NFL teams have a way of overthinking quarterback decisions in the draft. Sometime between the end of the college football season and the moment that Roger Goodell takes the stage (or in this year’s case, the basement) in the spring, team executives convince themselves that college superheroes are busts and that relative randos are first-round prospects. They talk themselves into picking Mitch Trubisky over Deshaun Watson. College football fans would not do this!
As The Ringer’s resident college football obsessive, I am not well-versed in the intricacies of compiling draft boards. I am, however, able to spot the difference between quarterbacks who were legends in college and those who were generally average. So for the third consecutive year, I have put together a guide to this year’s QB draft class based on their college football careers—not their heights or hand sizes.
Joe Burrow’s 2019 Was Perfect. Was He Too Good to Be True?
Joe Burrow had the best passing season in college football history in 2019, and deserves to be the no. 1 pick in the draft for that alone. He set the FBS single-season record for touchdown passes (60!!!!) while throwing just six interceptions, helping LSU score 726 points (the most ever) to go 15-0 and win the national championship. Burrow did this while the Tigers played one of the toughest schedules any undefeated team has ever faced, as they beat four teams ranked in the top five of the AP poll and seven teams ranked in the top 10.
In the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma, Burrow threw seven touchdowns in the first half alone.
In the national title game against Clemson, he passed for 463 yards with five touchdowns in a 42-25 win, marking the first time head coach Dabo Swinney’s powerhouse had given up 40 points since the 2015 season. The setting in New Orleans was too perfect; the Tigers couldn’t lose.
Too perfect describes Burrow’s entire senior season. When Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray rewrote the college football record books at Oklahoma en route to going no. 1 in the 2018 and 2019 drafts, respectively, they did so by routinely throwing to wide-open receivers in head coach Lincoln Riley’s offense. What was most stunning about Burrow’s 2019 season is that time and again, he launched deep passes to receivers in tight coverage—and time and again, he placed the ball perfectly so that only his targets could catch it. He threw dozens of what appeared to be 50-50 balls, and fell just short of setting the all-time NCAA record for completion percentage. (He finished at 76.3 percent; Colt McCoy posted a 76.7 percent mark at Texas in 2008.) I have never seen a quarterback display hyperaccuracy with such a ridiculous degree of difficulty, especially considering the difficult schedule.
The Bengals are going to take Burrow with the first pick on Thursday. That’s not yet official, but it’s felt like a foregone conclusion for months. If I were part of the Cincinnati draft Zoom room, though, I would ask just how much of Burrow’s college résumé should be taken into account. After all, Burrow played college football before 2019—and to be honest, he wasn’t very good. He spent three years as a backup at Ohio State, never rising above third-string on the depth chart and watching as J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins got all the snaps. (When Burrow was a freshman, the five Buckeyes quarterbacks listed ahead of him made a habit of calling him the wrong name, from “Jimmy” to “John” to “Jimmy John.”) After transferring to LSU in 2018, Burrow hardly stood out: He completed just 57.8 percent of his passes and threw 16 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. From 2018 to 2019, Burrow’s completion rate increased by 18.5 percentage points. His touchdown rate nearly tripled, from 4.2 percent to 11.3. There was no steady growth: Burrow went from forgettable to unbelievable overnight.
From my college football fan perspective, I’ll always have Burrow’s beautiful and perfect senior season. But NFL front offices can’t simply appreciate the past—they have to project the future. Watching Burrow from 2016 to 2018 offered no indication that he could perform the way he did in 2019. Should we take those years into consideration? Or should we now assume that Burrow’s 2019 is the baseline for his future performance?
Burrow’s unbelievable season makes him a clear-cut choice to go no. 1. But when something is unbelievable, how much should we believe it?
Buy Low(ish) on Tua Tagovailoa
There is a quarterback in the 2020 class who holds the all-time college football career records for passing efficiency, adjusted yards per attempt, and touchdown rate. He is considered a risky pick. The NFL draft is supremely weird.
Tua Tagovailoa has been spectacular virtually every time he’s played football. He broke on to the national scene at halftime of the College Football Playoff title game in January 2018, turning an Alabama team that was held scoreless in the first half into champions.
In some ways, his college career peaked with his title-winning touchdown pass in overtime—Tagovailoa never won a Heisman Trophy or another national championship. But his on-field production kept improving, and recent reports suggest that he’s made a remarkable recovery from the hip injury he suffered in the fall.
I won’t go into great detail on Tagovailoa because I published my opinions on him just the other day. Still, I want to publicly state as many times as possible that drafting Tua—over, say, a taller, less productive college quarterback—is a very good idea.
You Want Jalen Hurts on Your Team
Nobody has ever had a career like Tagovailoa—and nobody has ever had a career like Jalen Hurts, the quarterback he usurped at Alabama. Hurts was the Crimson Tide’s starter in 2016 and 2017, and took them to the national championship game in both seasons. In those games, he went a combined 16-of-39 passing for 152 yards, losing the first and getting benched in the second. There are plenty of heralded quarterbacks who fail to succeed in college; Hurts was the rare heralded quarterback who clearly succeeded before being passed over for someone better.
But Hurts didn’t go away. Instead, he went about significantly improving as a passer. He lost a widely publicized battle for the Alabama starting job in 2018, but was thrust back into the spotlight when Tagovailoa went down with an ankle injury in the SEC championship game against Georgia. It felt like something out of a fairy tale: Eleven months after Hurts watched Tua step in to lead Alabama to a comeback win in a championship game, Hurts stepped in for Tua to lead Alabama to a comeback win in a different championship game—against the same team in the same building.
Hurts later transferred to Oklahoma, the program that had recently taken a pair of transfer quarterbacks and turned them into Heisman winners and no. 1 picks. Hurts didn’t win the trophy and won’t be the top pick in the draft, but he achieved about as much as either of his Sooners QB predecessors. He accounted for 53 total touchdowns in 2019 (Murray had 54 in 2018, Mayfield had 49 in 2017), and, like Mayfield and Murray, led the Sooners to a College Football Playoff semifinal in which their defense was absolutely torched. (See that earlier video of Burrow.)
Hurts began his college career as a running quarterback with modest throwing ability. He finished it as a legitimate dual-threat star. He’s a great decision-maker capable of hitting open receivers in stride—and when you can run like Hurts can, there are often several open receivers.
Is Hurts a starting NFL quarterback? Personally, I think he is. I’d certainly select him over some of the QBs who keep popping up as first-rounders in mock drafts. (Let’s just say I think he’s the best quarterback with the initials JH in this draft!) I know one thing about Hurts for certain: Even if he doesn’t win a pro starting job right away, he’s not going to give up.
I Don’t Understand the Jordan Love Hype
I’m kind of bummed that Jordan Love is getting so much NFL draft buzz. When you watch as much college football as I do, it’s easy to get attached to players like him, as he turned Utah State into an offensive powerhouse in 2018. But I thought Love was just a fascination among my fellow weirdos who are glued to Mountain West broadcasts in the wee hours of the night. Now casual football fans have opinions about Love? I DIDN’T SEE YOU WATCHING UTAH STATE–WAKE FOREST ON A RANDOM FRIDAY! I’m happy that Love is getting hype, but I wish he was still ours—it’s a real Love-hate thing.
The strange part of Love’s rise to draft prominence is that it coincided with a drop-off in on-field performance. In 2018, Utah State averaged 47.5 points per game while going 11-2; the team’s two losses came when it nearly knocked off ranked Michigan State and Boise State. The Aggies were a college football obsessive’s dream, hanging 60 and 70 points on randos in games that were aired exclusively on Facebook.
But in 2019, head coach Matt Wells left Utah State for Texas Tech, and the Aggies lost most of their top skill-position starters, including running back Darwin Thompson, who’s now with the Chiefs. Love’s passing touchdown total dropped from 32 to 20; his interception total went from six to 17; he failed to rush for any scores in 2019 after running for seven in 2018. In Love’s two games against power-conference opponents, he combined to toss six interceptions. After scoring at least 50 points seven times in 2018, the Aggies hit 40 only once in 2019, in a matchup with FCS Stony Brook.
I can see NFL teams talking themselves into Love. He’s tall and has big hands, and NFL head coaches believe they’re more like the coach from Love’s good season than the coach from Love’s down year. But I see no reason to think that Love’s 2018 campaign is a better indicator of his pro potential than his 2019—in fact, I’m worried that a guy who struggled so aggressively against midlevel competition will get eaten up in the NFL.
This is why I hate the draft—it leads me to rip on guys who lit up scoreboards for Mountain West schools. This isn’t who I am!
Find Ways to Get Lynn Bowden Jr. the Ball
I’m going to swerve for a second to talk about a prospect who won’t play quarterback in the NFL. But since Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden played QB for one brilliant season in college, I feel comfortable including him in this piece. NFL teams should get him the ball any way they can. For example, here is a clip of high school punter Lynn Bowden scoring a 99-yard touchdown after a bad snap:
Recruited as a running back, Bowden switched to wide receiver as a college freshman and was reasonably productive. But Kentucky didn’t really have anyone to throw him the ball, so on the heels of a 2-3 start in 2019, the Wildcats inserted Bowden at quarterback, a position that he also played in high school.
What followed was one of the most ridiculously fun individual college seasons in recent memory. The Wildcats finished 2019 on a 6-2 tear with Bowden averaging 171 yards per game on the ground. He rushed for 200 yards in a game three times, and racked up 196 yards in a fourth. In the final game of his college career, Bowden punched a Virginia Tech player, ran for 233 yards, and threw a game-winning touchdown:
Bowden is not Lamar Jackson, whose throwing capabilities would have made him a standout NFL quarterback even if he wasn’t much of a runner. Bowden isn’t a good passer—he completed just 47 percent of his attempts last season. But he’s actually better than Jackson as a runner, as Lamar posted just one 200-yard rushing game over three seasons as Louisville’s starter. Teams knew Bowden wasn’t passing, but he was explosive enough with the ball in his hands to carve them up anyway.
He projects as a wide receiver, but can play running back or return kicks. The idea, mainly, is that teams should involve him however they can. On some snaps, that may even mean letting Bowden throw. After all, this is a post about college QBs.