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The 2020 Quarterback Class: Where the Top Signal-Callers Stand After Year One

Where do Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa stand after their rookie seasons?

Veteran quarterbacks have dominated the headlines in the early part of the 2021 NFL offseason, but that wasn't the case at the start of the 2020 season. Three quarterbacks were taken in the first six picks of the 2020 NFL Draft. 

Now that Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert have completed their rookie season, we take stock of the three quarterbacks with a look back, a look at the present and a look ahead for each of them.

Joe Burrow

Q&A with AllBengals Publisher James Rapien

1) How would you evaluate Burrow’s rookie season?

Joe Burrow did everything expected of him and more during his rookie campaign. From commanding the huddle on day one of training camp to being voted a team captain. Burrow's presence and leadership had an impact on the locker room, but what he did on the field was more impressive. Burrow gave the Bengals a chance to win most of his starts. He had success despite playing behind a poor offensive line. He also had a poor defense and questionable coaching. Burrow showed star potential. Unfortunately his season ended after 10 games due to a knee injury he suffered against Washington in Week 11. He completed 65.3% of his passes for 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions. Burrow did struggle with the deep ball and while he deserves some blame, it wasn't all his fault. The Bengals' offensive line issues and lack of a true deep threat were two major factors. The 24-year-old was impressive as a rookie and people within the organization believe they have their quarterback of the present and the future. 

2) What was the high point of the season for Burrow? 

There was a three-week stretch (Weeks 6-8) where Burrow was unstoppable. He completed 86 of 123 passes (70%) for 968 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He was still sacked six times over that span, but didn't flinch in the face of pressure. His best game of the year came against Cleveland in Week 7. Burrow finished 35-of-47 (74%) for 406 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. He led Cincinnati downfield twice for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, but the defense faltered in the final minute and the Bengals lost 37-34.  They rebounded the following week against Tennessee. Cincinnati led wire to wire in the 31-20 win, despite being home underdogs. Burrow completed 26-of-37 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. The Bengals improved to 2-5-1 after finishing 2-14 the year prior. Beating a team like Tennessee gave the entire team confidence that they were going to make a second-half run. Unfortunately, Burrow got injured a few weeks later against Washington.  That three-week stretch gave everyone a glimpse of what Burrow could do if the people around him were performing at an average level. 

3) What was the low point?

Obviously the injury was devastating, but that's not Burrow's fault. So instead let’s point to his performance against the Ravens and Steelers. He completed 40 of 70 passes for 396 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The Bengals were blown out both times. Those were the only two games of the year that Burrow looked like a rookie. He was sacked 11 times combined and never looked comfortable against the Bengals' AFC North rivals. Unfortunately, due to his injury, he never got to face the Ravens or Steelers a second time. 

4) What is the biggest question facing Burrow heading into the offseason?

Will he be ready for Week 1? He's set to begin running and throwing this month as he continues to recover from a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee. Burrow has made it clear that he plans on being ready for the start of the 2021 season. Protecting him moving forward is a hot topic in Cincinnati and will be for the remainder of the offseason.  The Bengals have to get better in the trenches because Burrow was taking way too many hits. He needs to have more talent around him when he does return to the field.

5) What is the ceiling for Burrow? 

He can be a top five quarterback in the NFL. He has “it.” The “it” that everyone talks about with Tom Brady or Drew Brees. Burrow is cut from that cloth. He doesn't have the biggest arm in the world, but he's extremely accurate and throws with good anticipation. He's a great leader and competitor. He's athletic and can move around, which is a requirement in today's NFL. Burrow is a special player and the Bengals need to make sure they maximize his potential moving forward. 

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Tua Tagovailoa

Q&A with AllDolphins Publisher Alain Poupart

1) How would you evaluate Tagovailoa’s rookie season?

Tagovailoa had what could best be described as an uneven performance, though he also wasn’t asked to throw the ball over the field the same way Burrow and Herbert were. Because of the way the Dolphins defense and special teams performed throughout the 2020 season, job one for the offense was to play turnover-free and complementary football. In that sense, Tagovailoa did a solid job because it took a long time for him to throw his first career interception. Tagovailoa finished the season with an impressive 6-3 record in games he started.

2) What was the high point of the season for Tagovailoa?

This one is pretty easy when it comes to Tagovailoa. It was the game at Arizona in Week 9 in what was his second NFL start. After a shaky outing in his starting debut against the Rams, Tagovailoa put together a dazzling performance against the Cardinals that featured some timely passing as well as impressive scrambles out of the pocket. The highlight was a 93-yard touchdown drive that tied the score 31-31 early in the fourth quarter. Tagovailoa had a big third-down completion to DeVante Parker early in the drive and later had a key scramble before hitting Mack Hollins with a TD pass.

3) What was the low point?

Tagovailoa was pulled from two different games, at Denver and at Las Vegas, but it was the Broncos game that stood out. Tagovailoa seemed out of sorts for most of that game and confused by what the Broncos were doing defensively, though he didn’t get much help that day from the offensive line.

4) What is the biggest question facing Tagovailoa heading into the offseason?

The major issue with Tagovailoa—and pretty much the biggest issue surrounding the entire team—centers around what kind of jump he can make if the Dolphins improve the quality of the playmakers around him and the offense is opened up when he’s in the lineup. The Dolphins took him fifth in the 2020 draft with the idea he’d become their long-term answer at quarterback, but he just wasn’t able to make the kind of immediate impact that Burrow and Hebert did. How big a step he can take in his second season will go a long way toward determining whether the Dolphins can take that next step and reach the playoffs.

5) What is the ceiling for Tagovailoa?

The best NFL comparison when he entered the NFL was Drew Brees because both are undersized quarterbacks with impressive accuracy. Even though Tagovailoa didn’t have a great rookie season, it’s important to remember the same thing happened to Brees back in his early days with the San Diego Chargers. The ceiling for Tagovailoa hasn’t changed, though it’s obviously going to be difficult for him—or anybody for that matter—to have the kind of success that Brees has achieved.

Justin Herbert

Q&A with Charger Report Publisher Fernando Ramirez

1) How would you evaluate Herbert’s rookie season?

Herbert had the best rookie season statistically in NFL history. He had almost every rookie record except passing yards. He scored a total of 36 touchdowns and was really the bright spot in an otherwise terrible year for the Chargers. Herbert was supposed to be the number 2 all season, but that changed after a medical emergency with starter Tyrod Taylor. He was able to “wow” head coach Anthony Lynn enough to name him the starter moving forward. He was able to go throw for throw against some of the best quarterbacks in the league, such as Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

2) What was the high point of the season for Herbert?

I would love to say Week 4 against Tampa Bay, but it was the final four-game win streak to end the season. The Chargers had trouble putting teams away this season. They had double-digit leads against Kansas City, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Denver and losing those completely flattened their season. In the final stretch, Herbert was able to lead the Chargers on game-winning drives. All three of his game-winning drives were without one of his top weapons — Keenan Allen, Mike Williams or Austin Ekeler —due to injury. Herbert really had a little bit of everything in his rookie season.

3) What was the low point?

Probably facing the top three AFC East teams. The Dolphins, Bills and Patriots disguised a lot of what they did to throw Herbert off. They accomplished it. Herbert threw three touchdowns and four interceptions against those three teams. He admitted that he was surprised by the schemes.

4) What is the biggest question facing Herbert heading into the offseason?

Can he learn from his mistakes in those three games? Because Herbert is in the AFC, he will be facing a lot of formidable defenses. He mentioned in his presser a couple of days ago that he has begun watching the film from numerous games to find ways to get better. He said he will reach out to multiple veteran quarterbacks to get advice on how he can improve his game. His new offensive coordinator is Joe Lombardi, who was the Saints quarterback coach, so Herbert said he will reach out to Drew Brees to get advice from him. He also will be working on his footwork, getting stronger, and trying to get faster. He will not throw for a couple of months to rest his arm.

5) What is the ceiling for Herbert?

The AFC is loaded with young quarterbacks. I believe the name Justin Herbert will need to be added to that list. I think Herbert is only on the cusp of finding out his true potential in the NFL. He is a smart individual who might not come out and say it, but he wants to be the best quarterback in the NFL. He is eager to learn. He needs to work on a lot this offseason because teams will now have film on him. The Chargers also have to make sure he has enough weapons around him to keep growing as a quarterback. Herbert, though, is on an upward trajectory.


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