make. Still, his arm doesn’t have enough elasticity to make the requisite throw in each situation. This didn’t stop Burrow from giving his receivers chances in contested catch scenarios, but he also benefitted from receivers who were reliable in their ability to capitalize on an opportunity. In the NFL, Burrow might not be guaranteed this kind of collaborative partnership on a play-to-play basis.
There are also more process-oriented issues with Burrow. His trigger is a little slow, which can amount to defensive opportunities with his lack of transcendent arm strength. He also wasn’t asked to go through progressions often in LSU’s offense, and anticipatory throws were in relatively short supply on tape. These are areas that can be developed at the next level, but it will take a lot of work on Burrow’s part, especially when already undergoing the leap to a higher echelon of competition.
All this said, the positives far outweigh the negatives for Burrow, and the largest source of optimism is this: Burrow tangibly improved almost all facets of his game in 2019. He brought a newfound toughness to pressure situations, and he elevated those around him, just as they elevated him.
Burrow has a habit for the hyperbolic. Sometimes it can get him into trouble. But a player who thrives amidst the chaos is a player who can win on Sundays. That’s where Joe Burrow’s NFL Draft profile gains its strength. Burrow doesn’t have the arm talent that other prospects have. Still, he’s uncommonly advanced with his poise, intermediate accuracy, improvisation skills, and pocket presence, and these traits, in conjunction with one another provide a near-seamless foundation from which he can reach even greater heights.