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NFL Combine Takeaways, Day 5: There Are More QBs Besides Tua and Joe Burrow

Every year, we make the same mistake and underrate where the second- and third-tier quarterbacks will be drafted. The rise of Jordan Love’s and Justin Herbert’s draft stocks proves that.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL season never ends. While the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory is still fresh, the NFL combine, this week in Indianapolis, gives us an opportunity to start looking forward. To keep you informed, a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide a collection of thoughts from each day of the event.

Wait, there are quarterbacks who didn’t go to LSU or Alabama?

Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. have spent too much time together. The two leading draft gurus have been discussing NFL prospects on air for a decade, but all that shared experience has turned their debates into arguments. McShay and Kiper do not argue like they are Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman on First Take, who intentionally take opposite sides to manufacture controversy. They fight like a married couple who just spent 20 minutes arguing in the car but now need to act normally before walking into the restaurant. But instead of the restaurant, it’s live television. In October, Kiper defended ranking Josh Allen above Sam Darnold in 2018. McShay laughed in Kiper’s face, patted him on the back, and, with a big grin on his face, said, “I love you, man.” Each seems happier proving the other wrong rather than being right.

“Kiper likes to evaluate quarterbacks like the Flintstones,” McShay said while sitting next to Kiper on television on Friday. “He’s stuck in a day and age where [switches to an extremely condescending voice] ‘the big, strong-armed guy who can throw.’ We don’t need that anymore. I need a Jordan Love from Utah State. I need a guy who is quick-twitch, gets the ball out quickly. He can change his arm angles, he can do all the little things, he is the most underrated quarterback in this year’s class. He will be the third quarterback taken ahead of [Oregon’s] Justin Herbert.”

The segment ended with Kiper and McShay shaking hands in agreement. By “agreement,” I mean Kiper was so sure McShay was wrong about Love and Herbert that they agreed on a $5,000 bet.

The married couple arguing about how they view Love differently is more entertaining than anything that will happen on the field in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this week. It’s also more informative. Every offseason, the pundits of the NFL-draft-media-industrial complex make the same early error: misjudging how high the second- and third-tier quarterbacks will go. Players considered fringe first-rounders in January often end up in the first half of the first round in April, and this year does not seem different. We have heard an endless amount about LSU quarterback Joe Burrow going no. 1 to the Bengals, and plenty about Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa going somewhere in the top five. But after Jordan Love, Justin Herbert, and the rest of the lot went through drills on Thursday night, Friday morning in Indianapolis was about the collective realization that four of the first eight picks might be quarterbacks.

”Of all the quarterback names here in Indianapolis that have been buzzing the hallways, late-night bars, and restaurants, Jordan Love [has] much more so than anyone,” NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport said Thursday night. “I’ve talked to general managers, assistant GMs, coaches. They all wanted to see how this guy threw because his buzz is kind of building. We’ve all kind of assumed now that he’s a first-round quarterback. I would not be surprised now, upper end of the first round, maybe even heading up into the top 10.”

Rapoport’s “we all kind of assumed” touches on a common misconception that prospects can move significantly up or down team draft boards during the combine. Those don’t change all that much. Who rises and falls at the combine is less about a front office changing its board and more about the reporters, pundits, and insiders getting a clearer picture of what that board looks like—public perception catching up to reality. The tail is wagging the dog

My Ringer colleague and draft expert Danny Kelly (who is much nicer to me than Kiper is to McShay) has compared Jordan Love to “A YOLO Marcus Mariota.” It takes only one team to fall in love with the quick-twitch traits and creativity Love showed at Utah State. His interception and turnover totals were NSFW in 2019, but he played in a far less forgiving system than the well-designed offenses overloaded with NFL-caliber receiving talent that Burrow enjoyed at LSU or Tua played in at Alabama. Love’s “rise” is the latest setback for Herbert’s draft stock. Herbert may have been a top pick in last year’s draft but returned for one more season quarterbacking his hometown Oregon Ducks, which was his childhood dream. He ran a 40-yard dash on Thursday in 4.68 seconds, faster than Browns receiver Jarvis Landry. The question is when Herbert faces an NFL defense, will his processing and decision-making be fast enough to thrive, or merely to survive?

The quarterbacks who round out the rest of the class are a mixed bag. Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm seems to be a high-end backup without a lot of great physical traits but a lot of excellent off-the-field work habits. Former Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason, who lost his job to Fromm and transferred to Washington, has a big arm and big frame but has reportedly not impressed teams with his interviews or attitude. Jalen Hurts has improved every year of his career, but may not have shown enough at Oklahoma last season to become a first-round talent. While he led four teams to the College Football Playoff in four years, it’s unclear whether that’s enough to bump him into the first round.

There is a row of quarterback-needy teams with Miami at 5, the Chargers at 6, and Carolina at 7, and then another string with the Raiders at 12, the Colts at 13, and the Buccaneers at 14. Many of those teams have significant draft capital for a trade. The Dolphins also have pick no. 18 and no. 26, the Raiders have pick no. 19, and the Colts have pick no. 35. While a couple of those teams will inevitably change their plans after free agency, Tom Brady will go to only one team, and even if Teddy Bridgewater ends up as a starter somewhere, there might be four teams competing for Love and Herbert. They may not be the best players in the draft, but the importance of quality passers—plus the scarcity of them—perpetually could catapult them into the top half of the first round. We have the same conversation every year about middling quarterbacks going higher than we initially thought they would, but at some point the discussion says less about the quarterbacks and more about us. Love sneaks up on you.

Will anybody participate in these workouts? Please?

Back in the 1980s, when ESPN was a fledgling television network that suffered from a lack of content, cofounder Chet Simmons approached NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about putting the NFL draft on television. “Why would you want to do that?” Rozelle reportedly said, according to the book Football and Manliness. ESPN’s Chris Berman said in the same book that the NFL draft’s entertainment value at the time was considered “one step above the yellow pages.” The first time NFL owners formally considered televising the draft, they voted 28-0 against it.

Flash-forward three decades, and the NFL combine is so successful on TV that NFL Network has placed it in prime time. That choice, however, may be stretching this process to its limits. Players who are used to running through drills in the morning or afternoon are now expected to be at peak athletic performance at night. But unlike game day, players aren’t able to adjust their mornings to account for this. They must prepare for early interviews, turning the testing into the very last part of a long week filled with long days. The athletic testing already receives significantly more hype than it deserves, but the players who don’t excel as expected this year may have a small asterisk considering the timing of the tests.

Compounding the hilarity of the combine’s move into prime-time hours is the fact that the best players are not participating. LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young, and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa—possibly the first three picks in the draft—are not working out. Tua is missing the workouts due to his hip injury, but Burrow and Young decided they had more to lose than to gain from the process.

”Me and my team, we decided that because that first day of camp, when I step on the field, I want to be the best player I can be,” Young told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t want to waste time trying to be a combine athlete. When I step on the field, I need to know that I put my best foot forward at being the best player I can be.”

One of Young’s teammates has the opposite approach. Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah is not just participating in the workout drills—he seems borderline obsessed with them. Okudah has a whiteboard in his apartment on which he has written down details of combine performances by star NFL cornerbacks Patrick Peterson (the no. 5 pick in 2011) and Jalen Ramsey (the no. 5 pick in 2016).

“It’s about putting my numbers on top of theirs,” Okudah told reporters on Friday. “Coming to the combine has always been a dream, and being here is a dream come true. You go back and watch some of those combine videos—I want someone down the road to say, ‘Let me try Jeff Okudah’s combine video.’”

Okudah is the top cornerback in this year’s draft, and he might end up the top player drafted who actually participated in the prime-time telecast.

Some guys are who we thought they were.

Prospects get compared to previous prospects. It’s a natural mental short cut, though these short cuts can undermine the scouting process. But occasionally, there are comparisons that work. For example, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb has been compared frequently to Houston Texans All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins. On Thursday night, Lamb made a play that justified those comparisons.

How the franchise tag is playing out for a few key free agents.

Patrick Mahomes is the Chiefs’ star, but the team may not have won Super Bowl LIV without Chris Jones’s consistent disruption of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. When healthy, Jones may be the second-best defensive tackle in football after Aaron Donald. He is due to be a free agent in March, but he is likely going to be franchise tagged by Kansas City, and he isn’t thrilled about it. The tag gives him a significant raise in 2020, but not a long-term deal.

“It’s a mix of emotions,” Jones told FS1’s Colin Cowherd. “Because you figure after four years, you do everything the right way within the team way, you try to stay under the line, out of trouble, and be a good citizen for the team and for the city. You expect to be rewarded. So when you’re hit with a franchise tag, it can go different ways. You can feel like they’re not valuing you or that they’re not valuing what you can bring to the table. Or you can look at it as giving them time to get their horses in a cage and get something together.”

Jones’s words are representative of how many tagged players feel. The tag forces players who just came off a contract year to do it again. It artificially deflates player salaries, but in a league of roughly 2,000 players, the handful of players who get tagged each year are earning much more money than the rank-and-file. Eliminating the tag likely isn’t a priority for the National Football League Players Association during CBA negotiations. So while the tag frustrates some star players, it isn’t going anywhere.

“Every team in this league has the chance to franchise a player,” Jones said. “I’m the lucky guy.”

Falcons tight end Austin Hooper almost certainly won’t get the tag this year and hit free agency. Atlanta doesn’t have much cap room this offseason, so Hooper will probably leave town. The Packers are the main suitor for the 25-year-old, according to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky. Acquiring Hooper would be the latest chapter in the long and rich history of trying to find Aaron Rodgers a decent tight end. Jermichael Finley, Donald Lee, Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers, Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Martellus Bennett, Marcedes Lewis, and Jimmy Graham have all had their turns, but none has been particularly effective. Hooper’s totals last year of 75 catches for 787 yards are higher than any Packers tight end has had in any season of Aaron Rodgers’s career (and Hooper played just 13 games). Perhaps the 10th tight end will be the charm.

The maximum velocity of Mekhi Becton

Look at the big man run.

The Louisville left tackle is 6-foot-7 and 364 pounds, making him the biggest player at the combine. He is not the fastest in absolute terms, but he might be on a pound-for-pound basis. Becton’s speed score (a metric invented by ESPN’s Bill Barnwell that combines a player’s weight and 40-yard dash time) is 106.7—higher than all but one running back from the 2019 draft class.

Becton might be the first tackle drafted in April and could go in the first five picks. The draft is in Las Vegas this year, and the red carpet event has a new wrinkle, in which players will be on a boat (seriously). Raiders general manager Mike Mayock told reporters Tuesday that he might not be on board with that plan.

”I get a little nervous when you start talking about Mekhi Becton in a boat going to the Bellagio,” he joked

If Becton were to cannonball into the Bellagio fountains, he could lift a biblical wave to cleanse Las Vegas of its sin. That is admittedly unlikely, but word in Indianapolis is Todd McShay and Mel Kiper have a $5,000 bet on it.