MOBILE, Ala. — When LSU QB Joe Burrow declined his Senior Bowl invitation, Justin Herbert, the four-year Oregon quarterback and Rose Bowl champion, became the player to steal the show this week in Mobile. Without Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa around to divert attention, Herbert has a prime opportunity to improve his draft stock and rise to the top of the Senior Bowl talent pool.
It was just last year when Giants general manager Dave Gettleman fell in love with Duke quarterback Daniel Jones on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, leading Jones to jump ahead of Dwayne Haskins as the second quarterback off the board. Carson Wentz and Baker Mayfield also used the Senior Bowl to boost their draft stock.
Burrow led LSU to win the college football national championship just nine days ago—the finishing touch on a historical season for a college quarterback. In the 2020 NFL draft, he’s presumed to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, who are in the market for a new quarterback and have recently spoken highly of the LSU quarterback. Despite his hip injury, Tagovailoa is still a top quarterback prospect, but the decision on the Alabama quarterback will rely on medical opinions from team doctors. The question this week in Mobile is, can Herbert do anything to leapfrog Burrow or Tagovailoa in this draft?
I posed the question to scouts in Mobile, and the unanimous answer was a head-shaking no.
“There’s no way Burrow gets passed up,” said one veteran scout.
“What Burrow has done this season, all season long, it’s not happening,” said one NFL coach.
Another scout said Burrow and Tagovailoa were in a tier of their own, with Herbert’s struggles with accuracy placing him below that tier. Herbert had a solid first day of practice, and the Bengals staff likes his arm strength, athleticism and intelligence,
Nothing is ever certain when it comes to the NFL draft, but Burrow going first overall to Cincinnati feels as sure as a No. 1 pick has in a long time.
“Burrow is a lock,” said another scout.
Even if Herbert is perfect this week—he got off to an impressive start in Tuesday’s practice—it won’t be enough to upstage the LSU quarterback who threw seven touchdowns in the first half of the championship game, against the toughest competition in college football.
The Bengals staff has not been shy to express their interest in Burrow. Head coach Zac Taylor even called Jimmy Burrow, Joe’s dad, to pitch him on getting Burrow to accept his Senior Bowl invitation. (Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy told this detail to the Stick to Football podcast, and another source confirmed this to the MMQB.)
“He just played an NFL season,” Taylor said during his press conference Tuesday. “There is still plenty of time to get to know all the players in the draft.”
The Bengals were hoping to get a head start on working with the 23-year old quarterback; if Burrow had accepted his invitation, the Cincinnati staff would have the chance to get to know him better, and actually be able to coach him. The playbook the Bengals give to their North team players is a watered-down playbook with different vocabulary so as to disguise their unique code, but it still includes about 30 plays of their offense. It would have been a totally legal and above-board way for Burrow to get a crash course of the Bengals offense and to start playing from under center, something he very rarely did in LSU’s offense this season.
“I kind of knew he wasn't going to come,” LSU tight end and Senior Bowl player Stephen Sullivan says. “I asked him about it, and he said he wasn't going to come because he said he feels like he didn't have anything to prove.”
“He knows he’s probably the first overall pick,” LSU long snapper and senior bowl player Blake Ferguson says.
It’s true. Burrow does not need to compete with Herbert or Utah State’s Jordan Love. The Bengals staff already knows they like what they see in Burrow, but does Burrow know he likes Cincinnati? The practices and meetings would have been a chance for him to feel out the staff and determine if Zac Taylor is a coach for whom he wants to play. Jimmy Burrow already said Joe would be happy playing for the Bengals, but even so, Burrow is the rare player like John Elway and Eli Manning that has the leverage to demand a trade in the draft if he wanted.
Though Burrow is not physically in Mobile, much of the conversation still revolved around him.
Another quarterback with a shot to solidify his draft status in Mobile is Utah State’s Jordan Love. He came into the 2019 season as a first-round sleeper after an impressive ’18 season, but his performance was uneven this year. He had a new coaching staff, a new offensive line and was throwing to mostly new receivers—and the results showed the impact of those changes. He had 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions a year after throwing 32 touchdowns against just six interceptions.
Like Herbert, Love is athletic and physical, and he has a big arm—his arm strength was obvious on the field during the first day of practice. Teams are grilling Love hard this week, as he was charged with possession of marijuana in December. Quarterbacks always rise in the draft, and if Love continues to play well this week, he’ll be able to redeem his 2019 season and get back into the first-round conversation.
TUA ALWAYS ON THE MIND
Defensive back Jared Mayden, Tagovailoa’s former Alabama teammate, is competing at the Senior Bowl, and during yesterday’s media session, he told The MMQB he’s been impressed by the quarterback’s speedy rehab.
“He was supposed to be on his crutches at the bowl game, and I saw him walking, and I was like, ‘Put your crutches back on, you need to take it slow!’” Mayden says. “But he was like, I’m good, I’m good. That’s the person he is, he is trying to come back early.”
Mayden also said Tagovailoa attended defensive meetings ahead of the Citrus Bowl against Michigan (Alabama won 35-16). Because he’s injured and unable to play, Tagovailoa used the time to learn more about the way the defense thinks.
“If Tua throws you an interception in practice, he will come up to you and ask you, why did you bite on this route instead of this route?“ Mayden says. “For the Michigan game, he was in defensive meetings trying to get the opposite understanding. I don't know too many players doing that.”
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