In a way, the injury Joe Burrow suffered during the 10th game of his rookie season in the NFL seemed inevitable. Due to being a rookie acclimating to the speed of the pro game along with a decently shoddy offensive line, Burrow took a variety of big hits in Year 1.
In those first two and a half months, Burrow absolutely showed flashes of what locked him into that No. 1 overall pick spot just a few months prior, but he didn’t set the NFL on fire.
With the fate of the Bengals firmly in Burrow’s hands, let’s explore everything about his environment in Cincinnati and pinpoint what he needs to do to take the next step as a quarterback.
How Burrow has improved since he was a prospect
These positive developments in a quarterback’s game are noteworthy because they indicate the distinct possibility of future growth.
Here’s what I wrote about Burrow before the draft, straight from my scouting notebook:
Good height, moderate athleticism for the position. Repeatedly stands stoically in the pocket. Arm strength is solid. Not a huge arm but not a liability whatsoever. Decently quick delivery. Accuracy is elite. When he throws the ball on a line, it almost always goes where wants it to. When there’s some air under it, the accuracy is noticeably not as good but still very solid. That’s expected though. Unafraid to work middle of the field, and throws with good timing on sideline comebacks. OL and WRs are outstanding, which helps his statistical output. Beyond great pocket patience, he can drift away from pressure. Although his movements are emphatic, he keeps his head up. Gets through his reads quickly and will pull the trigger to his second or third read in a hurry. On some occasions, he morphs into a runner too early.
Burrow played very similarly to how he performed at Missouri from a style perspective. Because the former LSU star was my QB1 in the 2020 class, it would’ve been difficult for him to make a clear stride forward in just 10-plus games in his debut season.
The pass-catching group in Cincinnati is on the rise, and even in 2020, Burrow’s crew of receivers were solid albeit mostly unspectacular.
Tee Higgins, a receiver I had a first-round grade on, finished third among rookies behind Justin Jefferson and Chase Claypool in yards per route run with a respectable figure of 1.83. In nine full games with Burrow throwing him passes, that figure for the former Clemson star was 2.00.
And Tyler Boyd is Tyler Boyd. One of the steadiest, most productive pure slots in football. While he didn’t eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the third consecutive year in 2020, he posted the highest catch rate of his career (71.4%) and that’s was with backup options at quarterbacks for most of the second half of the season. Boyd had just one drop all year in 15 games.
Lastly and most recently, elite receiver prospect Ja’Marr Chase, the man who accumulated nearly 1,800 yards and caught 20 touchdown passes from Burrow in 2019 at LSU, was picked at No. 5 overall. He is somewhere on the A.J. Brown – Chris Godwin spectrum of good-sized, ultra-physical YAC monsters who also happen to dominate in contested-catch situations.
Burrow was pressured 32% of the time, which pushes back on the narrative he was pressured too frequently, because a 32% pressure rate was exactly league average. Now, should a team expect its rookie, even one as talented as Burrow, to excel when being pressured essentially every third drop back? No. But Burrow wasn’t exorbitantly pressured.
And of course the Bengals realize how valuable Burrow is, so they bulked up the offensive line this offseason.
Riley Reiff was signed in free agency to play right tackle. While he’s not the dependable outside blocker he was in his prime, he’s still serviceable. In the second round, Trevor Lawrence’s blindside protector Jackson Carman was picked, and will play inside. He’s a naturally powerful people-mover with good movement skills and balance for his size. In Round 4, the twitched-up masher D’Ante Smith was picked from East Carolina. He was underweight during his college career but has tentacles for arms and with more weight, the aggressive blocker can be a high-caliber, versatile player in the trenches.
At this point, Cincinnati’s line is creeping toward above-average status. The receiver group is young and dynamic with diverse skills.
Offensive-scheme continuity is vital for a young quarterback, good news for Burrow with head coach Zac Taylor still calling the plays. As a Sean McVay disciple, we know Taylor wants to run “11 Personnel,” which is a three-receiver set as frequently as possible. And now with Chase, Higgins, and Boyd, he has a formidable wideout grouping.
Also, the Bengals tied for sixth in first-down pass rate in neutral-score situations last season, a very encouraging sign looking forward to the 2021 campaign.
Improving his weaknesses
In the 10-plus games in which we saw him as a rookie, Burrow proved to be an extreme example of precisely what I wrote in my scouting notebook. He showcased dazzling play from 0 to 19 yards down the field yet was mostly ineffective on those deeper, 20-plus yard tosses. Some of it was skill-position talent related. Most of it was on Burrow’s accuracy.
According to Pro Football Focus, Burrow threw an on-target pass on 21% of his deep targets in 2020. The league average was 42%. But he wasn’t timid about letting it rip deep. Burrow averaged 8.7 Intended Air Yards as a rookie per Next Gen Stats, which tied for the 11th-highest rate among qualifying signal callers. And 13% of his throws were made 20-plus yards down field, which was right at league average.
To maximize the explosiveness of Cincinnati’s offense, Burrow simply needs to get more accurate deep. With Chase in the mix, it likely will. In 2019, Chase and Burrow hooked up on 24 of 36 targets beyond 19 yards downfield with 14 touchdowns! And the star wideout registered 16 wins on contested-catch balls.
Fortunately for Burrow, even if he can’t dial-in his downfield ball placement, Chase’s YAC wizardry will help turn short, accurate tosses into big gains for Cincinnati’s defense.
Strengthening his strengths
As is the case with every quarterback in today’s NFL, the majority of Burrow’s tosses came between 0 and 19 yards down the field — 72% to be exact. And he was two percentage points higher than league average in both yardage splits. It’s not unreasonable to believe Burrow can play with even better ball placement on those vital throws during his second season.
In that yardage range, Burrow threw 11 touchdowns to just three picks, a good but not unbelievable ratio.
The former first overall pick was outstanding getting the football out of his hands in a hurry, as 68% of his passes came in 2.5 seconds or less after the snap, which compared favorably to the NFL average of 58%. And his established connection with Chase should help Burrow get it out quicker more frequently, thereby artificially boosting the play of the offensive line.
It’s unfortunate we didn’t get a full rookie season from Burrow, but the fact it was cut short doesn’t do much of anything to his long-term viability as an NFL starter. During his debut pro season, we saw much of what made him the consensus top prospect in the 2020 draft class, and smart decision-making along with pinpoint accuracy at the up to 20 yards down the field is more stable over time than a year with outstanding deep-ball precision.
I can’t overstate how vital I believe a strong supporting cast is for a young quarterback — especially in today’s NFL with offenses more WR-dependent than ever — and while the Bengals didn’t add big names in free agency to their offensive line, they did and admirable job overall making life around Burrow more comfortable. Imagine the optics if they passed on Chase for Penei Sewell at No. 5 overall. They made the correct choice there. Being in the same system with the same coach is huge too.
Altogether, Burrow should not take nearly as many hits as he did per game in 2020, and that, coupled with his immense arm talent, quick release, adequate scrambling ability, and the young pass-catching trio he has in Cincinnati, I’m expecting last year’s No. 1 overall pick to take a noticeable step forward as the Bengals become much more relevant in his second season. I’m expecting him to be widely considered a top half of the league quarterback who’ll be viewed, by some, as a fringe top 10 passer.