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What To Expect From The Top Quarterbacks Taken In This Year’s Draft

NFL teams spent big on offense in the 2020 draft. Six offensive tackles went off the board in the first round, and 11 wide receivers were selected in the first 50 picks, setting an NFL record. But quarterback is still king. On a per-snap basis, the NFL spent more on QBs than it did on any other position in the draft, taking three quarterbacks in the top six picks and four in the first round.

These high-value picks will define their franchises for the next few seasons — and we want to try to see just how much they’ll bring to the table. So we’re evaluating the profiles of the top three QBs selected in the draft, using predictive metrics, and assessing their fit with their new teams.

Joe Burrow, No. 1 overall

After a 2-14 season that earned them the first overall pick of the draft, the Cincinnati Bengals chose LSU QB Joe Burrow, and it looks like the Ohio native will be the team’s Week 1 starter. The Bengals announced last week that they were parting ways with longtime signal-caller Andy Dalton. Dalton ranked just 27th on the league in total QBR in 2019 and passed for 62 touchdowns over the previous three years, averaging just over 20 a season. And while it’s unfair to directly compare college production to the NFL, it’s notable that Burrow passed for 60 TDs last year alone, setting an NCAA record en route to winning the Heisman Trophy and leading LSU to a national championship.

Nearly all of Burrow’s box score stats from his final college season are gaudy: 5,671 passing yards, a 76.3 completion percentage and 10.8 yards per pass attempt. But his advanced stats might be even more impressive. Burrow’s 15.6 completion percentage over expected (CPOE) in 2019 — which takes into account things like depth of each pass attempt, pass direction, strength of conference and seasonal environment — ranks as the second best since 2011,1 behind only Russell Wilson’s 16.4 percent CPOE in 2011 at Wisconsin.

Burrow’s 0.63 expected points added per pass play in 2019 is good for sixth since 2011, but he achieved that efficiency over an incredible 527 pass attempts — 124 more than any quarterback prospect with over 0.60 EPA per play over that period.

If there are question marks surrounding Burrow, they start with his underwhelming junior year and worries that he might be a one-year wonder. On 379 pass attempts in 2018, Burrow passed for just 7.6 yards per attempt, notched a roughly league average CPOE (1.1 percent) and managed an EPA per pass play that was about a third of what he notched in 2019 (0.21 EPA/play).

Scouts also question his arm strength, noting that on passes to the sideline — throws that require the most raw arm talent — Burrow’s accuracy suffers. The numbers back up those observations: Burrow’s completion percentage does drop from roughly 7 to 15 yards deep when throwing to the sidelines.

This could end up being a problem for the Bengals. In 2019, Cincinnati attempted the fifth-most sideline throws in the league. Those throws fail — falling incomplete — the majority of the time in the NFL, as defensive backs effectively use the sideline as an extra defender. The leaguewide completion percentage outside the numbers was 47.3 percent in 2019; it’s 69.4 percent to all other parts of the field. To help Burrow live up to his full potential, Cincinnati will likely need to revamp their passing offense and remove its emphasis on the outside passing game.

The Bengals threw to the sideline often last year

NFL teams by pass attempts thrown to either sideline, 2019 regular season

rk Team att rk Team att
1 Seattle Seahawks 112 17 Detroit Lions 83
2 Los Angeles Rams 112 18 Cleveland Browns 83
3 Green Bay Packers 111 19 Houston Texans 82
4 Chicago Bears 109 20 Denver Broncos 80
5 Cincinnati Bengals 104 21 Los Angeles Chargers 80
6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 102 22 New England Patriots 79
7 Dallas Cowboys 99 23 Minnesota Vikings 74
8 Buffalo Bills 98 24 New York Jets 72
9 Jacksonville Jaguars 98 25 Pittsburgh Steelers 71
10 New York Giants 97 26 Kansas City Chiefs 69
11 Miami Dolphins 96 27 New Orleans Saints 68
12 Atlanta Falcons 92 28 Oakland Raiders 64
13 Arizona Cardinals 92 29 Tennessee Titans 63
14 Carolina Panthers 89 30 Washington Redskins 61
15 Philadelphia Eagles 86 31 Baltimore Ravens 55
16 Indianapolis Colts 84 32 San Francisco 49ers 46

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Tua Tagovailoa, No. 5 overall

Selected fifth overall by the Miami Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa is nearly as impressive as Burrow by the production metrics — at least on a per-play basis. Because of injuries, Tagovailoa attempted just 252 pass attempts in 2019 — half of Burrow’s volume.

Still, Tagovailoa’s 11.3 yards per attempt was half a yard better than Burrow’s, and his 0.69 EPA per pass attempt ranks No. 1 since at least 2011. And Tua is no one-hit wonder: His 2018 season ranks seventh by EPA per play since 2011, just behind Burrow’s 0.63 mark in 2019.

The risk for the Dolphins is Tua’s health. He’s had two ankle surgeries and a hip surgery, and he suffered a broken nose and a concussion as a starter. The Dolphins offensive line ranked dead last in ESPN’s pass block win rate in 2019, and that incompetence led to a complete overhaul of the line this offseason. It started with the free agency signings of guard Ereck Flowers and center Ted Karras, and continued with three offensive line selections in the draft, including tackle Austin Jackson with the 18th pick in the first round.

Justin Herbert, No. 6 overall

Compared with the players taken before him, Oregon QB Justin Herbert doesn’t seem to belong here. Herbert’s 8.1 yards per attempt in 2019 was over 2 yards per pass worse than his more prolific peers taken before him. Herbert’s EPA per pass play shows an even bigger drop-off in production: In 2019 it was 0.32 — around just half of the per-play efficiency of Burrow and Tagovailoa. But his CPOE is perhaps the most damning of all: It’s 0, indicating he was exactly average at completing passes.

If a quarterback’s college production sets his ceiling, being average in the minors isn’t a great sign for Herbert’s future prospects as a pro.

While Herbert’s production is lacking across the board relative to Burrow and Tua, he trounces them in one very important way: He looks like a prototypical NFL QB. At 6-foot-6 and 236 pounds, Herbert is physically imposing, and his 40-yard-dash time of 4.68 seconds shows he’s athletic. He can also throw the ball 62 yards flat-footed. All of this puts him in very specific company. According to an ESPN model that finds similar players based on athletic measurables and scouting grades, Herbert’s top comps are Daniel Jones, Josh Allen, Blaine Gabbert and Andrew Luck.

For the Chargers, those measurables were enticing enough for them to look past his uninspiring college production. With Tyrod Taylor as the presumptive starter in Los Angeles, Herbert may have time to sit and learn in his first year in the league. And while that may not be the optimal scenario for a sixth overall pick, it may be just what Herbert needs to maximize his pro potential.

Footnotes

  1. The first year for which we have depth-of-target data.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

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