What History Tells Us About 2020’s Rookie QBs: Joe Burrow

By Alex Kurpeski

Over the past decade of professional sports, we have seen the quarterback position evolve in a variety of ways. A position that was once catered to a group of strictly pocket passers has now become so much more as we have entered an era of mobility that may forever change the way offensive football is played. While there have been some ‘generational’ players that have flopped hard in the NFL following incredible collegiate careers, there have also been some hidden gems that were able to bloom once they landed with a constructive coaching staff in the pros. Basing our analysis on the last decade of QBs drafted into the league (the ones who spent significant time as starters), we have come up with our outlooks for this year’s class of rookie passers based on what recent history has told us. 

We have not included the passers from this year’s class who we have deemed to be strictly roster depth picks (James Morgan, Jake Luton, Ben DiNucci, Tommy Stevens, and Nate Stanley) only because we cannot foresee them taking any meaningful snaps anytime soon as projected third-string (or lower) players. While these players are all very talented, their situations are a bit too uncertain for us to project them to produce in the near future. 

For context, here are some figures/explanations that we find relevant for this piece:

  • A ‘successful’ QB is one who has registered a fantasy relevant campaign (200+ points) or a top-15 fantasy finish (players from 2018-19 draft classes) or has registered three or more top-20 finishes (Jameis Winston, Kirk Cousins, etc) and/or been a team’s starter for more than five seasons (Andy Dalton, Derek Carr, etc)
  • A ‘moderately successful’ QB is a more arbitrary measurement, as these are guys who have had success but have either been held back from consistent success (due to injuries typically) or have flamed out of the league following great starts to their careers (RG3, Mitch Trubisky, Blake Bortles, just to name a few)
  • A ‘bust’ is a QB with one of fewer Top-20 finishes, these guys are the easiest to spot (Johnny Manziel, Paxton Lynch, etc)
  • There are a few players who we have yet to judge. Drafted between 2016 and 2019, we have yet to pass judgement on them due to their limited experience starting. Jacoby Brissett, Sam Darnold, Dwayne Haskins, Drew Lock, Jarrett Stidham all fall into this purgatorial category. 
  • QBs who have been traded in their first three seasons have an 87% bust rate, with the only outlier being Brissett.
  • 90% of QBs taken out of non-power conference programs since 2010 have been ‘successes’ or ‘moderately successful’, with the only exception being 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch.
  • Out of the rookies who have been ‘redshirted’ as rookies (groomed to start), only Patrick Mahomes has been a ‘success’, while 45% of these players have been outright busts.
  • 22% of passers who have had a former high level starter as a mentor have been ‘successes’ (Prescott, Mahomes, Jackson, Daniel Jones) while 39% of these players have been busts.
  • No ‘busts’ have recorded fantasy relevant campaigns in their first season
  • 45% of eligible players who have recorded below average turnover rates in college have been busts, while only 31% of players who recorded above average turnover rates have busted.

So what’s in store for Joe Burrow in 2020 and beyond?

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals: 

The number one overall pick in this year’s draft, Burrow shattered numerous records in his final season at LSU, throwing for 5,671 yards (first in the NCAA), 60 touchdowns (an NCAA record), while completing 76.3% of his passes (first in the nation), and garnering a QB rating of 202.0 (the highest mark for any passer in NCAA history). Burrow’s unprecedented ascension from the game manager we saw in 2018 to the living ‘Road to Glory’ character he became in 2019 is best documented by these jumps in his stats:

2018 STATS:

  • 2,894 passing yards (222.6 yards per-game, 7.6 yards per-attempt)
  • 57.8% completion rate (QB rating of 133.2, below average by college football standards)
  • 379 passing attempts
  • 16:5 TD:INT ratio

2019 STATS

  • 5,671 passing yards (378 yards per-game (+155.4 from 2018), 10.8 yards per-attempt (+3.2 from 2018)
  • 76.3% completion rate (QB rating of 202.0 (+67.8 points from 2018)
  • 527 passing attempts (+148 from 2018)
  • 60:6 TD:INT ratio (more than triple his touchdown numbers from 2018, + only one extra interception in two more games played)

 

I’m convinced the Burrow sold his soul to the devil somewhere between January 2019 and August 2019, as the player we saw this past season looked far more poised and collected than the guy who wore #11 in 2018. Guided by the Air Raid-style offense installed by OC Joe Brady, Burrow looked extremely confident throwing the ball to all parts of the field, taking the team’s offense into his own hands after a rather passive introductory season with the Tigers. While the Tom Brady comparisons were a bit far fetched, Burrow truly embodied the future Hall of Famer in his final year with LSU, as it seemed like no matter what you threw at him on defense, Burrow would prevail. Unlike Brady, Burrow can be an extremely dangerous runner as well, an underrated element that elevated his passing performance by keeping coverage linebackers honest. 

Burrow should step in immediately as the starter for Cincinnati following the release of longtime starter Andy Dalton, giving him an immediate shot at fantasy relevance. Unless second-year passer Ryan Finley can somehow wrestle the starting spot away from Burrow (he won’t), we can expect him to slot in as the signal-caller for an offense littered with weapons in the passing game. In general, QBs who have won the starting role for their team out of training camp have fared extremely well this decade, with only 21% of the qualified passers in this category landing in the ‘bust’ category, while 47% of these players have had what we deemed ‘successful’ careers. 

We already talked about the outlook for the Bengals’ pass-catchers earlier in the month, so we won’t dive super deep into that aspect here. In short, the rookie passer will be surrounded by a pair of decent pass-catching backs (Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard) and a host of uber-talented wideouts (former Pro Bowler A.J Green, the team’s leading receiver from the last two seasons Tyler Boyd, former first-rounder John Ross, and 2020 second-round pick Tee Higgins) while also being coached by Zac Taylor, a product of the Sean McVay coaching tree. Burrow, who led the nation in big time throws (43), adjusted completion rate (81.9%), and deep passing yards (1711), should have an immediate path to Top-15 fantasy upside. 

From a statistical comparison, Burrow’s closest comp from this decade (according to Pro Football Focus) has been 2012’s first overall pick, Andrew Luck. In a figure borrowed from PFF’s rookie draft guide, here is a side by side comparison between the two players:

Joe Burrow:

  • Overall Passing Grade: 92.1
  • Average Depth of Target: 10.27
  • AIR%: 58.1%
  • Adjusted Completion Rate: 75.0%

Andrew Luck:

  • Overall Passing Grade: 92.3
  • Average Depth of Target: 9.57
  • AIR%: 54.7%
  • Adjusted Completion Rate: 76.3%

As you can see, Burrow’s numbers show that he tended to push the ball further downfield than Luck, although this can be partially attributed to the scheme differences between the two players, as Stanford ran a much more ground centric offense during Luck’s tenure. Regardless, the Luck comparison is quite the cosign for Burrow, as the former Colts QB registered a fantasy relevant campaign in his first season (200+ points in standard scoring), eventually tallying four top-five fantasy finishes (2013, 2014, 2016, and 2018) in his brief career. Like Burrow (who will be paired with Taylor, responsible for Jared Goff’s progression), Luck benefitted from being paired with a ‘QB Guru’ in the beginning of his career, working with OC Bruce Arians (who eventually became the team’s interim head coach). 

Stability at the coaching position will be a key factor in Burrow’s success, as only 22% of the passers from this decade who have seen a coaching change in their first three seasons have had fully successful careers while 55% of these passers have ‘busted’. It’s worth noting that the names included in that ‘success’ category are Daniel Jones, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Jameis Winston, and Derek Carr who are all on the lower end of the ‘success’ spectrum. For their own sake, Burrow owners better pray that Taylor hangs onto the Bengals coaching gig for the next three years, as ⅔ of the passers who have played with the same coach for their first three seasons have had successful or at least moderately successful careers. 

Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State to LSU after losing the position battle for the starting gig to Dwayne Haskins, finds himself on the right side of history, as QBs who have changed programs have fared really well in the NFL this decade. There have been some major success stories (Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray), with only one glaring bust to speak of (Ryan Mallett). I attribute the success of these transfer QBs to their abilities to pick up and adapt to new systems quickly, a trait that has held many college stars back from reaching success at the professional level. 

Perhaps the biggest gauge for Burrow’s professional success will be the play of his offensive line in year one, as 45% of passers who had sack rates of 6.6 or higher in their rookie campaigns have been outright busts. The biggest exceptions to this have been Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and Kyler Murray, easily the five most mobile passers in the league today. While Burrow has sneaky athleticism and speed, he does not possess the same elusiveness that this group does; thus, it would be quite worrisome if he does take a large amount of sacks as a rookie. Considering the fact that the Bengals offensive line was ranked 30th in the league last season, while relying on the debut of 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams and the free agent signing of guard Xavier Su’a-Fi’lia to bolster the trenches, this is our biggest concern by far.  

Ultimately, the best measure for a QB’s fantasy success has been their impact upon their team’s success in year one, as passers who have added 4+ wins to their team’s record have a 0% bust rate and a 78% full success rate, with the only exceptions being Robert Griffin III (derailed by injuries, a topic that will be thoroughly discussed in the next section) and Sam Bradford (same case). Considering the Bengals won just two games in 2019, it’s quite possible that Burrow could lead them to a 6-10 or even 7-9 mark in his first season. 

Unless something goes terribly array for Burrow and the Bengals, it’s safe to project the No. 1 overall pick for a highly productive career in Cincinnati. 

Pro Comparison:

Ceiling: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts 

Instant fantasy QB1 who remains one of the league’s elite passers for his entire career. An ideal QB to build around in dynasty leagues, keeping your team competitive on a week-to-week basis. Fantasy Hall of Fame-caliber talent who can only be sunk by the injury bug, brought on by subpar offensive line play. 

Floor: Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

An accurate passer who can win you some weeks but will take a backseat to the running game for others. Averages out as a high-end QB2. Not the ideal QB1 for a dynasty team but you could certainly do worse. 

Median: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

Not quite an ‘elite’ real-life QB, but one you would love to have on your fantasy team. Airs the ball out when he has to and won’t turn the ball over too much. A QB1 in any format that you would be glad to have on your roster. 

 

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