Searching for the next Mahomes – introducing the 2020 NFL Draft’s quarterback class

“Quarterbacks need to make their team better, if it’s a bad team, they can even make a bad team better,” once said Fran Tarkenton.

The former Minnesota Vikings quarterback, Hall of Famer and nine-time Pro Bowler summed it up simply, yet quite perfectly.

Quarterback remains the most important position on a football field. While a quarterback may not always single-handedly decide a Super Bowl, he is often the man responsible for helping a franchise claw from its pit, brush itself down and set its sights on progress.

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It’s why 14 No 1 overall picks at the NFL Draft have been used on quarterbacks since the beginning of 2000 and why four of the last five No 1 overall picks have been quarterbacks. It’s why the Arizona Cardinals swallowed their pride to draft Kyler Murray at No 1 in 2019, a year after drafting Josh Rosen as their potential franchise play-caller.

It’s why three quarterbacks are likely to go in the top 10 this year, as the NFL looks to keep pace with the tone-setting, page-turning mastery of Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson.

Joe Burrow – the consensus No 1

Barring the shock of all shocks, Joe Burrow will become the new face of the Cincinnati Bengals when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces the first pick from his basement on Thursday.

There is a protruding self-belief and a chilling composure to a born competitor who has enjoyed gobbling up the doubts cast over him early on his college career. Burrow was in the shadows for three seasons at Ohio State before transferring to LSU in 2018 upon the realisation that Dwayne Haskins, now of the Washington Redskins, would be named starter.

Perhaps only Burrow himself could have foretold of his explosion in 2019, the 23-year-old following up a modest first year with LSU by producing arguably the greatest season from a quarterback in college football history.

Burrow threw for a nation-high 5,671 yards and a college-record 60 touchdowns as he led the Tigers to National Championship glory over Clemson and won the Heisman Trophy with a record 90.7 per cent of all first-place votes available.

He does not widen eyes with a cannon arm, but he knows it. He possesses an elite ability to consistently put the ball where his receiver can grab it and where the defensive back cannot, his unwavering accuracy, scrambling tools and ice-cold pressure-absorbing demeanour making for a polished prospect.

“Now, it is tricky to evaluate both Joe Burrow and Tua because of the amount of talent that they have around them, so the way I did it is I went back and I watched them against the best teams they played against,” NFL Network Analyst Daniel Jeremiah told reporters in a conference call.

“I watched all their snaps under pressure, and when you do that, there’s a decided difference between Joe Burrow and everybody else in the whole draft. He was phenomenal when he was under pressure and he was phenomenal when they were playing against teams with similar talent.”

Tua Tagovailoa – Miami-bound?

One clear parallel between Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa is the natural leadership that makes both such popular and very likeable locker room presences.

It’s Tagovailoa’s twitchy hip rotation that stands out, combining with an ability to misdirect with his eyes in making him a nightmare for defensive backs to track. His footwork is equally majestic and rewarded with stunning vision, a perfect spiral and quick release.

His makeup is crucially well-aligned with the dual-threat market of quarterbacks stamping their mark on a new era in the NFL, his blend of speed and decision-making allowing him to escape the pocket if required.

“He has got great footwork, pinpoint accuracy like a Drew Brees, great leadership skills and a strong arm,” said his agent Leigh Steinberg.

“You have got this unique opportunity to take this high-character, young athlete and solve your quarterback problems for years to come.”

The 22-year-old took over from Jalen Hurts under center in the second half of the 2017 National Championship game win over Georgia, throwing for three touchdowns. He went on to claim the SEC Offensive Player of the Year award in 2018 after finishing the season 245 of 355 passing (69 per cent) for 3,966 yards, 43 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 15 starts.

This was followed by a junior season in which he recorded 180 passes at a completion percentage of 71.4 for 2,840 yards, 33 touchdowns and three interceptions before he went down with a hip dislocation that required surgery in November. Nevertheless, he left Alabama with a remarkable 87 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, along with an all-time college record in passer rating (199.4).

The Crimson Tide star has been unfortunate in that the inability for teams to conduct physicals amid COVID-19 travel restrictions has re-inflated doubts over his health following November’s hip surgery. But that should not stop him from peaking the interest of either the Miami Dolphins at No 5 or the Los Angeles Chargers at No 6.

“The two doctors that are most intimately connected with him – the one who operated on him in Houston and the team from Alabama – both have given him a clean bill of health,” Steinberg added.

Justin Herbert – Los Angeles’ next QB?

The jury is out on Justin Herbert. Some analysts will tell you there is a chasm separating him and Tagovailoa, while others will tout him as the safer option heading into Thursday’s virtual curtain-raiser.

Herbert does not match up to the precision of Burrow or the mechanics of Tagovailoa, but he is quite-rightly recognised by many as the most gifted quarterback of the class when it comes to sheer size and strength.

At six-foot-six and 236lbs, he packs a punch in his monster arm that is sure to test the soft hands of his receivers and invite his offense to attack downfield. One common area for scrutiny has been his job of working through his progressions.

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“I think obviously Herbert is bigger and stronger,” said Jeremiah. “Herbert in my opinion is actually a better athlete. I don’t think people understand that as much, but he’s a really good athlete. And he’s obviously durable, or has been durable recently. You’ve got that advantage going for you if you’re Herbert.

“I think Tua is a more instinctive natural player. He’s got better instincts. He’s just got a better feel. I think he’s got better touch and accuracy. He can layer the ball a little bit better. I think he’s more urgent and sudden in terms of working through progressions.”

It’s worth noting with Herbert he did not have the likes of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III at his disposal as Tagovailoa did, or Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase as Burrow did. Regardless, his record of 813 passes (63.9 per cent) for 10,541 yards, 95 touchdowns and 22 interceptions across four years with the Ducks is admirable.

He also underlined his use on the ground in Oregon’s Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin at the end of last season with three rushing touchdowns. Herbert notably won MVP at January’s Senior Bowl after earning Practice Player of the Week.

Jordan Love – the enigma

Utah State’s Love is one of the polarising players of the quarterback class, his impressive arm talent hindered by mixed production in 2019.

Love finished his sophomore year 267 of 416 passing for a school season record 3,567 yards, 32 touchdowns and just six interceptions in 13 games, winning MVP in Utah State’s 2018 New Mexico Bowl victory over North Texas.

His junior year, in which he was sacked 20 times, saw him throw 293 of 473 for 3,402 yards, 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

“He has the arm talent which one quarterback evaluator I trust tremendously says he would put up against anybody in the last four drafts,” NFL Network’s James Palmer told Sky Sports.

“Doesn’t mean he’ll be a great player, doesn’t mean he’ll live up to that, it’s just that the talent he has to throw the football is Patrick Mahomes-esque so that’s why there are a lot of people intrigued with him.

“There were a lot of turnovers a year ago, but he played at Utah State throwing to guys that are insurance salesman-to-be, they’re not NFL players so he is a very intriguing name and he could go anywhere from the top 10 to the bottom of the first round.”

Best of the rest

Hurts, who transferred to Oklahoma from Alabama for his senior year, attracts based on his dual-threat capability and widely-praised leadership skills.

He finished 2019 with 3,851 passing yards for 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions, along with 1,298 rushing yards for two scores, showcasing starting NFL potential should he continue to develop as a passer.

Jeremiah, explained: “My thing with him is if you want to get him on the field and he’s not going to be your starter, I’m not saying, hey, we want you to play receiver. We’ve seen with Taysom Hill some of the things he’s been able to do just coming in as the quarterback.

“So to come in as the quarterback and just be able to use him in different ways, to actually play the position, not asking him to come out there and line up in the slot or play running back,

“He’s got to just improve throwing with a little bit more anticipation. If he can do that, I think some team is going to be able to put him in as the starting quarterback in this league.”

Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm throwing at the #[email protected] | @FrommJake

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Then there is Jacob Eason and Jake Fromm, the former of whom transferred from Georgia in January 2018 after seeing the latter take his starting job during his recovery from a 2017 knee injury.

Eason was forced to sit out of the 2018 season due to NCAA transfer eligibility rules, returning to action with 260 passes (64.2 per cent) for 3,132 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2019.

“I love the arm strength that he has. I love the flashes,” continued Jeremiah. “You talk about sometimes just grading the flashes of a player. If you look at him at his best, there’s a lot to be excited about with the way he throws the football.

“But he’s got some bad habits that he’s got to clean up in terms of trying to spin out of pressure. He takes a lot of bad sacks. He forces throws. He locks on. The touch is an area that needs to be improved.”

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