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Joe Burrow is Making the Leap for Cincinnati in Year Two

The second-year passer is checking plenty of the right boxes in 2021

CINCINNATI — Joe Burrow is leveling up in his second NFL season. 

The quarterback has the Bengals sitting pretty in the 2-seed of the AFC playoff race four games into 2021. His efficient play has a lot to do with their early success.

Burrow showed his potential as a rookie, but his season was cut short by a devastating knee injury. 

Burrow didn't let that keep him from improving. He found a way to fine-tune his game, all while repairing his knee in the rehab room.

Through four games, Burrow is blowing away his metrics from 2020. The signal-caller is completing 72.9% of his passes for 247 yards per game and nine touchdowns. The efficiency is what really stands out when diving deeper into the numbers.

His completion rate is up nearly 8%, and while the yards per game are down, his yards per attempt has climbed from 6.7 YPA (25th in NFL) to 9.2 YPA. That mark ranks third in the league, and the weighted version of the stat is nearly as good.

Burrow ranks eighth among all QBs in adjusted net yards per attempt (7.71 ANY/A) which applies different weights to touchdowns and interceptions. He checked in with the 26th ranked ANY/A last season. 

Only reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson posted higher marks last season. No matter where you look, there's a good chance Burrow ranks among the top-tier quarterbacks in the NFL. His overall Pro Football Focus grade is fifth (86.1) in the NFL, higher than Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Rodgers.

Burrow uncharacteristically threw three interceptions in Chicago and another against Pittsburgh. Expect that number to slowly tick down throughout the season after he posted the third-best INT rate (1.0%) in 2020 behind only Rodgers and Mahomes. 

The other part of the turnover equation has been flawless. Burrow fumbled once every 78 snaps in 2020 and has not coughed up the rock once in 229 plays this season according to Jake Liscow of Locked on Bengals. The growth is real and something many people surrounding the league expected. 

In June, I highlighted why this jump was probable, not just possible

Studies from Football Outsiders and The 33rd Team both agreed that the top-end passers in the league make jumps in year two and Burrow fits that description. Efficiency like this wasn't possible with the way Cincinnati played last season. 

Burrow threw the ball (or planned to) far too often in 2020, dropping back at the sixth-highest rate in the league. Through four games, that ranking is down to 30th league wide. A consistent rushing effort from Joe Mixon and better game scripting from Zac Taylor is just what the doctor ordered.

There's a reason Air Raid offenses have never lasted in the NFL, and the Bengals are starting to find the right balance through the air and on the ground. Although, they may want to let Burrow hum a few extra passes on first down.

Burrow is head and shoulders the most efficient first down passer in the league so far this year. It's something to monitor as Taylor continues searching for the right mix of run-pass balance.

Deep passing success is also making that "second-year leap" mold easier to fit into.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Burrow completed just 9-of-46 pass attempts thrown 20-plus air yards last season for 293 yards and one TD. He finished with the worst completion rate (19.6%) and completion percentage over expectation (-9.1) of any qualified passer.

Flip to the first month of this season, and seemingly all Burrow needed was his old buddy Ja'Marr Chase as his deep target. Top-5 picks cannot miss, and the Chase bullseye looks as big as a whole dartboard after four games.

The Rookie of the Year frontrunner has 17 catches for 297 yards and four touchdowns. Burrow is targeting his college connection in the spot he struggled to hit last year: deep downfield.

Chase ranks eighth in the NFL in yards per target (11.9) and fourth in yards per catch (17.5). Of players ranking top ten in YPC, Chase is fourth in receptions. The chemistry is there, and it's thriving, especially when he's going one-on-one against opposing defensive backs.

According to PFF, the burner ranks first in receiving yards (253) and touchdowns (4) in single coverage. The one question mark surrounding Chase coming out of LSU was his ability to overcome bigger players in press coverage, and it's been answered.

The "toss it up" connection with Chase is a big reason why Burrow's passer rating on 20-plus yard throws (128.5) ranks second in the league behind Wilson.

These past four weeks are what the Bengals envisioned when they decided to reunite arguably the most prolific QB-WR duo in college football history. They are up 7-0 in the first quarter of the season. The job's not finished yet, but Burrow and company are proving the second-year quarterback leap is no fallacy.

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