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The Next Wave of Franchise QBs Faces an Uncertain Future

The draft will happen. Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, and Justin Herbert will go in the first round. What happens next is anyone’s guess.  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Justin Herbert announced in December 2018 that he was returning to Oregon for his senior season, I was in the hallways of an NFL facility. As the news reached the phones of the players and the coaches, there was some shock. This feels like a million years ago because, in football terms, it was: At the time, Herbert was a candidate for the no. 1 pick—he still was seven months later when Sports Illustrated had him going first in its 2020 mock draft. Last April, Vegas had Herbert at 6-to-1 odds to be the first selection in 2020, tied for second lowest behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. Very few things move as quickly as the quarterback evaluation market: In 2019, the NFL was dominated by young passers who showed NFL teams how the position is changing. That same year, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, who had the same odds as Herbert to go first last April, fell out of contention to be a first-round pick. LSU’s Joe Burrow had one of the best seasons in the history of college football, and Tagovailoa got injured. Herbert’s fortunes fluctuated less drastically—he’s still projected to be a first-rounder when the draft begins Thursday, but not a contender for first pick. A year’s worth of draft takes have run their course. You either leave school a hero or stay long enough for people to question whether you are worth a first-round pick.

The draft is important, obviously, because it supplies talent to the sport, but it’s also an annual reminder of where the sport is and where people inside the sport think it is. Where quarterbacks are drafted tells the story of the league in that moment: If a player like reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson were available in this draft, he would not drop to the 32nd pick like he did in the 2018 draft. The NFL is stubborn, but not stupid, and once teams see something can succeed, they usually borrow it liberally. There are no Jacksons in this draft, but there are good quarterbacks. The two consensus elite quarterbacks are Joe Burrow and Tagovailoa. Just behind them, according to most observers, is Herbert, with Utah State’s Jordan Love falling somewhere toward the end of the first round or the beginning of the second. Part of the reason quarterback evaluation varies so greatly is obvious: The league never knows what it wants. It’s an unscientific position about which an unscientific league can find few answers.

Take this story from legendary journalist Bob McGinn in The Athletic. In it, McGinn quotes a scouting report about Tagovailoa: “He’s smart enough, but he’s an RPO guy. [Steve] Sarkisian [Alabama’s new coordinator in 2019] tried to do pro stuff and [Tagovailoa] couldn’t handle it mentally because all he’d ever done was RPO stuff. So they went back to RPO.” McGinn’s story offers crucial and indispensable insights: You may not like the scout’s assessment, but it’s important that we know it. Take the point about RPOs. This feels, frankly, like a scouting report that just woke up from a slumber that began in 2011. This take is opening its eyes; it’s stretching its arms after not watching a football game in many years. If you’re looking for a reason some NFL teams roam the earth destined to make the same mistakes, it is in this sort of thinking. There are legitimate reasons to drop Tagovailoa, most of them due to injury concerns, but RPO play is not one of them.

The past half-decade of football was largely defined by taking what a player can do and building a franchise around it, not trying to employ “pro” stuff in a league in which that phrase has become mostly meaningless. The scheme world has flattened, and high school plays and college plays have invaded the sport to the point that they’ve become “pro stuff.” The RPO helped the Eagles win the Super Bowl in 2018. If your player can run an elite RPO, let him do it. “The lesson that can be learned from Lamar [Jackson] is that you don’t have to try to change quarterbacks’ games when they first come into the league,” Ravens backup Robert Griffin III told me during the playoffs. “Because any system that you believe in can work. You just have to buy into it. It can’t be a part-time thing.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban compared Tagovailoa to Drew Brees multiple times during the draft process, which is particularly important since Brees was considered a health risk when Saban tried to sign him as the coach of the Dolphins in 2006. Brees didn’t pass a physical, the deal was called off, and the sport changed. Brees went to New Orleans instead and Saban was off to college once again a year later (those two things are related). Tagovailoa’s health risks are real—his recovery from a hip injury is a great unknown during a year in which no one knows what kind of offseason program can happen. But the risks regarding his play are not.

I asked Greg McElroy, the former Alabama quarterback and current SEC Network analyst, about the two top quarterbacks in the draft and what will happen to them in the NFL. He said something fascinating about Tagovailoa and NFL systems. “His instincts are so unique and so remarkably special that you don’t want to coach him out of it,” McElroy said.

A big part of unlocking Tagovailoa, McElroy said, is when Alabama coaches realized “they were trying to teach him the offense the way most people learn, and Tua is a feel player, he’s not going to be confined by rules.” McElroy worries about “overcoaching” at the NFL level. He’s right—there’s plenty of that.

It’s important that the teams drafting any of these quarterbacks know how to build around them. McElroy said the key to maximizing Burrow’s talents is to surround him with talented players. He laughed as he said it—yes, it seems quite obvious that giving a quarterback talent is important. But Burrow’s strength is his vision and recognition. The ability to run an offense like LSU’s is predicated on having good players while spreading the ball around.

“Everything in their offense last year was predicated on one-on-one matchups,” McElroy said. “Everything about it. They were going to put five wide receivers on the route tree and it’s ‘OK, where’s my best matchup? Justin Jefferson working against a safety? Thaddeus Moss against a linebacker? Ja’Marr Chase working against their second-best corner?’ The progressions for him really weren’t that significant. It was, ‘I like that advantage pre-snap, I’ll take advantage of it.’”

McElroy doesn’t think that type of offense is fully realistic in the NFL, though he thinks Burrow is capable of NFL-style reads. Burrow had, McElroy said, perhaps the best college season he’s ever seen. It concerns him enough that Burrow was “so average” in 2018 to raise a “reasonable question whether he was hotter than good” in 2019. But McElroy generally believes in Burrow as a prospect.

An unusually high number of NFL teams have a plan at quarterback. About 28 or so teams think they are all set for the short term. Because of this, only three teams drafting high have a real need. The Bengals will take Burrow. The Dolphins need a quarterback at some point. So, too, do the Chargers, depending on how they feel about Tyrod Taylor as a long-term starter. This is where it gets intriguing: Those three teams might take the three top quarterbacks, or one or two will skip, leading to a team that already has a quarterback jumping on one as a future option. We will find out how teams feel about their starting quarterbacks once a player like Tagovailoa starts to fall.

After Burrow, the team that controls the quarterback situation is the Miami Dolphins, who have three first-round picks, including the fifth pick, giving them the assets to move up if need be. No one has been connected to more rumors than the Dolphins. They went from tanking for Tua in September, to getting the fifth pick and needing to trade up, to potentially getting Tua at five, and then, most recently, trading up to get an offensive tackle:

Of course, they may not take a passer at all. All options were on the table when I asked GM Chris Grier about that in December. “Mistakes are made because you have to have it. You say, ‘We’re going with this guy,’ and you put all your eggs on this one, even though, in the back of everyone’s mind, it’s ‘Well, maybe it’s not quite the guy,’” Grier told me. “[Ryan Fitzpatrick] has done a fantastic job, Josh [Rosen] has been getting better, we’re going to do everything we can at every position. It’s not just quarterback; we need to get better at a lot of positions. Quarterback is obviously a very, very important piece, and we know we need to add competition there, and we’ll do everything we can to find the right guys.”

The quarterbacks drafted this week will come into the league at the weirdest time possibly ever. It is not just that there will be no offseason programs—there weren’t any in 2011 because of the lockout and Cam Newton became a star anyway—but that no one knows whether you can even work out in any meaningful way for the foreseeable future. No one knows whether there will be a full training camp, fans in the stands, or whether teams will play in their home cities. On Thursday, Sean Payton told Saints players there will be no offseason program of any kind for his team, even those allowed under NFL rules.

Football will generally be fine—there are less games than other sports and it’s probably easier to play a full slate of games even if the season has to be delayed. But there will be a lot of changes. There could be a sharp drop in the salary cap—maybe up to $80 million, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter on his most recent podcast. This means a lot of different things, but one of them, in theory, could be that rookies, the cheapest players in the sport, will become crucial to any team in some doomsday cap scenario. The point here is that these players are entering a very different NFL than any other quarterbacks of their generation. It’s gonna get weird. With quarterbacks, though, it always does.