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Joe Burrow Is the No. 1 Pick. Will He Be the Savior the Bengals Need?

In an NFL draft dominated by unknowns, Burrow to Cincinnati was the only sure thing

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When Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy in December, he used his acceptance speech to spotlight his hometown.

“Coming from Southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area,” Burrow said. “The poverty rate is almost two times the national average and there’s so many people there who don’t have a lot. And I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and in Athens County who go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. And you guys can be up here, too. ... [I’m] just a kid from Ohio coming down and chasing a dream.”

The dream that began in Southeast Ohio is now taking Burrow to Southwest Ohio. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted Burrow first in the 2020 NFL draft on Thursday, placing one of the most hyped prospects in years on a team from his home state. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the pick was essentially made on Wednesday when Bengals owner Mike Brown sent Burrow No. 9 Cincinnati jerseys for him and his parents along with a letter about building “championship football teams.”

In an NFL draft dominated by unknowns as the entire operation went remote, Burrow going to the Bengals was the only certainty. Not bad for someone who was barely on the NFL’s radar eight months ago. With Burrow at quarterback, LSU went undefeated and won the national title as the Tigers broke the Division I record for total points in a season (726) and became the first team to go 15-0 in SEC history. Burrow set the college football record for total touchdowns (65) and touchdown passes (60). The marks that didn’t set records came awfully close. His 5,671 passing yards rank third all time in Division I history, and his 76.3 completion percentage ranks second. Most impressive was that Burrow was at his absolute best when it mattered most. He tossed seven touchdown passes against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff semifinal—by halftime. Whenever LSU needed Burrow last season, he had the eye of the tigah.

As Laura Rutledge noted on ESPN’s Get Up!, Burrow is just the 11th player in the history of North American professional sports to complete the Triple Crown: win a national championship in their final collegiate season, win a national player of the year award, and be taken no. 1 in the draft. Of those 11, only Burrow also set an NCAA individual record in his final season, giving him a serious claim as one of the best collegiate athletes of all time. He certainly looked the part, smoking a cigar after winning the national championship in January.

Burrow might have to wait a long time before his next post-championship cigar. The Bengals bumbled their way to a 2-14 record in 2019 under first-year head coach Zac Taylor. Cincinnati ranked as the fourth-worst offense and the third-worst defense by efficiency adjusted for context, according to Football Outsiders. Cincinnati went 0-8 last season in one-score games, which history suggests are 50-50 contests, and even a marginal improvement in that category could go a long way toward getting them back to .500. The Bengals have been somewhere between meek and mediocre for Burrow’s entire lifetime.

The man who Burrow replaces at quarterback, Andy Dalton, has been the embodiment of meh for the past decade. The Bengals made the playoffs in each of Dalton’s first five seasons as the starter but have gone 0-5 in the playoffs and have not returned since 2015. In Dalton’s nine seasons, he reached more than 7.5 yards per pass attempt just once, never surpassed an average of 270 yards per game, and had enough memorable moments to be counted on one hand. If the opposite of love is indifference, then Joe Burrow is the opposite of Andy Dalton.

Adding Burrow sets the Bengals up to compete long term in a suddenly star-studded AFC North. Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield is, like Burrow, a college transfer turned Heisman winner turned no. 1 pick. Baltimore has Lamar Jackson, another Heisman winner who is the reigning NFL MVP and soon-to-be Madden cover star. Pittsburgh has 38-year-old Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, but the Steelers are the most consistently competitive team in the NFL outside of the Patriots. The AFC North may be the most compelling division in football for the next few years.

Burrow will need talented teammates to compete with those squads for the 2020s, and the Bengals have already spent their offseason trying to help their home-adjacent hero. The team kept receiver A.J. Green with the franchise tag after Green missed 2019 with an ankle injury. The Bengals released expensive veterans like tackle Cordy Glenn and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, but the front office was uncharacteristically aggressive in free agency. Cincy’s offseason signings were headlined by 25-year-old former Houston defensive tackle D.J. Reader, who should help improve their interior defense, and a slew of reinforcements in the secondary, including former Vikings cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, former Titans cornerback LeShaun Sims, and former Saints safety Vonn Bell. The hope is that the imported talent could contribute to a quick turnaround, but the Bengals need to nail the rest of their draft to build a core around Burrow to compete long term.

The first thing Burrow said in his Heisman speech—after a long pause when he was choked up—was a thank-you to his offensive line. Cincinnati would be wise to use the rest of its draft to give Burrow some NFL linemen to thank in a future acceptance speech. Cincinnati ranked second-to-last in run blocking and seventh-to-last in pass blocking last year, according to Pro Football Focus, though it’s not for a lack of trying to add talent in the trenches. The Bengals drafted Alabama tackle Jonah Williams with the 11th pick last year, but he missed the season with a torn labrum. In 2018, the Bengals used their first-rounder on Ohio State center Billy Price, but he missed six games his rookie season with a foot injury and lost his job to undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins in 2019. The Bengals will have a half-day to decide who to take with the first pick of the second round, which begins on Friday, and they could select the best offensive lineman left on the board, whether that is Michigan center Cesar Ruiz, Georgia tackle Isaiah Wilson, or someone else. Other areas of the roster also need attention, but putting Burrow behind a subpar line would be a mistake, considering the Bengals play in a division with Pittsburgh, which has led the league in sacks each of the past three years, and Baltimore, which blitzed more than any other team last year.

Burrow is the fourth player the Bengals have taken no. 1 in the draft; he follows defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson in 1994, running back Ki-Jana Carter in 1995, and USC quarterback Carson Palmer in 2003. Palmer, like Burrow, won the Heisman Trophy en route to being drafted no. 1. Palmer enjoyed early success with Cincinnati, including leading the NFL in touchdown passes and completion percentage in his second season, but had a falling-out with the team and threatened retirement in 2011 rather than finish his contract with the team (Palmer was ultimately traded to Oakland). Palmer heavily implied in a January interview that his issues with Cincinnati were related to Bengals owner Mike Brown, who runs a much more mom-and-pop-style organization than most NFL teams.

“That’s why I wanted out: I never felt like the [Bengals] organization was really trying to win a Super Bowl, and really chasing a Super Bowl,” Palmer told Damon Amendolara.

Two days after Carson Palmer made those comments, Burrow formally hired Palmer’s brother, Jordan, as his pre-draft trainer, leading to the obvious dot-connecting that Burrow has likely heard worse stories in private from the Palmers than Carson has been willing to say in public. Whatever challenges Burrow will encounter in Cincinnati, his relationship with the Palmers likely means he knows what to expect. Further helping him is that his new office isn’t too far from home. Athens is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Cincinnati, though Burrow told Adam Schefter, “I can make it in 2:15 if I’m going pretty fast.”

Burrow doesn’t have to go far to reach Cincinnati, but he is expected to take Cincinnati a long way.