For a night that had the potential to be weird as hell, the first round of the 2020 NFL draft was oddly … boring. The picks that Roger Goodell announced from his basement largely aligned with predraft predictions, and—with one exception—that included the quarterbacks.
Up until the Packers pulled off the biggest shocker of the evening by trading up for Jordan Love (which we’ll get to shortly), the top QBs in the draft landed where many expected. Joe Burrow is a Bengal, Tua Tagovailoa is a Dolphin, and Justin Herbert is a Charger. All of those moves (and to some extent, Green Bay’s choice to grab Love) seemed possible heading into Thursday night. But now that they’re official, it’s time to assess how the first-round quarterbacks will shape their franchises’ futures—and what the decision to draft them says about each team’s long-term outlook.
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
It was all but certain that Cincinnati would take Burrow no. 1—and it’s easy to understand why. After his historic 2019 season at LSU, the Bengals viewed Burrow as a franchise-altering force. And considering the current makeup of their roster, he’ll have to be.
The Bengals were in a unique position this offseason, compared to other teams looking to snag a QB in the first round. They’ve known for months that Burrow would be there if they wanted him, so the front office was able to be aggressive in free agency with their future quarterback in mind. Director of player personnel Duke Tobin oversaw huge deals for defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes. Even when the Bengals were borderline contenders under Marvin Lewis, they were rarely big spenders in free agency—so it was a bit surprising to see them shell out cash like this in the offseason. After a disastrous first season under head coach Zac Taylor in 2019, the Bengals are clearly hoping that Burrow and an injection of free-agent talent can accelerate their timeline. Based on their choices this spring, this team doesn’t seem interested in an extended rebuild.
Even with the additions they’ve made this offseason, though, the Bengals still have a long way to go. The decision to retain A.J. Green on the franchise tag should aid Burrow’s development, but beyond the one-two punch of Green and Tyler Boyd, Cincinnati is still woefully thin on offense. Getting 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams back at left tackle after he missed all of last season with a torn labrum is essentially like adding an extra first-rounder to the mix. But the Bengals could still afford to upgrade multiple spots along their offensive line. One of Burrow’s best traits is his ability to slip out of pressure, navigate the pocket, and deliver off-schedule throws—and he’ll likely have to do plenty of that next season.
Even if Burrow is the QB savior that the people of Cincinnati are hoping for, a majority of this roster still comes from the team that went 2-14 last season. Green is 31 and playing on a one-year deal, and he’s appeared in nine games over the past two seasons. Plus, Burrow will be transitioning from a wide-open LSU offense loaded with talent to a more traditional, play-action-heavy scheme under Taylor. Burrow could very well turn into a superstar, but it will take more than a single offseason before the Bengals return to relevance.
Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
In the end, the Dolphins’ grand plan worked. General manager Chris Grier spent 2019 systematically tearing down Miami’s roster, shipping off virtually every valuable young piece for draft capital as the team started its rebuild. The goal—along with acquiring enough picks to restock the roster—was to bottom out just enough to land a QB of the future in the 2020 draft. Head coach Brian Flores miraculously managed to guide his team to a 5-11 finish last season, but the fifth pick was still high enough for Miami to land its guy. The Dolphins’ future hopes now rest with Tua Tagovailoa, and their next task is building up the roster around him.
Much like the Bengals, the Dolphins’ moves this offseason showed that they don’t intend to drag on their rebuild much longer. Grier handed former Cowboys corner Byron Jones a five-year, $82.5 million deal in free agency, which made him the highest-paid cornerback in the league. Along with homegrown talent Xavien Howard, Miami now has the two most expensive cornerbacks in football. The Dolphins also signed linebacker Kyle Van Noy to a four-year, $51 million deal to man the middle of Flores’s defense. Those aren’t the moves of a team that wants to toil around the bottom of the league.
All that veteran spending should help speed up the Dolphins’ trajectory, but the timeline will come down to how Grier and Flores use their arsenal of picks to build around Tagovailoa. The Dolphins spent their second of three first-round picks on USC tackle Austin Jackson, a high-upside prospect who will get an opportunity to compete for a starting role right away on the league’s weakest offensive line. Miami also has a pair of second-round picks—no. 39 and no. 56—which the team could use to bolster the offense. At this point, it feels like Grier is just conjuring extra second-rounders out of thin air. With several highly touted receivers still on the board, the Dolphins could add a pass catcher and another piece to the offensive line before the weekend even begins.
In theory, Miami could leave the first two rounds with Tagovailoa and three Week 1 starters on offense. That quartet would join a nucleus that already includes high-priced free agent guard Ereck Flowers, new center Ted Karras, and recently extended wide receiver DeVante Parker—who finally enjoyed a breakout season in 2019. Even if this rookie class can contribute immediately, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but you have to assume that this is the type of plan Grier and the front office envisioned when they set their rebuild in motion last spring. If the Dolphins have reservations about Tagovailoa’s health, they could easily ask Ryan Fitzpatrick to carry the torch for a bit longer, but if things break right, this team may soon be done spinning its wheels.
Justin Herbert, Chargers
Of all the quarterbacks in this round, Herbert easily landed in the most appealing situation. General manager Tom Telesco’s decision to trade back into the first round to select linebacker Kenneth Murray seems curious, given a glaring need at left tackle. But even with that hole, Herbert will be getting an inordinate amount of help for a highly drafted rookie QB.
The Chargers have spent the entire offseason building up their supporting cast on offense. By trading for guard Trai Turner and signing stalwart right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a reasonable free-agent deal, the Chargers have rebuilt half of their offensive line—and potentially fixed a problem that’s plagued this team for years. Telesco also used the franchise tag to keep Hunter Henry and re-signed Austin Ekeler to a relatively reasonable extension. Those two, along with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, help to form one of the best pass-catching groups in football. Collectively, Telesco’s moves this offseason were designed to insulate whoever lined up under center next season. With so much talent on both offense and defense, a franchise QB was arguably the final piece of the puzzle. And with Herbert, the Chargers clearly feel like that guy is now in place. Tyrod Taylor could theoretically begin the season as the starter, allowing the Chargers to bring Herbert along at his own pace. But considering the urgency that Telesco and the franchise showed this offseason, it seems like he’ll get his chance sooner rather than later. If Herbert pops as a rookie, the Chargers could shock some people this fall.
Jordan Love, Packers
On an otherwise predictable night, the Packers pulled off an absolute stunner by trading up in the first round to grab polarizing Utah State QB Jordan Love. Love’s pro prospects were all over the map. Some NFL folks I spoke with before the draft told me coaches in their building were hypnotized by Love’s physical traits. Others were convinced that his questionable decision-making would eventually do him in. Rolling the dice on Love was going to be a risk for whatever team decided to draft him, but it seems like even more of a gamble for Green Bay.
Aaron Rodgers is 36 years old and entering the home stretch of his illustrious career. The Packers are coming off an (admittedly horrific) appearance in the NFC championship game. With an obvious need at wide receiver, it would have made sense for general manager Brian Gutekunst to grab one of the several remaining pass catchers on the board to properly outfit his future Hall of Fame quarterback for one last run. Instead, Gutekunst drafted that quarterback’s successor—and in the process, flipped the hourglass on Rodgers’s career in Green Bay.
With a dead-money hit of $39.7 million this year and $31.6 million in 2021, Rodgers isn’t going anywhere for at least the next two seasons. But after that, it’s anyone’s guess. Brett Favre lasted three seasons in Green Bay after the Packers pulled the same move on him in 2005, but the structure of rookie contracts under the current CBA makes it difficult to justify sitting a guy for that long. By Love’s third season, half the cheap years on his rookie deal will already be wasted. Rodgers could hypothetically keep Love at bay beyond next season (similar to the way Tom Brady held on to the job in New England after the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo), but Green Bay’s bold choice to move up for Love signals that the team believes he’s the future. Snagging Love gives the Packers their best chance to smoothly move on from Rodgers, but it also hurts their shot at maximizing whatever time Rodgers has left. It’s a difficult balancing act that few teams ever pull off, and it’ll be fascinating to see how Rodgers responds.