When NFL teams look for their future quarterback, they’re often hampered by the present. Predicting the future is hard, and predicting what a 21-year-old kid will do over a five- or 10-year period is even harder. So decision-makers tend to look at who has recently had success in the NFL and try to find someone like that.
Joe Montana won four Super Bowls, so teams chased the next Joe Montana for 30 years. When Tom Brady and Peyton Manning ascended to the top of the league, teams sought cerebral pocket-passers in their (overwhelmingly white) images. As Patrick Mahomes has rampaged through the NFL, winning a Super Bowl and shattering the Brady-Manning mold, teams have looked for the “Next Mahomes.”
Spoiler: There is no next Mahomes. But that hasn’t stopped teams from chasing that dream anyway. After Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes in his first season as a starter, the Arizona Cardinals selected Kyler Murray—a fellow Air Raid quarterback who, like Mahomes, has a baseball background—no. 1 in the draft. In April 2020, a few months after Mahomes won the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers traded up in the first round for Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, who some evaluators believed had Mahomesian traits. Last year, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson was taken second by the Jets because of his Mahomes-esque off-platform throws. But this year, due to a lack of prospects who fit the mold, the Mahomes Effect is taking a back seat to a newer phenomenon: the Joe Burrow Effect.
Unlike Mahomes, Burrow’s run to the Super Bowl this year didn’t end in victory. But his astonishing season captured the imagination of many about how to turn around an NFL franchise. Burrow’s defining quality isn’t his style of play so much as his contagious attitude. Call it what you want—confidence, cockiness, swag, chutzpah—Burrow has it. And while his fingerprints are not (yet) on the Lombardi Trophy, they’re already all over this quarterback class.
Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder not only played in the same city as Burrow this year, he also shares the same personal quarterback coach in Jordan Palmer. Pitt passer Kenny Pickett—the no. 1 quarterback on The Ringer’s Draft Guide—has often been compared to Burrow because of their respective career arcs as late-blooming college quarterbacks (and their tiny baby hands). North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell says he strives to emulate the presence Burrow brings to a team: “You can tell that he doesn’t really say a whole lot, but when he’s on the field, he has a presence, and guys rally around him.” The only quarterback prospect who isn’t regularly attached to Burrow is Liberty’s Malik Willis, whose ceiling gets him linked to Josh Allen (for his arm) and Lamar Jackson (for his rushing ability).
The Super Bowl was just three weeks ago, so it makes sense that Burrow is fresh in everyone’s minds. But this is also the perfect group to live in Burrow’s shadow. Collectively, this is the weakest QB class since 2013, when EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, and Mike Glennon were the only passers taken in the first three rounds. And while these quarterbacks aren’t that bad—four may go in the first round—none have clearly separated themselves as the top prospect.
In the absence of much excitement around their tangible traits, these guys are placing an increased emphasis on their intangibles—and Burrow has become their go-to example of just how important those can be.
College football programs love naming days of the week. Pete Caroll had “Tell the Truth Monday” at USC and brought it to the Seattle Seahawks. Cal, Tennessee, and Texas A&M all used to have “No Sweat Thursday.” At Ole Miss this past year, they had something called “Get Real Wednesdays,” when one coach would meet with the players and discuss a life lesson or experience. The coach would then ask players to share how it made them feel, and more often than not, quarterback Matt Corral felt obligated to go first. But the redshirt junior, who grew up the youngest of three brothers, says he wasn’t used to that kind of openness.
“I was one of those guys who didn’t want to talk about emotion,” Corral said. “I never talked about crying. If I was crying, I would be like, ‘Stop crying.’”
But Corral soon realized that if he was vulnerable in those meetings, he could help normalize vulnerability for the rest of his teammates. If the quarterback can cry, so can everyone else. So Corral would go first and get, well, real. Each week, others followed his lead. Corral credits those sessions for why Ole Miss became such a tight-knit group en route to a 10-3 campaign, a no. 8 ranking, and a spot in the Sugar Bowl.
“When you take care of the life stuff, I feel that is when football takes care of itself,” Corral said. “We weren’t the best team. We weren’t the most talented team. But we played the best together, and I think that was part of it.”
Corral shared that anecdote at the combine to explain why he feels leadership is his main strength going into this draft. And he was not alone.
Howell said his leadership is his greatest asset as a quarterback. Ridder said it is one of his strengths as well. And while no quarterbacks will come out and say leadership doesn’t matter to them—Burrow did not suddenly make teams realize QBs should be influential parts of the locker room—his magnetism was an undeniable part of Cincinnati’s turnaround.
“We trust in Joe,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said in January. “The more I’ve been around, I’ve learned to just shut my mouth and let the magic occur.”
A few weeks later, after the Bengals made it to the Super Bowl, Taylor said, “When you believe you have a quarterback that can take you the distance, it allows everybody just to play that 1 percent better.”
As multiple teams look to potentially take quarterbacks in the first round of this draft, there will almost certainly be a disproportionate discussion of prospects’ leadership qualities, especially since many of the teams who need quarterbacks this year are filled with veterans. Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Denver, and Washington could all easily contend for a playoff spot with a competent passer under center. But the on-field play is just one component. The confidence to step into those teams and command the room is another.
But just as looking for the next Montana or Brady or Mahomes is a fool’s errand, so is looking for the next Burrow. First off, none of these QBs are as good as Burrow was on the field in college. Don’t forget—Burrow led LSU to a national championship his senior year and was graded as a 94 by Scouts Inc. heading into the draft (none of the quarterbacks this year have surpassed a 90). Part of Burrow’s charm is the fact that he follows up that off-field leadership with on-field results.
Still, some of these teams will have to turn to a rookie. Free agency is around the corner, and the best options available are Mitchell Trubisky, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Teddy Bridgewater, and Cam Newton. Not what you want. Plus, the QB trade market is looking more limited than previously expected. Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, and Derek Carr all seem likely to stay with their teams. Matt Ryan will remain a Falcon unless Atlanta decides to take a $48.6 million-ish cap hit so he can play for someone else. And even if Aaron Rodgers does get traded—no guarantee—he can play for only one team. It seems the next-best options will be Jimmy Garoppolo (who, despite outside criticism, is beloved in the 49ers’ locker room) and Lions quarterback Jared Goff.
In the absence of a major shift, somebody will have to talk themselves into the flawed passers in this year’s class. And as those rationalizations begin, Burrow’s intangible shadow looms large—perhaps even large enough for teams to see these prospects in a new light.