The hero of college football. The driving force behind the greatest season college football has ever witnessed. The conqueror, the vanquisher, and now champion of the world. Joe Burrow’s story is that of a true American, from graduating as Ohio State’s backup quarterback to the transfer portal to winning the Heisman Trophy, National Championship, and numerous other awards. While Burrow achieved the climax of success as a redshirt senior at LSU, no evidence suggests the same will happen at the NFL level.
However, Burrow is no unique quarterback prospect. While yes, the 2019 LSU Tigers ran an NFL-level system in college, as former offensive coordinator Joe Brady (now the OC for the Carolina Panthers) is a disciple of Sean Payton, Burrow’s play far exceeded the standard for any system quarterback at the collegiate level. Sure, he did have some NFL-level talent around him, such as former 5-star recruit wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase (2019 Biletnikoff Winner) and Terrace Marshall Jr, as well as 2019 Jim Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit (full LSU roster here); however, this LSU team wouldn’t have won games without Joe Burrow.
It’s not every day that one sees a former backup rise to stardom, but that’s exactly what Burrow overcame. He’s one of the all-time great stories told in professional sports, but this scouting report attempts to answer a different central question: Outside of the hero’s journey-Esque narrative, who is Joe Burrow the football player? In other words, how does Burrow project at the NFL level? What kind of quarterback can he be?
The first aspect of Joe Burrow’s game that almost everyone raves about is his immense arm talent. Does he possess the same arm talent as deep-ball specialists such as Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes II, Jared Goff, Russell Wilson, and Kyler Murray? Probably not, but his arm talent is definitely there. Watch this touchdown throw to Justin Jefferson against Oklahoma in the 2020 Peach Bowl.
— Def Pen Sports (@DefPenSports) December 28, 2019
LSU is lined up in the empty formation here, which indicates 5 “wide receivers” split outside of the offensive line. Other than receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson (the recipient of this touchdown pass), and Terrace Marshall Jr, the Tigers have tight end Thaddeus Moss (slot, 3rd from top) and running back Chris Curry (Z, 1st from top) lined up on the strong side of the formation on opposite sides of Marshall (slot, 2nd from top). Jefferson (2nd from bottom) is lined up in the slot on the weak side of the formation, flanked by Chase (X, 1st from bottom), and of course, Burrow is in the shotgun.
After taking the snap, watch how Burrow goes through his progressions from left to right (more on this later). Once #95 on Oklahoma disrupts the pocket, watch Burrow feel the rush and then escape through the weak side B gap, with his eyes still looking downfield. As he’s on the run, notice how quickly Burrow releases this ball downfield (more on this later), as well as the velocity at which it reaches Jefferson. It’s a perfect spiral thrown effortlessly to a spot where only Jefferson could haul it in, and Burrow didn’t even break a sweat.
Time and time again this season, college football saw Burrow make these types of throws, and it’s exactly why he should be considered a franchise quarterback. In fact, it’s this kind of arm talent (especially throw power) that arguably makes him the greatest quarterback to enter the NFL in a while. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That’s exactly what Burrow did on this play, and with one flick of a wrist, he created a high-velocity, perfect spiral that ended up as a touchdown, once again using throw power to demonstrate his immense arm talent.
However, there is a really important co-contributor to Burrow’s game that really elevates his amazing arm talent: accuracy. Per Pro Football Reference (articles here and here), Burrow completed passes at a whopping 76.3%, which would’ve been a good 2% higher than 2019 leader Drew Brees, who completed said percentage in 378 attempts. Furthermore, Burrow averaged 10.8 yards per attempt, with 12.2 yards adjusted per attempt, which also would’ve been first in the NFL by a comfortable margin, per Pro Football Reference (articles here and here). These stats reveal that Burrow’s accuracy wasn’t inflated by easy check-downs, but was a strong indicator of the overall depth of his attempts.
Furthermore, this data also reveals an accurate conclusion about the effect of Joe Brady’s system on Burrow’s overall production: LSU’s play calls, while similar to those of Sean Payton’s in New Orleans, provide Burrow with reads of varying depths, including a good amount of deep shots. Watch the different route concepts in the following play. This touchdown pass to Terrace Marshall Jr was the first play of the 4th quarter against Texas.
Joe Burrow throws his third touchdown 🔥 pic.twitter.com/jDRyZdUknd
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 8, 2019
On this play, Burrow is once again in the shotgun, with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire lined up on his right hip. Terrace Marshall Jr, #6 (1st from the bottom), is lined up as the X-receiver, with Justin Jefferson, #2 (2nd from bottom), lined up in the slot. Tight end Stephen Sullivan (#10) is lined up as the Y-receiver off the line of scrimmage (see the replay, not available from the broadcast angle), with wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (#1) lined up as the Z-receiver in a tight split.
Notice the different depths and areas of the field that this play call attacks. Chase runs a shallow crossing route as a check-down option 2-3 yards downfield to attack the short zone between the line of scrimmage and the linebackers, while Sullivan runs a corner route to the left pylon, which draws the attention of both the cornerback and the safety, who are both sitting in Cover 4. Justin Jefferson runs a dig route 15 yards downfield to attack the area inside the hashes, within the middle of the zone between the linebackers and the safeties, and Terrace Marshall, the primary read, runs a post route to the end zone.
Notice how each route concept also draws certain defenders in different directions, leaving Marshall 1-on-1 against the corner. As Jefferson’s dig route forces the safety to drop down and take that responsibility, the absence of that safety opens up the throwing lane to Marshall on the post, which Burrow recognizes and then hits for the touchdown. As the corner is expecting safety help, he (in an outside leverage alignment) gives up the inside-breaking post for a touchdown.
While Burrow doesn’t exactly do anything special on this play, this play primarily illustrates the effect of Brady’s system on his accuracy. Are this system and surrounding talent the only reason Burrow is good? No, definitely not. The first play illustrates that Burrow can definitely take over “without his coach reading coverage for him” (looking at you, Jared Goff) and make lemonade out of lemons (extremely accurate touch pass to Jefferson), but the second play not only shows how Burrow is one of the rare QBs who can fit any system but also how a great system can make Burrow a future All-Pro.
Even within that element of Burrow’s accuracy, he has 2 important qualities which make his accuracy, and thus, his arm talent, so good: footwork and release. Burrow’s release was definitely one of the quickest in all of college football, no doubt about it. Watch how clean his feet are, and how quickly he gets the ball out on this read against Alabama (6:57 timestamp).
Watch Burrow’s feet as he sits in the pocket. The movement is so clean. He crisscrosses his feet as he moves in the pocket, and when he steps up to deliver this comeback route to Ja’Marr Chase, his feet, shoulders, and hips are so coordinated that he gets optimal velocity/throw power on the ball when he releases it so quickly, fitting it tightly into that small window between 2 Alabama defenders (Trevon Diggs and Xavier McKinney). Notice that his feet don’t touch either. This throw is also the epitome of Burrow’s fearlessness, as that’s a window for NFL quarterbacks to throw into (more on this later).
The combination of footwork and release factoring into Burrow’s accuracy provides a certain implication. People talk about how Burrow’s offensive line at LSU was incredible (which it truly was) and how he may not have that at the next level. However, if his release is so blindingly fast, is the lack of an elite offensive line really going to affect his play? Not saying that whichever team drafts Burrow (cough cough, Bengals) shouldn’t invest in one, as they obviously should, but with a quarterback like Burrow, the whole team-building process becomes much easier if the team emphasizes his quick passing game as the main cog in their playbook, allowing his offensive line to develop.
Furthermore, notice how in all of these plays except for the very first one, Burrow stared his first read down and made the throw. While some may claim Burrow is primarily a one-read quarterback, this simply isn’t true. There were multiple plays against Alabama where Burrow manipulated defenders with his eyes and then found the correct progression because it was as if he knew the holes in Alabama’s coverage pre-snap, which only commends his intelligence even more. Watch this crucial 3rd-down conversion in Alabama territory to keep a drive going (2:04:04 timestamp).
Burrow is once again in shotgun, with tight end Thaddeus Moss (#81, first from bottom) lined up on the line of scrimmage and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (#22, first from bottom) lined up several yards off the LOS in the slot. On the opposite side, receivers Ja’Marr Chase (#1), Terrace Marshall (#6), and Justin Jefferson (#2) are lined up in trips, all several yards off the LOS.
Watch how Joe Burrow changes the play pre-snap because he can identify Alabama’s pre-snap coverage. He audibles at the line of scrimmage and then takes the snap because he notices the alignment of Alabama’s defensive backs on the trips side. Corner Trevon Diggs (#7) is lined up with inside leverage, safety Shyheim Carter (#5) is lined up on the LOS opposite Terrace Marshall, and corner Patrick Surtain II (#2) is lined up in off coverage with outside leverage.
Because Burrow recognized Alabama’s zone coverage, he audibled to this play because he knew Carter’s responsibility would be to carry Marshall up the field. Carter indeed carries Marshall’s deep fade, leaving Surtain and Diggs, who are both in zone coverage, to deal with Chase and Jefferson.
Brady’s play call is quite interesting because Chase’s crossing route takes advantage of Diggs’ inside leverage by forcing Diggs to carry his route, leaving Surtain “1-on-1” with Jefferson. However, because Jefferson hesitates, Surtain gets caught napping in coverage, as he too hesitates to rotate over and pick up Jefferson’s crossing route. Because the pre-snap distance between Surtain and Jefferson was so large, both Brady and Burrow knew they had Alabama’s zone defense figured out.
However, watch Burrow’s eyes on this play. He casually manipulates the zone defenders by looking over at the flat-corner concept Brady called for Edwards-Helaire and Moss as his first progression and then shifts his eyes towards the bunch trips formation. He knew beforehand that the zone vacated by Diggs would be wide open because of Surtain’s leverage alignment, so he had the intelligence to keep the rest of the defense at bay, and then hit the second progression, the one he intended to find all along.
This is Joe Burrow, the pocket quarterback to a T. This is why he draws comparisons to Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time. Similar to Tom, Burrow uses his pre-snap intelligence to bait the defense and then go through his progressions to find the mismatch he knew would be there all this time. Throws like this are what keep crucial drives alive, especially at the NFL stage. If a special talent like Burrow can already make them at this stage, imagine how ready he’ll be to refine this at the highest level.
Another NFL-level trait Burrow already possesses, which isn’t very common among most quarterback prospects to enter the league, is his fearlessness and poise. He does not go bonkers when defenses throw ambiguous coverages at him (just ask Clemson’s defensive coordinator Brent Venables). Furthermore, when he’s navigating the pocket, his poise and pocket presence are simply on another level. When he feels pressure, his elite mobility kicks in and makes him an even more dangerous quarterback. Watch this play against Oklahoma in the same Peach Bowl (2:21 timestamp).
Once again, Burrow is in the shotgun, with Curry (Z), Marshall (slot), and Moss (Y, closest to LOS) lined up in trips (first 3 from the top) on the right side of the formation and Jefferson (slot) and Chase (X) lined up as doubles (first 2 from the bottom) on the left side. Oklahoma is showing Blitz 0 (all-out blitz, no deep safety) with 6 potential rushers and the defensive backs in man coverage.
Once again, Brady’s play-calling attacks different spaces on the field. Chase and Marshall are running deep fades to opposite sides, with Jefferson running a post, Moss running an out, and Curry running a curl. Notice how all these routes are good at beating man coverage and don’t take very long to develop.
However, by the time Burrow gets through his progressions, his pocket has already collapsed, and he’s on the move. Because every LSU receiver projects to play in the NFL (besides Chris Curry), they recognize their quarterback is in trouble and that he needs an outlet, so they try making themselves available.
As Burrow’s going out of bounds, he doesn’t try to run backward or cut back in-bounds, because he knows that the end result would be disastrous for LSU, especially with 3 Oklahoma defenders chasing him. So, he doesn’t do anything to jeopardize that, and instead, gives Terrace Marshall a chance by lofting a high ball with multiple red and yellow jerseys, just to see who comes down with it.
Could one argue this is reckless? Absolutely. Could one also argue this “dumb luck” is what makes Burrow great? Sure. The result of this play doesn’t matter as much as Burrow’s poised reaction to a collapsing pocket. Rather than going bonkers and running backwards only to get sacked, he kept the play alive and fearlessly trusted Marshall to make a play while running out of bounds.
I’ll say this again; Joe Burrow is special. Not many quarterbacks can make this kind of throw at all, and to place an enormous and even to some extent reckless amount of trust in a teammate makes this guy different. Burrow’s fearless to the point where fear itself wouldn’t speak his name, and he’s special to the point where he redefines special.
That being said, while Burrow is the closest thing to a perfect prospect, he’s still not perfect. He sometimes has a tendency to just airmail wide open receivers. The snap-to-throw period is absolutely perfect, but next thing you know, Ja’Marr Chase is wide open for a touchdown, and Burrow, for some reason, throws an uncatchable ball. Watch the following two plays against Alabama (timestamp: 57:36 and 1:50:15).
Watch how wide-open Chase is on both of these plays, and then look where Burrow throws the ball. However, this flaw is by no means unfixable. It just comes down to Burrow putting too much touch on these passes, which makes them impossible for his receivers to catch. This is similar to a concentration drop for a wide receiver; it’s not a huge flaw but it’s a bad habit that still happens occasionally.
Another complaint people have with Burrow is the fact that he’ll turn 24 as a rookie, which is a tad old. However, that doesn’t necessarily matter unless whichever team he goes to (cough cough, Cincy) pulls a Ryan Grigson and wastes multiple assets without protecting him, forcing him to take a bunch of hits and thus getting injured early in his career and wasting his talent.
He also has most of the traits that a seasoned veteran should have, so whatever age he gets drafted at shouldn’t really matter. Furthermore, unless the aforementioned scenario happens, quarterbacks have a much longer calling card than any other position. So, who really cares what age he’s drafted at if he becomes a Hall-of-Famer within 15 years, which Burrow definitely has the potential to do.
Finally, the most common argument against Burrow is that he’s a system product and that all of his surrounding NFL-level talent makes him who he is. As mentioned before, this isn’t exactly true, as Burrow doesn’t just sit in the pocket and take the wide-open throws. He made lemonade from lemons over and over again. He took broken plays and turned them into completions and finally, he helped the system and the surrounding talent help him and make him better. While yes, a great system would elevate his play, Burrow could probably do just fine in any functional system.
Many media members have said Burrow’s pro comparison should be Tom Brady, and it’s not difficult to see why. He has the pre-snap intelligence to dissect coverages beforehand with a mastery of eye discipline, clean movement in the pocket, and going through his progressions, similar to how Tom did in New England. However, beyond that, the deployability of his mobility is similar to that of Dak Prescott, his playmaking is very reminiscent to that of Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, and his accuracy draws parallels to that of Drew Brees. He appears to combine some of the best aspects of some of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league.
However, after watching Burrow, the one player he reminds me of in a vacuum just took his team to the Super Bowl and plays in the same division as Russell Wilson: Jimmy Garoppolo
Burrow gives off Jimmy G vibes because he operates just like Jimmy in the pocket. Similar to Burrow, Jimmy’s footwork is clean, his release is lightning in a bottle, he is a mobile quarterback, and he is very poised (ask the New Orleans Saints). However, Burrow differs a little because Garoppolo is more system-dependent (which isn’t a bad thing), and he doesn’t only use the middle of the field for most of his reads. In fact, I’d argue Burrow is more mobile than Garoppolo, his playmaking instantly raises his ceiling and makes him the ultimate it-factor, and he takes every risk but makes little to no mistakes. Burrow, in a vacuum, usually makes better reads as well.
However, their pocket presence and playstyles are beyond similar. Both can punish defenses with any depth of target. If you want to give them easy matchups and get the ball out of their hands, they can work with that. If you want to let them take deep shots off of play-action and find wide-open receivers in space, they can work with that too. Even better, if you allow them to operate the entire field with a variety of play calls and put a strict emphasis on the run game, both quarterbacks will be at their best.
Projected Pick and Best Fit
Everyone knows Burrow is going #1 overall, so it would be a crime to not project him to the Cincinnati Bengals. He was the hero of college football last season, and that’s exactly what Cincy needs. They’ve been in a doghouse ever since their Wild Card Round loss to the Steelers in 2015, and Andy Dalton just hasn’t been the answer. Burrow’s the pick here, no questions asked. Just trust me and don’t read into any of the other rumors or mock drafts that don’t have Burrow going #1 because they’re just inaccurate. No matter what they say, Burrow is going #1. Cincy might as well tip their hand right now because one way or another, they know they’re taking Burrow, we know they’re taking Burrow, and they might as well get it over with.
If anyone doubts Burrow’s ability to be a franchise player, here you go. Watch these plays against Alabama (Timestamps: 1:07:16, 2:29:32). No analysis needed.
However, at the moment, his best fit may be the New Orleans Saints. This is a virtually impossible situation, but it can still be mentioned. Once again, Burrow has familiarity with Sean Payton’s system, and in a time like this, familiarity is more necessary than anything else. He’d have one of the best offensive lines in the league, a fantastic mentor in Drew Brees, and skill position talents such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Emmanuel Sanders, and Taysom Hill (see depth chart here). Is Burrow still going to be a Day 1 starter with the Bengals? Yes. Would he be a Day 1 starter in this realistically-impossible scenario? No.
Either way, when the Bengals draft Burrow, he’s gonna command the culture of that locker room from Day 1, and be the franchise player that almost every Bengals fan has endured terrible season after terrible season after terrible season to land. Don’t worry, Bengals fans, when this pick hits, and when the front office makes it their mission to make Burrow’s life easier, the reward for this “risk” is going to be worth all of the hell you’ve suffered for the past 5 seasons.
Final TSW Grade (100-point scale): 95.4 (Position Rank: #1)