What the NFL Thinks of the Six First-Round QB Prospects

We asked four personnel execs, two offensive coordinators and a quarterbacks coach to break down each of the six first-round quarterback candidates. Plus, a ranking of the top candidates of the next coaching cycle, why Tom Brady's market might be more limited than you think, the draft's impact on free agency and the latest on the CBA.
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Looking for an overwhelming strength in Joe Burrow’s game? Look no further than his absolutely sparkling, jaw-dropping . . . lack of weaknesses. Or so say the guys paid to evaluate quarterbacks. These are the seven answers I got when I asked a group of four personnel execs, two offensive coordinators and a quarterbacks coach, coming off the combine: Is there a hole in Joe Burrow’s game?:

“He could clean his footwork and body mechanics up, I think he’d find more velocity there.”

“There’s no big hole. Nothing where you say, ‘Oh s---.’ He’s as polished as I’ve seen in a while.”

“He doesn’t have a great arm. … He’s not very big, doesn’t have a great body as far as thickness and bulk, so you’d worry some about durability. But they’re all small concerns.”

“Nothing glaring. People knock his arm, it’s not the strongest arm. But he has enough arm.”

“If you pick nits, he doesn’t have ideal arm talent. That’s the biggest one. I’m not too concerned about that.”

“Maybe you’d argue if you ask him to throw a traditional outside-the-numbers comeback off a seven-step drop, he wouldn’t be the best at it? It’s not a hole. It’s just not his strength.”

“No.”

And their answers illustrate why, seven weeks out, it seems almost like the reigning Heisman winner and national champion quarterback is a lock to go first overall. He was, yes, spectacular in 2019. But the real key? He’s also safe in a class full of risks.

* * *

We have less than two weeks to go until, mercifully, the league year starts, and all the speculation on Tom Brady and the rest of a group of splashy free-agent quarterbacks ends. So this week, in the GamePlan, we’re going to …

• Explain why Tom Brady’s market is limited.

• Give you the names of some coaches to watch in 2020.

• Lay out how prices of receivers and backs this March could fall.

But we’re starting with the draft’s quarterback prospects. At this point, we’ve seen most of what we will from the college passers eligible for April’s draft. All the top guys have multiple seasons as starters on tape. All but two threw at the combine. All of them met with teams in Indy, and took physicals, and so more than 90% of the work in assessing these guys is done for teams.

Over the last 48 hours, I cobbled together a panel of the aforementioned seven—all of whom have already done the film work on the best quarterbacks in the class and watched the guys who did throw in Indy. Some of these guys interviewed them formally at the combine too, while others observed them on school visits in the fall.

My hope here is to give you a sober, thorough look at where the NFL is at on each of the players, with the thoughts of guys whose profession it is to ascertain which quarterbacks will make it and which ones won’t. Enjoy!

Joe Burrow, r-Sr., LSU

Years as starter: 2
Notable number: 60-6 TD/INT ratio in 2019.
Highest individual honor: 2019 Heisman Trophy
Team success: 2019 National Champion

What the evaluators say …

AFC coordinator 1: “He’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks I’ve ever graded. You can say he had great players around him, but he put the ball in places where his receivers never have to break stride. It’s a gift. His guys are always moving forward with the ball. And his pocket movement is really natural, how he slides, moves, he has natural feel for the pocket.”

AFC coordinator 2: “His decision-making, he just did a really good job of taking what was there. His arm strength, people talk about that, it’s plenty strong enough. Just watching him, he’s a complete guy that’s ready. I’m not sure he’s in the Andrew Luck category, but he’s pretty damn close. … [The one-year breakthrough] always does raise a red flag. However, the tape is so good, it’s hard to think it was a fluke, all the things he did well against that competition.”

NFC exec 1: “He does need help. He’s not a guy who’s going to lift a team on his shoulders where you say, ‘We’re not gonna be a contender if not for him.’ He needs a line, needs receivers. I heard he said he wants A.J. [Green] to stay. Well, he’s got A.J. and needs A.J. He’s not a guy who’ll do it himself. But there’s not a Luck in this draft.”

NFC exec 2: “He’s everything you think of in terms of a coach’s son. He runs practice like another coach, so he’ll come in with those intangibles. I think he’ll command respect early because of how he prepares. He was raised like that, competitive as hell, doesn’t like to miss a minute of practice, doesn’t want to waste a minute of practice. He’ll make every minute, every rep count. And it’d be one thing if he was at a Big Ten school, but to be from where he’s from, go there, best ball in the country, and be the Alpha in that program is impressive.”

Tua Tagovailoa, Jr., Alabama

Years as starter: 2
Notable number: 199.4 career passer rating
Highest individual honor: 2018 Heisman Trophy runner-up
Team success: 2017 National Champion

What the evaluators say …

NFC exec 3: “He’s a little more twitched up than Joe. He’s a good athlete. He’s also very accurate. He was really good over multiple seasons, so he got that over Burrow – really two full seasons at a high level. He’s got a good arm, maybe better than Burrow, still not great. He’s extremely instinctive. And he’s an outstanding leader, takes all the criticism, deflects all the praise. Can extend plays, very accurate. The negative is durability. I think he’s back there throwing 7-on-7 a lot, and there is pressure, you do see a little dropoff.”

AFC QBs coach: “He may have had similar numbers to Burrow if he hadn’t gotten hurt. He also has really good dudes around him, like Joe. But as a player, he’s really clean, really a smooth player—clean feet, clean delivery, he resets really well, gets in proper alignment for his throws after resetting. And he’s really good with his eyes, he can move a safety, look down a defender to throw over the defense.. The ball’s out quick. He has a nice, tight stroke, the accuracy’s really good, he plays with two hands on the ball in the pocket. I think he’s a pretty darn good player.”

NFC exec 4: “Accuracy, processing, getting rid of the ball quick, that’s all there. … [Durability] is a big concern. He doesn’t get out of trouble well. And when he does, he holds ball until the last second, and takes shots. Most shots he’s taking are because he’s waiting for the next progression to get open, and he trusts his line. In fact, on the play he got hurt, he should’ve gotten rid of the ball way sooner. He’s a competitor. So, it’s a strength, but it’s a weakness.”

AFC coordinator 1: “God, his quickness and his setup is pretty outstanding. The best word, and I don’t like it at all the time, is he’s pretty twitchy. His setup and delivery are very fast, but never out of control. He anticipates well, throws it accurate. He has great receivers and does the same thing Burrow does with that—he puts it in a spot where they can take it and take off, and allows them to use their pure talent. … He’s such a violent thrower, you wonder what the hip injury will do to that; that’s the question I’d have for him.”

Justin Herbert, Sr., Oregon

Years as starter: 4
Notable number: 10,541 career passing yards
Highest individual honor: 2017 First-Team Academic All-American
Team success: 2020 Rose Bowl champion

NFC exec 2: “He was my favorite guy from Day 1. Every test, he passed [in Indy]—6-6, 236, runs 4.6, big frame, huge arm, four-year career. You don’t have the concern there you had with Burrow about one-year production. Senior bowl MVP, Rose Bowl MVP, Pac-12 champion, smart as hell. He’s not the culture changer, fire-breather, but how many guys are now? In terms of a guy that checks every box, he’s got it. … You have to get him under center, that’ll be where his strength is. It took [Jared] Goff time; he’d never been in huddle, never called a play either. So there could be bumps, yeah. But he’s smart enough, athletic enough, has no hesitation to learn to play under center. I’m telling you, I can’t remember what his major was, but the kid’s like a scientist. He’s just very smart. Nothing football-wise is difficult for him.”

NFC exec 3: “I’m not a huge fan. In terms of create-a-player, that’s your guy. He’s a little bit like Brady Quinn, good and bad. The arm strength, athleticism, size, it’s how you’d draw them up. He did well at the end of the year, won the games at the end, and you love to see that. But in terms of being a natural thrower, he’s not natural, I thought he struggled at the Senior Bowl learning how to take a drop. He has things to improve. All the physical stuff is there, he’s just not a real natural thrower. And I haven’t seen the ‘it’ factor.”

AFC coordinator 1: “His tape is tough to watch. I’m not sure the offense fit his skillset. He should be good in the NFL playing under center off play-action and getting the ball down the field. He’s that type of player. I don’t think they did that much at Oregon, it didn’t feel like it ever fit his skillset. And in the same sense, there were throws you cringe at, like, ‘Come on, man.’ The tape’s not nearly as clean as the other two. But the other two are throwing to what’ll probably be a total of six or seven first-round receivers when all those guys come through. Those two are the best players on the best teams, with the best guys catching pass. You look at Oregon, you don’t see the same talent, especially in the guys catching passes.”

AFC coordinator 2: “I like him a lot, really smart. … Stuff that comes with new system, he can pick up quickly—that’s a strength. His arm is elite, up there at the top with anyone, maybe not [Aaron Rodgers], but can throw every ball, can go far hash to near sideline. I was impressed with his accuracy, how he got through progression, he’d get to no. 3, and rip it right on the facemask. And he has an ability to run better than most people think. His wiggle’s not great, but he can see the hole and chew up yards … The glaring thing: He’s never under center, so with his footwork, he does have tendency to be robotic, segmenting in his drop, but he can clean that up. He’s a quiet kid; he’ll have to overcome that.”

Jordan Love, r-Jr., Utah State

Years as starter: 3
Notable number: 32-6 TD/INT in 2018, 20-17 TD-INT in 2019
Highest individual honor: 2018 Second-Team All-Mountain West
Team success: 2018 New Mexico Bowl Champions

NFC Exec 4: “He’s highly talented, a prototype. I have serious concerns about his instincts, his processing ability. I’m not sure what the staff there was thinking. It’s the first time in my career as an evaluator where I’ve seen a coach that leaves, and a new staff comes in, and hires an OC, and allows the kid to keep same offense instead of putting in a different system without keeping any coaches. The OC was never comfortable calling plays in that system. … It was horrible, his season was horrible, and I’m having a hard time seeing whether it was the kid or the coaches deciding to go with the same system … the OC calling plays in a system he’s never run, with not one coach there that could teach the offense. It’s an incredibly hard thing. It’s asking, what do you believe?”

NFC Exec 1: “He’s a really difficult guy to do. A year ago, I liked him—quick release, strong arm, athletic. He’s a good kid—made a mistake late in year, but there’s not a problem with his character. But there are a lot of little things to playing better at the position. It’s decision-making, calls at the line, processing quicker, not forcing ball. There’s a lot of his game that needs to be cleaned up. He’s very talented. I wouldn’t trust him in Year 1. I wish he went back to develop it, because there’s no doubt he has talent. I’m not buying he’s a first-round pick.”

NFC Exec 2: “You are what you put on tape, and sometimes you have to overcome the coaching. If he’s that talented, he should make up for some of that—lots of successful QBs overcome poor coaching, and bad circumstances. … And to compare him to Mahomes, oh my God, it’s a disservice to the kid. I don’t understand where that came from. He’s a nice passer, a smooth athlete. Mahomes lit the world on fire. I never once thought that of Love. I was jumping out of seat watching Mahomes at Texas Tech.”

AFC QBs coach: “The big concern is the picks and it shows up in how he plays. The positives are there’s real arm talent, he can drive it, but he also turns the ball over way too much. The midrange stuff over the safety, he’ll stare down reads—just stares it down—and he relies on his arm too much. But if you can corral this kid, he has ability, he really does. He needs development. I think low-floor, high-ceiling, but what he shows on film, there are some things you can’t coach. He has that gunslinger mentality, makes off-platform throws, throws off his back foot. He’s got the arm talent to do it. He needs time and coaching and development.”

Jacob Eason, r-Jr., Washington

Years as starter: 2 (1 at Georgia)
Notable number: 3 rushing yards in 2019
Highest individual honor: 2015 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year
Team success: 2019 Las Vegas Bowl champion

NFC Exec 1: “Love the size, love the arm strength … [but] accuracy, ball placement, and his ability to get away from people is a problem. But he makes throws other guys can’t make. A lot of inconsistency, he’s another guy I’d have liked to have seen gone back to school. He’s big, strong, has the arm, so how does [Jake] Fromm beat him out? … He’s not as mobile, not as athletic as Herbert. But he has as good an arm, just on pure arm strength. Herbert has better feel and touch. This guy is fastballs all the time. … Yeah, he’s gotta grow up, has to become a pro, he’d be best coming in behind a guy. His work habits, his study habits have to improve. He’s a good kid, a smart enough kid, who had a great time in college.”

NFC Exec 4: “I’m not a big fan. I don’t think he has quarterback makeup. Look, he doesn’t process information, doesn’t go through his progressions well. A big-time arm talent, like the other two (Herbert/Love), but he’s third—behind Herbert and Love. He’ll make big throws. I just question the makeup: work ethic, study habits, leadership, partying too much. If he’s not the guy, I don’t know if he’ll work at it. He barely won the job this year. At the start of camp, he had to fight to be named starter, and half the team wanted the other guy. … He’ll get overdrafted.”

AFC QBs coach: “He looks and feels like the traditional pocket passer. He doesn’t have great feel, doesn’t have great movement. He’s got dead feet. But he can rip throws, he can drive that ball coming off the mound. Instead of pushing forward, he plays with a soft back foot—he goes backwards when he feels pressure, you’ll have to correct that, and part of it is probably that he feels like he can just rip the ball. … His most impressive plays are when the pocket’s clean. When he’s protected, he can do it. But to me, if you don’t have a strong feel, these types of guys, they show up great when you get them in shorts, in 7-on-7s, OTAs, they’ll throw it all over. Then you get them into preseason and you say, ‘he’s regressing.’ Well, no, he’s not, it’s a different game. … Several other guys have fluidity. It feels like he has a stiff game.”

Jake Fromm, Jr., Georgia

Years as starter: 3
Notable number: 78-18 TD-INT ratio, 42 career starts
Highest individual honor: 2017 SEC Freshman of the Year
Team success: Three-time SEC East champion, 2017 national runner-up

NFC Exec 3: “His combine wasn’t very good, but what you get is a great leader, he’s got all the characteristics off the field of a great quarterback. He’s a quick decision-maker, tough, accurate. He just doesn’t have the arm talent, he doesn’t have the lower-body or upper-body strength to make all the throws. If you combine Eason with him, you’d have the No. 1 pick. He’s a really good player, it’s just the size and arm talent holds him back. … There’s a ton to be said for beating out Eason and [Justin] Fields, even though he’s just not on the talent level of those guys. But he’d be a great backup for anyone. If he wants to, he’ll play in the league for 15 years.”

NFC Exec 4: “Beating out Eason and Fields matters to me. Those two were highly, highly recruited players. Jake Fromm outworked both of them, he could handle the volume of the offense, the players loved him—he’ll get along with anyone in any room. Go to the DB room, the receiver room, the offensive line room, it’s all the same, they love him. When I was up there the night before I came in on my two visits, at 9 o’clock, he was still in there. He’d tell you, I’ll stay there ’til they kick me out. … Probably as good a quarterback makeup as I’ve seen since Andrew Luck. … He’ll be somewhere between a really good backup and a good, average starter. He won’t get to you to the Super Bowl, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he winds up there somehow. I’d take him over some others. You know exactly what you’re getting.”

AFC Coordinator 1: “If you wanna bet on a guy, bet on him. He won’t let himself fail. He’s like a Case Keenum, a Colt McCoy, those guys that, at worst, are 12-year NFL backups. He has that makeup, where he’s damn near like a coach. He knows what to do, and guys gravitate to him. Kellen Moore was like that—Kellen was incredible at Boise, and he couldn’t get to the next level as a player, but was very solid NFL backup, and probably still could be.”

NFC Exec 2: “I could see him being the guy that has a nice year with talent around him, and then the next year he disappears. I could see that kind of career. He has what you always want—smart, tough, accurate—and all the intangibles you wish Eason had. But can he make the throws? If you’re Jon Gruden, and you have all that volume, he might appeal to you. … The behind-the-scenes stuff, work ethic, attitude, that’s gonna give him a 10-year career. Look at Chase Daniel, he won’t go away because of all those intangibles. And he’ll play well, in the right situation. But if he’s your starter, you’re trying to get better.”

The one other name that came up as I separated those six? Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. More than one of these guys mentioned how, despite having limited arm talent, he has a chip on his shoulder, and intangibles, and all of that could position him well to go to a place where the starter has a similar skill set—which would buy him time to continue the development he enjoyed last year playing for Lincoln Riley.

And all of these guys still have time to answer the questions, or cement the good feelings we laid out above. They still have their Pro Days, and 30 visits, and private workouts to.

So as always, stay tuned.

* * *

POWER RANKINGS: THE NEXT HEAD COACH CANDIDATES

The combine is more than a scouting summit. It’s the largest networking event that those who work in the NFL have available to them. In some ways, it can be seen as a sort of the first place where whispers towards the next year’s coaching cycle start to circulate.

In recognition of that, for this week’s Power Rankings, we’re going to give you an early list of NFL assistants to watch over the next nine months. Here we go …

1) Patriots OC Josh McDaniels: The long-time New England assistant was ready to go this year, but circumstances torpedoed interviews he had lined up with the Giants and Panthers, and the fit with the Browns’ direction wasn’t there. If his offense is humming in 2020, given some of the coming change, he’ll be in the mix for sure.

2) Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy: I’d say coaching Patrick Mahomes gives Bieniemy solid footing—it’s a good bet the Chiefs offense isn’t going to experience any sort of drop off from last year to this year. And Bieniemy’s interviewed well. His time should be coming.

3) 49ers DC Robert Saleh: When the Browns empowered Paul DePodesta further, it cemented Kevin Stefanski as a leading candidate for that job, but Saleh interviewed so well that it gave the brass something to think about. And word gets around. It did for Brian Flores after he crushed an interview with Arizona in 2018, and that helped him become the hot guy in 2019. Similarly, this should help Saleh in 2021.

4) Bills OC Brian Daboll: Buffalo’s offseason mandate: score more points. That tells me they’ll be investing around Josh Allen, and I know they’ve done a ton of work on the receiver class. If, as a result, Allen breaks through, then you can trust that Daboll will get traction. (He’s also not the only coordinator in Buffalo who could get some traction—although he’s older, Leslie Frazier could, too.)

5) Ravens DC Wink Martindale: He’s one of the most creative defensive minds in football and will likely have to replace a couple more key pieces, which will, again, show how good he is. Martindale’s path hasn’t been conventional, but he’s great with other coaches, he’s connected, and players play their asses off for him. And I’d throw Baltimore’s other coordinator, Greg Roman, in with him as having those qualities too.

Then, there are guys who could be fast risers (Titans OC Arthur Smith, Rams OC Kevin O’Connell), and some of the buzzy college names (Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Florida’s Dan Mullen) that normally find their way into the mix. Should be fun to follow, as it always is.

* * *

THE BIG QUESTION

What would it take for a team to be interested in Tom Brady?

I know that, on its face, sounds like an absurd question. But if you follow it, I really believe you’ll see why, to this point, the number of suitors has been limited, just like the number of Peyton Manning suitors was limited in 2012. To be in on Brady, you have to be …

Willing to push out your current starter. This, of course, is the biggest key—and it’s about more than just thinking Brady’s a better player than whoever you have. It’s also about being willing to throw out financial, man-hours and emotional investments made in your quarterback, and being O.K. with letting go of a guy who could give you long-term stability at the position, for someone who, great as he is, will likely only be there for two or three years.

Willing to reconfigure your system. Those who’ve been around Brady, and that offense, will tell you it’d be borderline impossible to recreate it somewhere else—there’s 20 years of tweaking and adjusting, and institutional knowledge in New England. Making it even tougher will be the fact that there aren’t suitors out there with background in the Patriot system. So whoever gets him will have to be creative, and make it work for the other 10 in the huddle.

O.K. with going all-in for the next 2-3 years. Brady’s going to want a place that’ll have a plan to compete for championships for the next couple years. The Chargers would need to fix the offensive line. The Raiders would need to add a receiver or two. The Titans would have to bring back Derrick Henry and Jack Conklin (or adequately replace them). I think those teams would do those things, but how many others are willing to go all-in with veterans now, knowing a massive rebuild could result around 2023?

Now, the obvious comp here is Peyton Manning. The Broncos did go all-in with him, supplementing existing core players Von Miller, Demaryius Thomas, Ryan Clady and Chris Harris with DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. They reconfigured their system for him. They threw out the investment they made in Tim Tebow (happily). And they went to two Super Bowls and won one as a result.

They’ve paid the price since. They won nine games the year after Manning retired, and followed that with their worst three-year stretch since the early ’70s. In the end, it was worth it 100 times over, and the reason why is the key here. Someone has to believe deeply that they’ll reach the same mountaintop with Brady, and do it quicker than Denver did, for this to be worth all the risk it will encompass.

* * *

WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The effect the draft will have on free agency.

And in particular, the effect the relative strength of skill position groups in this year’s draft will have on free agents at those positions.

The crop of college receivers coming out might be the best, deepest group at that spot in over a decade. The running back class—headed by Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, and J.K. Dobbins—will have starting-level players deep into the second day of the draft.

So if you need a receiver, are you uncorking an eight-figure payday for a mercurial Robby Anderson or an aging Emmanuel Sanders? If you need a back, are you making a splash on Melvin Gordon or Kenyan Drake? Or are you thinking you can get, say, Tee Higgins or Clyde Edwards-Helaire somewhere on the Friday of draft weekend?

I think there are guys (Amari Cooper, Derrick Henry) who’ll get paid. But I’m not sure many will. And if they don’t, you’ll know one reason why.

(Note: Conversely, a weak draft class at tight end could spur the reverse at that position.)

* * *

THE FINAL WORD

It’s good news that the NFL and NFLPA have the language done. The new CBA has been distributed to players and they have a week to vote—ballots can be cast at any time between now and 11:59 p.m. ET on March 12. A couple things to review here …

• Teams will be able to tag two players (one with the franchise tag, one with the transition tag) ahead of the March 12 deadline to do so. But if the new CBA is ratified, they’ll have to rescind one.

• This gives teams some certainty with which to work—where at least they know there are ‘A’ and ‘B’ scenarios. And they’ll know whether it’s ‘A’ or ‘B’ three-plus days before the tampering window opens at noon on March 16.

• The bet the league and union are making here is that the rank-and-file players will vote for this deal. The NFLPA’s mandate was to take care of the NFL’s version of the common man. This deal, while not a game-changer, does that. More than half the league makes the minimum, and those guys will get $100,000 raises. That’d probably be a tough thing to say no to, for anyone.

• One thing that’s interesting: the league didn’t relent much on methods of player control. Players don’t get to free agency faster, franchise tags and RFA tenders are intact, and while the funding rule changes a little, rules around holdouts have been further strengthened. That owner prioritized those areas? It’s not a surprise.

So … we’ll know where this is going in a week.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.