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Light at the End of the Tank: A Too-Early Ranking of the Top QB Prospects in the 2020 Draft

Is Tua Tagovailoa still the crown jewel of this class? With stiff competition from Joe Burrow, Jake Fromm, and a handful of others, this season’s crop of quarterbacks is one of the most interesting in years.

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It’s never too early to start looking forward to the 2020 draft. This year’s quarterback class is shaping up to be one of the most talented―and hotly debated―in recent memory, with very little consensus on the hierarchy of the top passers. Even Alabama wunderkind Tua Tagovailoa’s once-unassailable spot at the top of the ranks has been called into question. The Crimson Tide star is getting some competition from upstart LSU signal-caller Joe Burrow, who he may go toe-to-toe with Saturday if he’s clear to return from a high ankle sprain.

With the homestretch of the college season, the Senior Bowl, the combine, and the pro day circuit still on tap, evaluations are far (like, really far) from complete, and there’s sure to be plenty of movement in the ranks before it’s all said and done. But for now, let’s dig in for a preliminary look at how this year’s group of draft-eligible quarterbacks stack up.

1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young is Tagovailoa’s top challenger to become the no. 1 pick of the 2020 draft, but there’s only one quarterback in this group who is, for my money, worth tanking for.

Tua vaulted into college football lore as a true freshman when he replaced starter Jalen Hurts in the second half of the 2018 national championship game and tossed the game-winning touchdown in overtime to beat Georgia and claim Offensive MVP honors. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound signal-caller subsequently won starting duties for the Crimson Tide as a sophomore and threw 43 touchdowns and six picks in 15 games while leading Alabama to a fourth consecutive national championship appearance (the Tide lost in a blowout to Clemson). Tagovailoa has been sidelined with that high ankle sprain since mid-October, but in seven starts this year, he’s thrown 27 touchdowns and two picks and is on pace to post career highs in adjusted yards per attempt (13.5), completion rate (74.7 percent), and passer rating (212.4).

The first thing that jumps off of Tagovailoa’s tape is how quickly he processes what’s happening in front of him, and how he diagnoses coverages to decisively distribute the ball downfield. Pair those skills with his tight, compact throwing motion, and Tua just seems to be operating at a different speed than everyone else on the field.

The junior playmaker moves easily in the pocket, strafing and resetting to avoid pressure and keep plays alive, and when he uncorks deep passes downfield, he shows excellent accuracy and touch. While his smart decision-making and his ability to decipher defensive coverages are his most important talents, Tua also just throws a really, really pretty ball: It pops off his hands and cuts through the air effortlessly.

Tua’s accuracy on deep passes is a huge plus, but that precision ball placement shows up consistently in the short game, too. As The Athletic’s Joe Goodberry points out in this excellent video breakdown, Tagovailoa doesn’t just put the ball where only his receiver can get to it, he often leads his pass catchers away from big hits or into open ground where they don’t have to break stride and can pick up extra yards.

Tagovailoa is not a perfect quarterback prospect. He has gotten in trouble when he’s tried to make too much happen out of structure, and has gotten tunnel vision and thrown into double coverage on a few occasions. He’s prone to throwing off his back foot at times, too, which causes him to sail passes. The biggest concern as the draft approaches, though, may be his durability. Tagovailoa has suffered high ankle sprains in each of the past two seasons (his left in 2018, his right this season), which necessitated a tight-rope procedure to correct the issue on both occasions. He’s been out of the lineup after suffering the injury on October 19, and his status for no. 2 Alabama’s matchup with no. 1 LSU this weekend is still up in the air. Speaking of LSU …

2. Joe Burrow, LSU

If anyone will challenge Tagovailoa as the top quarterback prospect in the 2020 draft, it’s Burrow. The former four-star recruit has exploded into the first-round conversation this year while leading LSU to an 8-0 start. He took a winding route to Death Valley: After winning the Ohio Mr. Football award and the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year award as a high school senior, Burrow committed to Ohio State, then redshirted there in 2015 before spending the next two seasons backing up J.T. Barrett. Knowing that current Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins would be named the starter in 2018, Burrow transferred to LSU and started 13 games as a redshirt junior, throwing 16 touchdowns and five picks and completing 57.8 percent of his throws. It’s safe to say his 2018 season failed to generate much buzz.

This year, though, Burrow has taken his game to a new level. The 6-foot-4, 216-pound senior has completed 78.8 percent of his passes with 30 touchdowns and four picks, boosting his adjusted net yards per attempt to 12.4 (it was 7.9 last year) and passer rating to 204.5 (up from 133.2 in 2018). Burrow is a tough, fearless pocket passer with good size and solid accuracy downfield. He powers throws deep down the sideline and can adjust his trajectory to loft throws over defenders.

Burrow has shown the ability to move up in the pocket, avoid pressure, and keep his eyes downfield to find open receivers―and he’s got a little playmaking moxie to create out of structure.

As a bonus, Burrow is a quick, athletic mover in the open field.

Burrow has been unflappable in the face of pressure all year, and he’ll get a chance to prove he’s ready for the biggest stage when LSU takes on Alabama on Saturday.

3. Jake Fromm, Georgia

Fromm could end up being the most polarizing quarterback prospect in this class. There are plenty of people out there who see the Georgia signal-caller as a franchise-caliber quarterback with all the intangibles to warrant a first-round pick, and there are others who seem to think he, well, sucks. In any case, the true junior should make for an interesting evaluation: The 6-foot-2 220-pounder doesn’t have prototypical size or a cannon for an arm, but he’s a smart, accurate thrower with a relatively high floor thanks to quick processing skills and excellent touch at all three levels.

The ball doesn’t jump out of his hands like it does with some of his draft-class peers, but Fromm can push the ball to the sideline on deep outs and knows how to operate on time and in structure in the Georgia offense. And when things do break down, he’s shown the ability to make plays off script, too.

(That second throw ended up incomplete, but he put it in the only place his receiver could get it.)

Fromm is regularly praised for his quiet leadership, football IQ, and poise under pressure, three reasons he’s held off a pair of five-star recruits in Jacob Eason and Justin Fields for the team’s starting job in the past few seasons. But he’s had up-and-down performances for the Bulldogs this year. He was mostly sharp in the team’s win against Florida last Saturday (especially on this big-time throw on third-and-7 late in the game), but he struggled in Georgia’s double-overtime loss to South Carolina on October 12 and tossed three picks and completed just 54.9 percent of his passes. Fromm’s play down the stretch could be the difference between whether he declares for the draft or heads back to Georgia for his senior season. Stay tuned.

4a. Justin Herbert, Oregon

Herbert sits atop a three-way tie for fourth on these rankings, and like Fromm, he’s shaping up to be another highly divisive pro prospect. The Eugene native stayed home to play football for the Ducks, and during the past four years, he’s helmed three different schemes under three different staffs (Mark Helfrich’s offense, Willie Taggart’s Gulf Coast offense, and Mario Cristobal’s pistol offense) as the team’s starter. He’s shown remarkable adaptability in his college career and has a natural talent for throwing the ball. The senior passer has a strong arm, and is capable of powering a deep pass through the wind and rain or while off-balance.

He’s shown toughness in the pocket when he knows he’s going to take a hit.

And he’s flashed brilliance at times, threading the needle into tight coverage to his receivers downfield.

But while Herbert can make every throw a pro passer needs to make, his lack of consistency is a red flag. He’ll launch a downfield bomb into his receiver’s breadbasket on one throw, then miss an easy dump-off on the next. Still, Herbert has improved this season in every major statistical category and has 24 touchdowns and two picks while completing 69 percent of his passes. If he can continue to iron out the inconsistencies in his accuracy and mechanics, his size (6-foot-6, 237 pounds), athleticism, and raw tools give him the chance to shoot up these rankings and cement a spot in the first round.

4b. Jordan Love, Utah State

Love, like Herbert, has all the physical tools to develop into a star. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, the dynamic quarterback is a smooth, flick-of-the-wrist-style thrower who can drive the ball to every corner of the field and toggle between high, arcing rainbows and frozen-rope fastballs.

Watching Love’s tape, it’s hard not to be impressed by his incredible touch and ball placement.

But as NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah recently put it, “When you look at Jordan Love, you’re intrigued not by what he is right now, but by what he can become.” Love’s ceiling as a quarterback is as high as that of anyone on this list, but he’s still very raw as a passer. He’s taken a major step back statistically this season after tossing 32 touchdowns and six picks in 2018, and through eight games has a nine-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio for the 4-4 Aggies. Love has shown a penchant for deciding where he will go before the snap, and he’s turned the ball over in bunches.

Love is helming a a talent-deficient offense, so it’s hard to separate his skill set from his stats―but it’s clear that all the tools are there. He’d likely be better off returning to school to hone his craft for another season, but if he decides to make the jump to the pros, he’s got the physical skill set to impress teams in the combine/pro day environments.

4c. Jacob Eason, Washington

Speaking of tools, Eason might stand above the rest when it comes to pure arm talent. The Huskies signal-caller boasts prototypical size (6-foot-6, 227) and a rifle arm capable of launching deep balls to anywhere on the field. The former five-star recruit (who was rated as the no. 1 pro-style QB and one of the top overall players of the 2016 class) committed to Georgia out of high school and started 12 of 13 games as a freshman for the Bulldogs. But after hurting his knee in the first game of Georgia’s season in 2017, he got Wally Pipp’d by Fromm and was unable to regain his starting job. He transferred to Washington after the 2017 season, and after sitting out in 2018 he’s gotten off to a strong start for UW.

Eason’s arm strength jumps off the tape. The junior passer has earned Matthew Stafford comparisons thanks to his ability to effortlessly launch bombs 50-plus yards downfield.

The velocity he generates at the intermediate and deep levels of the field helps him thread the needle through defenders and lead his receivers into daylight.

And he’s able to throw with power or with touch. He can deliver a fastball on one play, then loft a touch throw deep downfield on the next.

But Eason is still a work in progress. He’s looked like a top-10 talent at times en route to a 20-touchdown, five-interception line this year, but he’s also looked completely lost at other times—like last Saturday, when he threw two ugly picks and lost a fumble in the team’s blowout loss to Utah. His lack of starting experience really showed in that game (his last full year of starting experience was in 2016), and reinforced just how difficult a choice he’ll have in whether to declare or return to school for another year.

5. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

Hurts is another fascinating prospect. The former Crimson Tide signal-caller hadn’t generated much NFL draft buzz before this season, but he’s posting video game numbers in Lincoln Riley’s unstoppable spread offense at Oklahoma. Hurts is a Heisman candidate: He’s averaging an absurd 13.7 yards per attempt with 21 touchdowns and three picks to go with his 801 yards and 13 scores on the ground.

The 6-foot-2, 219-pound playmaker should serve as an NFL draft Rorschach test of sorts during the next few months. Some people will watch his tape and see a guy who’s the product of a wide-open offense that schemes receivers open downfield. Others will see a dynamic, playmaking passer with the versatility to factor in to his team’s run game.

In any case, it’s tough to deny that Hurts has showcased excellent touch throwing the ball this year, launching well-placed dimes to his receivers downfield or hitting the back-shoulder throw near the sideline.

The versatile signal-caller has a well-built frame and plenty of athleticism, and is capable of extending plays in the face of pressure, escaping, and finding the open guy.

And Hurts also changes the math for the Sooners run game, as he’s capable of picking up chunk yardage as a scrambler or keeping the ball on option plays.

Hurts doesn’t have the pinpoint accuracy or explosive maneuverability of his predecessor, Kyler Murray, and he’s made a handful of bad decisions with the ball this season, but when it comes down to brass tacks, he’s a strong leader and tough competitor who is speedy and capable of making big-time throws from the pocket. It’s easy to imagine a few teams falling in love with his skill set and makeup.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the nature of Georgia’s loss to South Carolina.