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Joe Burrow's Path to the No. 1 Pick and the Chip Still on His Shoulder

The presumptive No. 1 pick has spent his whole football career having to prove himself, which is what has made this draft season so strange for him. Plus, a sneak peek at my mock draft along with some nuggets on what I’m hearing about the first round, some veteran contract situations, what draft night will be like for viewers—and more.

Here's a story from Thanksgiving week 2018. Joe Burrow had just started to hit his stride as LSU’s starting quarterback, even if most stopped paying attention after the Tigers were blanked against Alabama earlier in the month. The fourth-year junior was coming off the first 300-yard game of his college football career, and looking back at that sparklingly efficient effort in a 42–10 drubbing of Rice before turning the page to Texas A&M.

And as he and Tigers offensive analyst Jorge Munoz went through the tape, the quarterback blurted something out you may not expect from an entrenched starter at an SEC blueblood.

“So I start talking about winning the job again in spring ball,” Burrow recalls now. “I just didn’t have a lot of fond memories of quarterback battles, or of coaches believing in me. He was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Well, it’s gonna be an open competition in the spring, right? He’s like, ‘No, it’s not gonna be an open competition. What are you talking about?’ So that was great to hear. It kind of eased my mind a little bit.”

No one knew what was coming next. A national title. A Heisman Trophy. A pre-draft process where this always-doubted gunslinger would go wire-to-wire as presumed No. 1.

And therein lies the dichotomy of Burrow.

Did Burrow—now parked back home in The Plains, just outside Athens, Ohio, waiting for draft day—believe he was capable of all he accomplished after that conversation with Munoz? Unequivocally, yes. Did he think that anyone else would? No, not really.

And yes, he really did believe, on that day 18 months ago, that he’d have to prove himself all over again when the season was over. Because that’s the way it’s always gone for him.

On one hand, he’s the kid (shout out to my buddy Ian Fitzsimmons for relaying this) that, before his first college start, in the face of a pregame fracas, confronted imposing Miami defensive lineman Gerald Willis and sneered, “Come find me. I’ll be wearing 9.” On the other hand, he’s still the guy who didn’t even get picked for the final group at an Elite 11 regional in Columbus in 2014, and told his dad riding home, “I’m gonna remember this.”

So it may seem crazy to you to think that he’d have to fight to win a job he wound up doing better than anyone in college football history last year. But to him, “That’s a product of being underrecruited and sitting on the bench for three years.”

For now, the doubts are done. Burrow is three days away from going first overall in the NFL draft, validation that people at the highest level of the sport do, in fact, believe in him.

But that won’t change who he is.

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***

It’s draft week! And we’ve got plenty coming your way. Inside this week’s MMQB…

• A mock draft … preview.

• More draft rumblings.

• Some trade names percolating.

• What Christian McCaffrey’s contract means.

But we’re starting with the story of the almost-certain first overall pick, how he got here and why it’s become such a big part of who he is.

***

Last April, Joe Burrow was in Nashville for the draft, a guest of Nick Bosa’s, along with ex-Ohio State teammates Joey Bosa and Sam Hubbard. The younger Bosa was about to go second overall, one spot higher than the older Bosa went in 2016, 14 spots higher than their dad went in 1987 and two rounds ahead of where Hubbard was picked in 2018. And amid the group one night, Bosa’s agent, Brian Ayrault, struck up conversation with the unassuming LSU QB.

The idea that Burrow might wind up being the highest drafted guy there, even in this group of believers, would’ve gotten you laughed out of the room. Ayrault, likewise, saw him as an interesting prospect, based on how LSU’s season had ended. But this kid he’d recruit, and eventually land, as the first pick? “I certainly didn’t see that,” Ayrault concedes.

Hell, even Burrow himself wouldn’t have bought it.

“Absolutely not,” he said Saturday afternoon. “I knew that I was gonna play really well my senior year. And I was going into it thinking I was one of the best guys in the country. But I know what recruiting is, and I know how the draft is. It’s always interesting seeing where people go and seeing who ends up panning out. So I knew I had a chance to be a really good pro. But I didn’t think I could do anything to get myself up to the No. 1 pick in the draft.

“I expected to have the kind of season that I had. But I didn’t expect for it to propel me to the No. 1 pick. I thought I was gonna go third, fourth round.”

And the reason why has everything to do with the path he’s taken to get here, to the precipice of becoming the first pick.

There was the Elite 11 slight. There was the lack of interest from Nebraska, both when Burrow was a high school recruit and a transfer, denying him the chance to follow in the footsteps of his dad and two older brothers as a Cornhusker football player. There was the list of college powers that didn’t offer him as a teenager—Ohio State only did based on a feeling from OC Tom Herman, and word-of-mouth scouting from prep coaches in the state.

Then, there’s what happened after he got to Columbus.

Burrow knew, going to Ohio State, that he’d be in a fight for playing time and that he’d have to develop. But ahead of 2017, he’d hoped there would be a chance to assert himself as the next guy behind fifth-year senior J.T. Barrett, with redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins as his primary competition—a chance that a couple twists of fate robbed him of.

“I’d never been injured in my life. And I separated my shoulder, I sprained my ankle really bad and then I broke my hand at the end of fall camp,” Burrow said. “And I just kind of took that as a sign that it just wasn’t going to happen for me there.”

As a result, Haskins spent most of the year as the backup, and got into and won the rivalry game against Michigan. Burrow felt his shot slipping through his fingers, and now says, “I knew I was probably going to be playing elsewhere after that season.” Still, he stuck around in the spring, and went toe-to-toe with Haskins—even with the feeling that the fight might not be an even one, and that Urban Meyer and his staff wanted to go with Haskins all along.

When Meyer told Burrow that Haskins was ahead of him coming out of the spring, Burrow knew what he had to do, even if, deep down, he still felt like he could be the better player.

“So that conversation was tough,” Burrow said. “I had to tell him that I was leaving. It was really tough for me because I knew the work I put in. … And I think it was really, really close. I was playing really, really well over the last two weeks of spring ball, and then I had to sit down and really think about what I wanted. And I just wanted to up the probability of being a starting college quarterback, and I felt like leaving was my best opportunity to do that. And the rest is history.”

There was also this—Burrow wouldn’t say it himself, but those around him weren’t so sure he’d even lost the competition that spring to Haskins. Which, real or imagined, made losing out again another slight for the then 21-year-old to file away in his mental Rolodex.

“I know for a fact that a lot of people felt like Joe won the job,” said Joe’s father, Jimmy. “But as a coach, you have to sometimes go with a gut feeling and make decisions that aren’t popular maybe with some parts of the team or the coaching staff, and that’s what they did. You can’t say it was wrong, because of the things that they accomplished after Joe left.”

Haskins threw a school-record 50 touchdown passes in 2018. Burrow threw 60 in 2019.

***

Jimmy remembers his kid as a fifth- or sixth-grader playing travel basketball. His team was down nine with two minutes to go. The pre-teen then ran off 11 straight points to win the game. “It was just one of those impossible comebacks,” Jimmy said, “and he basically did it himself.”

In that story, you can see what Burrow thinks everyone missed about him, up until now.

“I think people really underestimate the power of just wanting to do it, and hard work, and competitive spirit, and preparation,” Burrow said. “People get enamored with how the ball spins out of his hand, and how hard or how much is on the ball when it comes out, and how fast it gets to the receiver when you throw it. And they really underestimate all the little things that go into it.”

Those little things gave him a way to compete along the way. His first two years at Ohio State, with playing time not in the cards, he worked with assistants Tim Beck and Mike Hartline to overhaul his delivery, and become more fluid and less robotic as a thrower. His third year, with the feeling that Haskins was being groomed to succeed Barrett, and injuries hitting, Burrow got in the weight room to set the foundation to play somewhere else.

And by the time he got to Baton Rouge, he knew how to keep focusing on the details. He was up-and-down to start 2018, and realized that it was because, as a practice quarterback for three years, he’d been conditioned to throw the ball away at the first sign of trouble. So he retaught himself to be the athlete on the field he knew he could be. That paid off, and so did how he took the team by the neck early in 2019, leaving nothing to chance.

The result? Well, when I asked if there was a point during his Heisman campaign when he felt like he couldn’t miss, Burrow didn’t stutter.

“It was really all year,” he said. “We worked really, really hard on it. And I was super happy that it showed up on the field, because sometimes you work that hard on something and it doesn’t show up on the field, and it’s very, very frustrating. But we worked really, really hard in the offseason, not just on the timing of the routes, but extending plays, and off-platform throws, scramble drill, and it really showed on the field.

“And just the whole year, we were so in sync. The receivers knew exactly when the ball was gonna be there, where it was gonna be, and I knew exactly where they were gonna be and when they were gonna be there. It was really a special year with some special guys.”

There was an added bonus, too, in the competitor finding satisfaction. Metaphorically, that 11- or 12-year-old, all grown up, was down big again with the clock running out, and found a way. The only thing that could’ve made it better, as those around him saw it, would’ve been changing the ending just a bit—something we know from the fact that he and his dad, after LSU won its semifinal, retreated to an Atlanta hotel room to root for his old team to get to the final, too.

“There’s personal satisfaction, same thing, him showing people what he was capable of,” Jimmy Burrow said. “And I don’t know if you asked him, but he definitely wanted to play Ohio State. And I think his politically correct answer was, ‘I have a lot of friends on the team and I wanted them to be able experience the championship game also.’ But we all know why he wanted to play Ohio State, right?”

***

What Burrow has no issue conceding is what everyone knows: His end at Ohio State drove him, just as getting passed over at Elite 11 and getting snubbed Nebraska drove him. And in a way, that’s made the experience he’s had the last three months pretty different.

Everything, most certainly, has changed.

“Yeah, it definitely has,” Burrow said. “In the past, you hear all the things wrong with your game, everything that you need to improve on to get to where you need to get to. And now you hear everyone telling you how good you are. You just have to keep the same mentality of trying to prove yourself every single day. But it’s a lot of easier when you have people telling you how bad you are than when people are telling you how good you are.”

So the same way he used time buried on the depth chart at Ohio State to rework his delivery and hit the weight room; and how he used the knowledge that he was finally entrenched as a starter to gather teammates and set the stage for 2019 at LSU; he’s used the advantage he has now, as the presumptive leader in the 2020 draft clubhouse, to work toward the 2020 NFL season. As opposed to showcasing anything for individual teams.

That started in workouts with Jordan Palmer in Orange County and has continued back in Ohio, where Burrow’s been for over a month amid the coronavirus crisis.

“That’s the privilege of doing what we did [this season at LSU],” he said. “I don’t have to spend all that time just doing stuff that doesn’t translate to the football team.”

In case Burrow needed a reminder on clinging to his roots, it was delivered by the situation that we’re all in. He’s working out where he can around his sleepy, rural hometown, and throws with twin brothers Adam and Ryan Leuhrman, high school teammates of his who went to play tight end at Ohio University, where Jimmy Burrow coached from 2005–18.

And the truth is, based on the kind of competitor he is—the kind who once called out the biggest, baddest dude on the other team before his first college start—that wasn’t really going to be a problem anyway, because it’s become a part of him.

“There’s a commonality in a lot of the great quarterbacks in the league, that they have the chip on their shoulder—from something,” Burrow said. “Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson—I mean, they all have something that got them to have a little chip on their shoulder, that makes you continue to work really, really hard. I mean, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’d like to say I’d have had the same mindset if I was a five-star. But who knows? It’s tough to tell.”

I then asked if there’s anything he keeps to remind him of the doubts. He answered there’s nothing physical, but, “Don’t worry, it’s all in the back of my head.” So too is the knowledge that the next Joe Burrow could be coming for him, the same way he came for everyone else.

“I know that something I’m always scared of, that old saying, there’s always someone out there that’s getting up earlier and working harder,” he said. “That’s something that I’ve always been kind of fearful of, that someone’s out there working harder than me.”

And after years of battling through the slights and questions, that’s the one piece of doubt he never wants to fight off. Because if that someone finds him, Burrow knows he’ll be in for a heck of a fight.

***

MOCK DRAFT SNEAK PEEK

Alright, so it’s draft week, which means it’s time to kick the old mock draft machine into overdrive. And in an effort to do that, I’m actually going to give you my full mock separate from this column, on Tuesday.

But today I can offer you a sneak peek at what’s coming tomorrow, with a ton of information wedged in. So we’re going to give you the top 12 picks in Thursday’s draft right here, along with 10 things I’m hearing—plenty of them having to do with the 20 picks after that.

I also have one caveat: No projected trades in today’s mock. Tomorrow, I may have some for you, and I’ll trust you guys will be back then to find out. Deal? OK, let’s go…

1) Cincinnati Bengals: No need to overcomplicate this. The Bengals have spent a lot of time with LSU QB Joe Burrow for reasons other than vetting him. They’re already preparing him to be their quarterback. He’ll officially be that in three days.

2) Washington: Washington’s tire-kicking on the quarterbacks was, as we’ve detailed here the last couple months, an effort to gain great knowledge of the landscape. They want to know what they’d be passing on by sticking with Dwayne Haskins. They also wanted to smoke out any and all trade offers. That said, I had an old associate of Ron Rivera’s tell me at the combine to “mark it down with a Sharpie” that he’d take Ohio State DE Chase Young with the second overall pick. Two months later, what may have been a fait accompli from the start will be done. And Young should supercharge a defensive line group loaded with former first-round picks.

3) Detroit Lions: I do believe there are a couple players the Lions like right here. That said, they’d love to get them at No. 5 or 6, after a trade down. On paper, Ohio State CB Jeff Okudah fills a need and fits the Nuevo Patriot-style of defense their building, in investing from back-to-front. But of late, I’ve heard rumblings that the coaching staff has taken a real liking to Auburn DT Derrick Brown. I’m sticking with Okudah here, for now. But I think Brown is very much a possibility.

4) New York Giants: I think the Giants, like the Lions, would like to get their guy—likely a tackle—a few spots later than this, after a trade down. And, physically, Louisville left tackle Mekhi Becton does match up with GM Dave Gettleman’s history of picking players. But the more I hear about Becton’s uneven play, and his fluctuating weight, the more I think he’s too boom-or-bust to be the first draft pick of a new coach’s tenure. So give me Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs here, a guy who can play right tackle or guard while the Giants figure out if he’d be OK as a left tackle heir to Nate Solder (some believe he can play there, others don’t).

5) Miami Dolphins: There’s been buzz that the Dolphins could pass on a quarterback altogether at No. 5, take an offensive tackle, and maybe take a swing on a Jordan Love later on. For now, I’m resisting the temptation to go all-in on that thought process. Oregon QB Justin Herbert makes sense here, particularly with the persistent whispers from other teams that Miami will not take Tua Tagovailoa.

6) Los Angeles Chargers: Similar to the situation in Miami, rumors are swirling that the Chargers could take a tackle like Becton here. But Chargers GM Tom Telesco is one of the best poker players out there ahead of the draft (he had everyone fooled into thinking he’d pass on Joey Bosa in 2016), and with the roster they have they can’t count on drafting this high again in 2021. So they hold their breath, and hope that Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa can stay healthy enough to become what Bama coaches have told scouts he could be—the left-handed version of ex-Charger Drew Brees

Brown returned to Auburn for a senior season in which he was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year.

Brown returned to Auburn for a senior season in which he was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year.

7) Carolina Panthers: If this is the way things fall, I think new coach Matt Rhule would be very pleased, and GM Marty Hurney’s virtual draft card would go in quickly. The pick is Auburn DT Derrick Brown. More than maybe any player in the class, Brown is universally loved—a four-year player who passed on the chance to be a top 15 pick last year, went back to school and somehow improved his stock under a bright spotlight. He’s absolutely the kind of middle-of-the-fairway selection that makes sense for a new coach. And if Brown goes No. 3? That means Okudah slips as a result, and he could be Carolina’s pick.

8) Arizona Cardinals: It’d be fun to put CeeDee Lamb here, with how I’ve heard Kyler Murray has campaigned for his former Oklahoma teammate. But my expectation is the Cardinals will look at their options here, and see a long-term right tackle in Alabama’s Jedrick Wills to bookend with newly-extended left tackle D.J. Humphries. Defensive line would be another possibility here, with word out that they like Brown quite a bit.

9) Jacksonville Jaguars: Another team that loves Brown? Yes, another team that loves, and won’t get, Brown. And this is also the team I’ve heard marked by others as the “Trevor Lawrence Team”—which references how they’re looking at trades involving picks not just for 2020, but 2021. It’s possible that Yannick Ngaukoe could be part of such a deal (maybe as a part of some sort of 2020 pick swap, with a premium pick in 2021 coming back). Leonard Fournette could be too. And this might be a landing spot for a tackle-hungry team like Denver or Tampa. But if we’re keeping them here, even with a good chance they look at the offensive or defensive lines, and we have Clemson LB Isaiah Simmons still on the board, I’m gonna say that they’ll see him as too good to pass on.

10) Cleveland Browns: I know GM Andrew Berry says they’re not locked in at tackle. Those who know him aren’t buying it, especially after he spent a year in an organization, in Philly, that invests so deeply on the lines of scrimmage and has been rewarded for it handsomely. So I think they go tackle. The question is where. Sticking here, Georgia’s Andrew Thomas makes too much sense. But I can say that they’ve aggressively investigated moving down, and might be eyeing a player in the second tier of tackles as part of that.

11) New York Jets: I don’t think Jets GM Joe Douglas is married to the idea of taking a tackle. But I think, ideally, that’s what he’d do. And so here he’ll stop the slide of Louisville’s Mekhi Becton. The risk is there, to be sure. But the reward could be too. And Douglas could see shades of Jason Peters, who he was with in Philly, in Becton’s athletic ability. From there, it’ll be up to Adam Gase and Co. to get that out of him.

12) Las Vegas Raiders: This is a receiver/corner coinflip to me. Knowing Jon Gruden’s desire to find himself a dominant ‘Z’ receiver, I’m going with Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy here, a player I’ve heard compared to Colts legend Marvin Harrison. But I think this easily could be someone like Florida CB C.J. Henderson. And I do think the Raiders will try to trade down at either No. 12 or 19, with an eye perhaps on replacing the second-round pick that went to Chicago as part of the Khalil Mack trade.

And here are 10 more nuggets for you guys to chew on…

• As you can see, we have four tackles in the top 11 picks, and there could be as many as four more going soon after that. Some teams believe USC’s Austin Jackson has a shot to be one of the best in the group, if he can get a little stronger (he lost time during the 2019 offseason after donating bone marrow to his sister). He doesn’t turn 21 until May and could set off a second run on tackles somewhere in the teens.

• While the Lions and Giants have to be hoping someone gets antsy about a quarterback, that tackle spot may be what prompts movement later in the top 10. And maybe later in the first round too. We’ve mentioned Tampa and Denver as possible move-up teams. You could see some similar shuffling later in the round too, because the second tier of Jackson, Boise’s Ezra Cleveland, Houston’s Josh Jones and Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson has really good potential too.

• I mentioned Brown as a player universally loved. Here are two more: Alabama S Xavier McKinney and Oklahoma LB Kenneth Murray. Both guys are exceedingly safe picks, with Pro Bowl-type potential. Nick Saban has been a champion for McKinney in the pre-draft process with teams—he’s very honest with NFL types on his players—and McKinney’s tape is sparkling. And Murray’s been mentioned by a number of teams to me as a guy who should be a captain and have the green-dot on his helmet very early in his pro career.