One evaluator said Burrow entered the season as a likely third- or fourth-round pick, the kind of choice a franchise hopes would yield a stalwart backup. Pro Football Focus’s preseason draft guide included 10 quarterbacks, and Burrow was not among them.
In one dizzying autumn, Burrow has become the best player in college football and flipped his professional prospects in a way few, if any, players ever have. While leading LSU to the top of the sport, Burrow has won over the NFL. He has transformed himself into a likely top 10 selection and a candidate to be the first overall pick — meaning he could be taken ahead of Tagovailoa, the star he outdueled Saturday in Tuscaloosa in a 46-41 Tigers victory.
Burrow’s starburst is uncommon, if not unprecedented. Cleveland Browns second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield was another transfer whose draft stock rocketed in his final season as a starter, but that owed to a shift in perception rather than performance. Mayfield’s level of play remained steady as evaluators came to understand his conventional weaknesses — a lack of ideal size and a scheme that wasn’t a traditional pro-style offense — mattered less in today’s NFL than his arm strength and accuracy.
Burrow, though, has simply improved at warp speed. The league is in the same place now as it was this summer. Burrow is on another plane. Last year, Pro Football Focus’s grading system rated Burrow at 78.5 on a 0-100 scale. This year, he has leaped to 92.0, making him the analytical website’s top overall prospect.
“Truly, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mike Renner, who leads PFF’s draft evaluations. “The switch completely flipped this year.”
Pro Football Focus rated Burrow its No. 1 prospect before his bravura performance Saturday at Alabama — notable because Pro Football Focus was ahead of the industry the past two seasons when it declared Mayfield and Kyler Murray the best players in their respective draft classes, and both became first overall picks.
Burrow’s sudden improvement owes to several factors. Primarily, he has improved his accuracy, completing 78.9 percent of his passes (up from 57.8 percent last season) while frequently throwing deep down the field. Last season, Renner said, Burrow was prone to throwing jump balls — heaving and hoping his receivers would come down with contested catches. This season, he has confidently stood in the pocket and read defenses to determine the proper throw.
The new approach of 30-year-old passing game coordinator Joe Brady receives a lot of credit for Burrow’s rise and deservedly so. But Burrow has improved at how he processes and executes LSU’s system apart from Brady’s innovations.
“To look as comfortable as Joe looks right now, that’s on Joe Burrow,” said Jim Nagy, the director of the Senior Bowl, a postseason scouting showcase. “The game has slowed down on him.”
Forcing defenses to respect his passing has made Burrow an even more dangerous runner, which puts on display both his toughness and his often overlooked athleticism. Against Alabama, he took five sacks and still finished with 64 rushing yards, many of them gained on bursts through the middle and plowing through tacklers.
“Everyone’s called me sneaky-fast for about 15 years,” Burrow said after the game. “I think everyone knows what that means.”
His improvements throwing the ball have only bolstered Burrow’s reputation at the position’s intangible requirements. Nagy observed Burrow at the Manning Passing Camp and at SEC Media Days and found he has “a cool way about him.” Scouts notice the way he vibes with teammates before a game, how he celebrates with them after touchdowns and how those interactions reveal a special knack for leadership. When the Tigers beat Alabama, Burrow’s teammates carried him off the field, the sport’s best player turned into Rudy.
“Some people scoff at it,” Nagy said. “That stuff matters. When the 32 teams spend time with him, they’re going to want him to be their quarterback.”
The coming attention has already infiltrated his life. His father, Jimmy, a former Nebraska player and longtime collegiate assistant coach, retired in February to follow his son’s season. Retirement has afforded another suddenly necessary advantage.
“And then you add the different calls and things we’re getting from agents and marketing, contract-advising agencies, marketing agencies, financial planners,” Jimmy Burrow said. “You’re fielding all those calls because Joe doesn’t want anything to do with that process. If he happens to get one, he immediately says, ‘My dad or mom are handling all this.’ ”
Burrow’s ascent should not be seen as a demerit against Tagovailoa, who passed for more than 400 yards against LSU’s vaunted secondary, or Herbert. Burrow seems to have passed the duo in the race to become the first pick, but the order they come off the board may come down to preference and fit.
“It’s kind of Baskin-Robbins with those guys,” Nagy said. “They’re three totally different players. Three different body types. Three really different people.”
“I think Burrow is clearly the guy right now,” Renner said. “If you have Tua ahead of him, I have no problem with that. Tua is two years younger. Tua has never played bad football. In two years, we don’t know what he’s going to look like.”
Burrow’s rise, combined with the NFL’s worst teams this season, adds layers of intrigue to the top of the draft. Burrow grew up in Ohio, and his home-state Bengals would pick first if the draft happened today. The Miami Dolphins have torn down their roster in pursuit of a quarterback, but most have assumed they have been focused on Tagovailoa.
The Washington Redskins, in line to finish with a top-two pick, could be faced with the most fascinating subplot. If they decided to draft Burrow or another quarterback, that probably would include trading 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins — similar to the move the Arizona Cardinals made this year by taking Murray and dealing Josh Rosen. Washington’s potential decision would come with a delicious side note: Burrow transferred from Ohio State to LSU after 2017, when it became clear to him he would not become the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback — because he could not beat out Haskins.
The scenario encapsulates the radical shift in Burrow’s play. Two years ago, Burrow had to change schools because he could not overtake one college quarterback. In the span of two months, it is possible he has overtaken them all.
Chuck Culpepper contributed to this report.