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After watching LSU quarterback (and southern Ohio native) Joe Burrow account for all six of the Tigers touchdowns in a 42-25 win over Clemson in the national championship game (setting a new FBS record for touchdown passes and touchdowns accounted for in a season in the process), there’s approximately zero chance that the Cincinnati Bengals will pass on Burrow with the first pick in the 2020 NFL draft.
It would take a Robert Griffin-esque boatload of picks for the Bengals to even consider moving the selection—and even that might not be enough for a franchise that looks set to close the door on the Andy Dalton era in the Queen City.
But while the idea of a hometown boy coming off a Heisman Trophy- and national championship-winning campaign is enough to give long-suffering fans of the Bengals the vapors, those same fans need to keep expectations for Burrow realistic—especially in the early going.
This isn’t a case of Burrow going from one loaded team in Columbus to another in Baton Rouge. He’s going from the best team in college football to one of the worst in the NFL—a team that won just two games in 2019.
And for all of Burrow’s accomplishments this past season, his track record of success isn’t exactly long.
Granted, those successes were impressive. Burrow’s passing statistics sailed right past gaudy in 2019 and into historic territory. His 5,671 passing yards are tied for third in FBS history. His 60 touchdown passes are the most in FBS history. Burrow completed 76.3 percent of his passes, threw just six interceptions, posted a passer rating of over 200 (you can do that in college football—his NFL passer rating would have been 143.7) and added another 369 yards and five scores on the ground.
After scorching a very good Clemson defense to the tune of 521 total yards and six total touchdowns (again, those numbers are not a misprint), ESPN’s Todd McShay believes there is zero doubt that Burrow should be the pick for the Bengals when they go on the clock on April 23 in Las Vegas.
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“I think the Bengals would be absolutely crazy to pass on Joe Burrow,” McShay said, via Dave Clark of the Cincinnati Enquirer. “When you look at him (Monday), you can just see—and this is a really good Clemson team. [Clemson defensive coordinator] Brent Venables is one of the—if not the—best defensive coordinators in all of college football. And he was confused early on—it was great to watch. [Burrow] never faltered, never wavered. He was in complete control. And he adjusted to the different looks that Venables was throwing at him.
“That, to me, was the most impressive part. Yes, his toughness, I love it. He had the rib injury—looked like his hand was injured coming out of halftime. Eleven minutes he spent warming up, just getting going. And then he comes out and has an even better second half than he had first half. I just take him No. 1 overall and I don’t even worry about it.”
Frankly, at this point there’s just about no doubt that Burrow will be the pick at 1.01. After benching Dalton for part of the 2019 season in favor of Ryan Finley, Bengals coach Zac Taylor is likely looking to turn the page under center. Per Bleacher Report’s own Stick to Football podcast, Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy indicated that the Bengals have already tried to convince Burrow to attend the festivities. But whether Burrow is in Mobile or not, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that could knock Burrow off his perch atop Cincy’s wish list.
He checks all the boxes. At 6’4″, Burrow won’t receive the scrutiny regarding his height that Kyler Murray did a year ago. The arm talent is not in question. The production speaks for itself. And if the Athens, Ohio, native wasn’t already a folk hero in southern Ohio, he certainly is after his heartfelt Heisman acceptance speech.
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It’s a perfect match between player and team—and that may be part of the problem.
There’s little question that Burrow is a talented young signal-caller and no doubt at all that he’s coming off a phenomenal season. But anointing him a franchise savior before he’s ever thrown a pass in Cincy is asking to be disappointed for a couple of reasons.
The first is the situation Burrow is walking into. The Cincinnati Bengals are not the Bayou Bengals. Burrow will go from a loaded receiving corps at LSU to one in Cincy that (assuming A.J. Green departs in free agency) features fourth-year pro Tyler Boyd and a whole lotta “meh.” Boyd is talented to be sure and has over 1,000 yards each of the two years, but he’s not a true No. 1 receiver. For every moment in which 2017 first-round pick John Ross III has shined, there’s been another in which he has disappointed.
Cincinnati’s offensive line allowed 48 sacks a year ago and ranked outside the top 20 in both run blocking and pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. The Bengals were 29th in total defense in 2019 and dead last in the league the year before.
Yes, the Bengals have one of the NFL’s better young tailbacks in Joe Mixon. The team will get back some injured players like young offensive tackle Jonah Williams in 2020. The Bengals possess all seven of their picks in this year’s draft and have $49.7 million in 2020 cap space, per Over the Cap.
But there are also multiple holes to fill, prominent players like linebacker Nick Vigil and cornerback Darqueze Dennard to consider re-signing and a reputation for being, um, frugal in free agency.
Burrow wouldn’t be walking into the best of situations. There’s a reason this team lost 14 games in 2019.
There’s also the matter of Burrow’s sudden ascension. A year ago at this time, no one was talking about Burrow as a top prospect in the 2020 class. In 2018, he failed to clear 3,000 passing yards or complete even 60 percent of his passes and had 44 fewer passing touchdowns than in 2019—44.
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He wound up in Baton Rouge at all because he couldn’t beat out Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State. There’s no shame in that (Haskins threw 50 touchdown passes for the Buckeyes in 2018 and was a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins last year), and the NFL has no shortage of young quarterbacks like Haskins, Murray and Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky who only had one big season in college.
Of course, Trubisky had a forgettable 2019 season—which reinforce the reality that “one-year wonders” in college are most assuredly not sure bets in the NFL.
None of this is to say that the Bengals should pass on Burrow. As tempting as Ohio State edge-rusher Chase Young might be, McShay is right—when a quarterback like Burrow is available, NFL teams in need of help at that position have to roll the dice.
Maybe Burrow will be the quarterback who helps the Bengals notch their first playoff win since the 1990 season. Perhaps he’ll even lead Cincinnati to its first Super Bowl win.
But Rome, as they say, was not built in a day. It’s going to take more than just a shiny new quarterback to fix all that ails the Bengals. Burrow is going to have his fair share of struggles as he adjusts to the NFL—especially if the Bengals decide to cut bait on Dalton and make Burrow the Week 1 starter.
It’s understandable that the fanbase for the Bengals is excited about adding a championship quarterback to the team. Brimming with enthusiasm about what the Burrow era could mean for a long-suffering franchise.
That enthusiasm, however, needs to be tempered with realism. Expectations need to be kept in check about what Burrow might accomplish early in his career. Because if they aren’t, expectation can quickly turn to disappointment.
And enthusiasm can turn to anger.