The predraft process has been a boon for a pair of polarizing quarterback prospects in Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love, and both have boosted their respective stocks with strong performances at the Senior Bowl and combine. But while Herbert and Love seem destined to be top-10 picks, there’s only two quarterbacks whom I’d put in the elite tier at the position this year: LSU’s Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
The transition from college to the pros is always incredibly difficult to project, and quarterbacks bust just about every year. But Burrow and Tagovailoa both bring unique combinations of skills and traits that give them a great chance to not just survive, but thrive in the chaos of NFL pockets. Together, that duo looks capable of not only defining the 2020 draft class, but could go on to lead a new generation of NFL signal-callers.
With the draft just a few days away, let’s dig in for one last look at the tape, stats, and everything in between for the two most talented quarterbacks in this class. Here’s what Burrow and Tagovailoa each will bring the NFL.
Let’s kick it off with Burrow, who is all but a lock to be taken with the first overall pick by the Bengals on Thursday night. The Heisman-winning LSU star earned that honor by putting together what is arguably the best single-season passing performance in college football history, throwing for 5,671 yards with 60 touchdowns and just six picks while leading LSU to a 15-0 record and the national championship. His unexpected and spectacular rise from underwhelming afterthought to big-play machine in the Tigers’ explosive spread offense changed the college football landscape; Burrow repeatedly chewed up and spit out the best defenses in the country with his pinpoint accuracy, unflappable poise under pressure, and athleticism to extend plays or pick up yards with his feet.
Burrow’s not going to wow anyone with a big arm or prototypical frame; he’s got a slender build and falls into the “average” bucket when it comes to overall arm strength. But his ability to hit his target, play after play after play―from a clean pocket or under duress―is what sets him apart from most quarterback prospects. He completed 76.3 percent of his throws in 2019, and it wasn’t like he was just dumping the ball off or tossing a bunch of screens, either.
Burrow consistently pushed the ball deep down the field and challenged the teeth of opposing defenses, racking up a college-football-best 32 big-time throws, per Pro Football Focus. One thing you consistently see on his tape is that he puts the ball where only his receiver can get it. Sometimes that means leading his man to the sideline, putting it on his back shoulder, or, on this throw against Utah State, leading his receiver to the inside to give him a chance to go up and get it.
The most basic and fundamental trait a quarterback needs, at least according to the late, great Bill Walsh, is to throw a “catchable ball.” Burrow accomplishes that with a combination of ideal trajectory and feathery touch; the ball just seems to float into his receivers’ outstretched hands.
Burrow is absolutely deadly passing from a clean pocket―he notched a 94.9 passing grade from PFF in that area last year―and ranks in the 90th percentile among college quarterbacks who’ve played significant snaps in the NFL since 2014 in that metric over the past two seasons (and is also one of the strongest correlators for success at the next level). But he’s also seemingly unflappable throwing in the face of pressure too; he has a natural feel for navigating the pocket to keep himself clean, strafing to his left or right or stepping up to buy himself time to make a throw in the structure of the offense. And when that didn’t happen, he showed the ability to break away from that structure, keep his eyes downfield, and still find the open man.
He had a few under-pressure throws last season that defied logic, like this one against Oklahoma in the college football playoff:
Burrow can make plays on the ground, too. He’s an agile, loose runner in the open field and he chipped in 368 yards and five scores with his feet—as if throwing 60 touchdowns wasn’t enough in 2019. He can scoot when he needs to―he showed toughness to bounce right back up after taking a few big hits, too―and that makes him even more of a pain in the ass to defend.
While Burrow brings an intriguing skill set to the table, the intangibles are what make him a potentially rare quarterback prospect. The Heisman winner played with an ineffable clutch factor in 2019―he rose to the occasion in the biggest moments, didn’t shrink under pressure, and absolutely dominated from start to finish―even against some of the top-tier defenses LSU faced. Put Burrow’s résumé together and you get a rare quarterback prospect.
If Burrow can lay claim to the best single season of college football quarterbacking, Tua owns the distinction for the greatest career passing marks in NCAA history. The Crimson Tide star finished with all-time college records in career passer-efficiency rating (199.4) and yards per attempt (10.9) while tossing 87 touchdowns to 11 picks. He threw a touchdown on 12.7 percent of his passes in college, the best in Division I history by more than 2 percentage points. Tagovailoa was historically efficient at Alabama and thrived because of two signature traits: his top-tier processing speed and his pinpoint accuracy at all three levels of the field. It didn’t hurt that he showed the athleticism to make plays with his legs, too.
What jumps off the tape first is the speed and physical efficiency at which Tua operates. He moves with almost robotic mechanics, synchronizing his footwork with his upper-body movements while reading the field and deciding quickly where to go with the football. He has point-guard-like vision on RPO plays and on play-action and distributes the football with fine-tuned efficiency, snapping passes off with a quick, compact throwing motion.
Tua has incredible accuracy. It wasn’t just that he got the ball to his receivers; he consistently put the ball in the exact right spot so they wouldn’t have to break stride, allowing them to turn and create yards after the catch. If you think that’s a small thing, go watch some Mitchell Trubisky tape. Tagovailoa’s pinpoint accuracy was an important factor for the team’s effectiveness in the short and intermediate areas.
He showed the ability to protect his receivers from big hits, too, leading them away from lurking defenders.
Tua benefitted from playing with a deep stable of blue-chip receivers in Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Devonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle, but his ability to get the ball to his target can’t be discounted. Just 4.3 percent of Tagovailoa’s passes to open receivers in the intermediate zone (5 to 18 yards) were deemed uncatchable by Pro Football Focus, easily the lowest mark among this year’s passers (compare to Justin Herbert’s 18.1 percent) and better than any of the quarterbacks in the 2018 class.
Of course, Tua can hit the deep ball too. He throws with Downy-soft touch down the field and consistently places the ball in the exact spot a defender can’t get to it―whether that means hurling a fastball to his receiver’s back shoulder or lofting the ball up and over coverage.
While his ability to operate in the quick passing game is a big plus, Tua’s more than just a first-read thrower. He showed the ability to go through his reads from the pocket and identify the open man, like on this play against LSU:
And he showed the savvy to hold middle-of-field defenders with his eyes before attacking the other side of the field.
Like that of Burrow, Tua’s ability to be a factor on the ground is just an added bonus. Tagovailoa rushed for 340 yards and nine touchdowns at Alabama, showing speed and toughness on both designed runs and scrambles.
Tagovailoa, like Burrow, played with ice in his veins in some of the biggest moments of his career. As a true freshman, he came in cold off the bench to lead Alabama over Georgia in the national championship, throwing a game-winning touchdown pass in overtime. He nearly led them to an impossible come-from-behind victory against LSU this past season. He always seemed to rise to the occasion in Alabama’s biggest games … at least when he was healthy. And that caveat is really the main question mark when it comes to his pro projection.
Tua’s season ended abruptly in November when he suffered a potentially career-altering hip injury against Mississippi State. And while recent medical exams on the injury have been “overwhelmingly positive” and “as positive as possible,” there will almost certainly be a few conservative teams who are scared off by that injury (and a handful of other injuries that he suffered in college).
As one GM told NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero, using a high first-round pick on a player like Tua—who’s had serious hip, ankle, and hand injuries over the past few years—is “a little bit of a leap of faith.” Because of Tua’s injury red flags, it won’t be shocking if Herbert (or even Love) ends up being picked higher come Thursday night. If that does happen, it will look, at least to me, like a massive mistake. Tagovailoa is a rare prospect, boasting elite accuracy, high-end processing skills, and the athleticism to extend plays and create headaches for a defense. He comes with risk, but his talent and extraordinary upside make him well worth that leap.