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Strong First Impressions and Bright Futures for the NFL’s Rookie QBs

Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert each assumed the starting job amid different circumstances, but all three have delivered on the hope their franchises have placed in them

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In Week 1, it was unclear if any rookie quarterback aside from Joe Burrow would start in 2020. Now, more than halfway through the season, Burrow, Justin Herbert, and Tua Tagovailoa are all starting for the Bengals, Chargers, and Dolphins, respectively, and playing well enough to draw comparisons to the 2004 rookie class that included Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger. This year’s group entered a league that has become more pass-heavy in the past 16 years, and the 2020 rookie quarterbacks have been far more productive than that 2004 group was on a per-game basis. It’s all about the future for Burrow, Herbert, or Tagovailoa—the players they develop into are much more important to their teams than the players they are right now—but the early returns of this season show each one is further along than anticipated.

Joe Burrow, no. 1 overall pick, Cincinnati Bengals

Burrow is the only one of these three rookies who has started since Week 1 and prepared as the starter during training camp. He’s also the quarterback whose NFL performances have most clearly backed up his scouting out of LSU. After eight starts, Burrow has a 67 percent completion rate, 11 touchdowns, five interceptions, and is averaging 284 yards per game and 6.9 yards per attempt. He’s played well, but he has—by far—the worst situation around him of all the rookie QBs. The Bengals (2-5-1) have one of the least talented rosters in the league and play in one of its hardest divisions, the AFC North.

Through Week 7, Burrow has been sacked 28 times and 22 percent of his completed throws have been into tight windows where his receivers get less than 1 yard of separation. Both of those numbers are second worst in the NFL. Burrow has been under constant pressure and doesn’t get a lot of easy, open targets, but the Bengals have still asked him to drop back and throw 330 times, more than all but two other quarterbacks: Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. It’s as if Cincinnati is testing the 10,000-hour rule with Burrow, and hoping all those reps will help accelerate his development—as long as the pressure doesn’t crush him in the meantime. So far, so good—Burrow seems to have developed an especially great connection with rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins—though it will be difficult to keep him clean in the pocket against the Steelers on Sunday.

The best sign for the Bengals is that Burrow’s performance looks sustainable. His accuracy, considered his best trait when he was drafted, is evident with his tight-window throws. Burrow has also excelled on passes up to 20 yards down the field, ranking third among starting quarterbacks through Week 8, according to Pro Football Focus. Accuracy and short-to-intermediate-range passing are both fairly stable and predictive indicators of future performance.

Tua Tagovailoa, no. 5 overall pick, Miami Dolphins

Tagovailoa has the smallest sample size, having started only two games, and is in the best situation of the three rookie quarterbacks. In his first two starts, he’s shown major improvement on a drive-to-drive basis. In Week 8 against the Rams, Tagovailoa completed 12-of-22 passes for 93 yards and one touchdown and the Dolphins offense was bailed out by defense and special teams.

In his second start in Week 9, Tagovailoa was 20-of-28 passing for 248 yards and two touchdowns. Tagovailoa drove the Dolphins into field goal range before halftime and finished 6-of-8 for 77 yards, a touchdown, and a 144.7 quarterback rating. He also had three carries for 24 yards in Miami’s final three possessions in the win against the Cardinals.

The enthusiasm around Tagovailoa’s debut comes with a sense of relief that he’s healthy and looks comfortable on the field. A year ago, he was considered the likely no. 1 pick, but his draft stock fell after a devastating hip injury suffered last November while playing for Alabama. The injury led to questions about whether Tagovailoa would be the same player once he recovered and, though his health will be a long-term question for the Dolphins, the fact that he’s playing so soon has already validated their decision to draft him. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey told reporters on Tuesday that he “can’t see a real difference,” in how Tagovailoa has played this year from how he did in college and that the quarterback has relieved any health concerns he might have had. Gailey might have been thinking about a play on a third-and-four in the fourth quarter against Arizona, when Tagovailoa juked Cardinals safety Budda Baker in the open field to run for the first down. The Dolphins are currently in the playoff picture. If Tagovailoa keeps improving, the poise and playmaking he also showed at Alabama should be enough to get Miami there.

Justin Herbert, no. 6 overall pick, Los Angeles Chargers

Herbert’s first NFL start came under less-than-ideal circumstances. Just minutes before the Chargers kicked off Week 2 against the Chiefs, a team doctor accidentally punctured then-starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s lung while administering a pain-killing injection. Taylor had to go to the hospital and Herbert had to start with Patrick Mahomes on the opposite sideline.

Herbert was shockingly fantastic: He threw for 311 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another while throwing one interception. His performance was surprising considering the circumstances that thrust him into the starting position, but also because of how his play defied the scouting consensus of him coming out of Oregon—that he had great physical tools but wasn’t NFL-ready or an anticipatory thrower. Herbert completed 64 percent of his passes in four years at Oregon compared to 69 percent for both Burrow and Tagovailoa, though he also played with less NFL-caliber talent around him. Including Herbert, four Oregon Ducks were taken in the 2020 draft compared with 10 Alabama players and 14 LSU Tigers.

Herbert has since built on his Week 2 performance. He’s completed 67 percent of his passes and thrown for 2,146 yards, 17 touchdowns, and five interceptions with a 104.7 passer rating in seven starts. The Chargers are 1-6 in those games but, depending who you ask, that’s more because of their defense, special teams, or cursed cosmic destiny than it is about Herbert—Los Angeles has blown three leads of at least 17 points this season to become the first team to do so since the 2003 Falcons.

Other than the fact that Los Angeles has turned losing into an art form, they have given Herbert the best supporting cast of receivers of this bunch. Unlike Burrow, who’s been forced to throw into tight windows, Herbert has been throwing to receivers with at least 5 yards of separation on 23 percent of his passes, according to Next Gen Stats. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams can make contested catches, but more importantly, they can both get open to give Herbert easier targets. Herbert’s performance is still a bit volatile—he’s had success throwing deep, averaging 11.9 yards per completion, but through Week 8 he is ranked 20th on passes up to 20 yards, according to PFF. His future success may be less any predict than a player like Burrow, but Herbert he has clearly exceeded expectations. Herbert’s ability to get through reads quickly was questioned during the predraft process, but he has been excellent when pressured, and has a 102.2 passer rating and more passing yards under pressure than any quarterback other than Josh Allen.

If teams got a do-over of the 2020 draft today, the quarterbacks would probably go in the same order. It could seem like Herbert’s productivity could have him leapfrog Tagovailoa, since he went only one slot later, but Tagovailoa has assuaged concerns about his health, which is likely just as important. Where Herbert could jump both Tagovailoa and Burrow, however, is in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race. In Week 9, Herbert broke Cam Newton’s record of 2,103 for the most passing yards in a rookie’s first seven starts since at least 1950, which was enough to make him the front-runner. Burrow is also in the hunt for the award, and though Tagovailoa may have begun starting too late in the season to get serious consideration, he does have a path: The Dolphins play the Chargers Sunday and have the Bengals on the schedule in Week 13, meaning Tagovailoa’s team could sweep Herbert’s and Burrow’s teams this season. If that happens, and Tagovailoa plays well, there’s an argument there for him to win on those grounds. It’s too early to know how the rookie quarterbacks will stack up at the end of the season and definitely too early to know how they’ll fare in the future, but what’s clear so far is that the 2020 class has already exceeded expectations and will be one to watch.