Thirty-nine bowl games have been played over the last few weeks with only the national championship remaining. But we won’t need to wait for the LSU-Clemson matchup next Monday in New Orleans to know about those two quarterbacks; Joe Burrow has had a near flawless 2019 season and he’ll be the first pick in a few months’ time. And Trevor Lawrence could follow in his footsteps in 2021.
We’ll quickly highlight all there is to love about Burrow below, but our intention here is to profile the other quarterbacks who played their last collegiate game and have made it known that they’re headed to the NFL.
1. Joe Burrow, LSU
There isn’t much to say at this point. Burrow was special this season, from start to finish, and he was the best player in college football. He rightfully won the Heisman Trophy, and he’ll rightfully be the first player selected in April, unless the Bengals somehow find a way to mess it up. The biggest question facing Burrow is where was this production prior to 2019?
It’s a fair question, but some players take longer to grow into their games than others. And there’s no shame in losing a quarterback battle to Dwayne Haskins, which is what happened to Burrow in the spring of 2018, and it was why he left Ohio State for LSU. His first season at LSU was … fine; he completed 57.8 percent of his throws with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions. There was no talk about him leaving for the NFL after his junior season because he likely would have gone undrafted. So Burrow returned, and along with the addition of passing-game coordinator Joe Brady, blossomed into a franchise quarterback.
When people ask which game they should watch to get a sense of who Burrow is, our response is always, “Pick one. It doesn’t matter.” Burrow has been that good, and the bowl-playoff matchup against Oklahoma was the latest proof. In a season where he completed 78 percent of his throws, with 48 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, here’s all Burrow did against the Sooners: 29 of 39 for 493 yards and eight scores (seven passing touchdowns, one rushing touchdown) — all of which game in the first half.
2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Tagovailoa didn’t play in the VRBO Citrus Bowl against Michigan. In fact, Tagovailoa took his last snap for the Crimson Tide on Nov. 16, when he suffered a season-ending hip dislocation against Mississippi State. The injury was so serious that he required surgery days later and there were concerns at the time that his playing career may be over. But on Monday, Tagovailoa announced that he was leaving for the NFL, a decision that caught many people by surprise.
There is plenty left to be determined, however, starting with when Tagovailoa will be healthy enough to play football. He should be cleared to throw at some point in the spring but there’s no guarantee Tagovailoa will be ready to play at any point in the 2020 NFL season. But let’s assume he makes a full recovery. What can an NFL team (like, say, the Dolphins) expect from him?
Heading into the season, Tagovailoa had all the attributes to be the No. 1 quarterback in the class (in fact, he’d still be the No. 1 QB if not for Burrow’s emergence). It starts with his accuracy, where he’s lethal at every level, even when pressured. Almost as important as the accuracy is his movement in the pocket, his ability to square his shoulders before throwing, and his uncanny knack to put the ball in the best position to allow his receiver to run after the catch. Of course, throwing to the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith certainly made things easier but that relationship is a two-way street. And even when Tagovailoa “struggled,” there was a lot to like.
Against LSU, a week before his fractured him and just 20 days removed from ankle surgery, he finished 21 of 40 for 418 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. Put another way: He played better on a surgically repaired ankle than most quarterbacks play when fully healthy. Yes, he was rusty, and yes, his mobility was hindered, but he did nothing to convince us that he’s not the No. 2 quarterback in this draft class and worth a top-five pick.
Tagovailoa is a franchise quarterback. No one disputes this. The issue is when will he be healthy enough to play, and then, can he stay healthy?
3. Justin Herbert, Oregon
Here’s the good news: Herbert’s 2019 season was much-improved over 2018, where he completed just 59 percent of his throws. That number was up to 66.8 completion for his senior campaign, and he topped off his Ducks career with an efficient effort against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, where he finished 14 of 20 for 138 yards with three rushing scores and an interception. Still, plenty of questions remain about one of the most physically gifted players in this draft class.
In a word, Herbert is an enigma. We’ve been talking about him now for more than a year, and repeating many of the same talking points: His arm strength is otherworldly, his measurables — 6-foot-6, 237 pounds, insane athleticism and an ability to make plays with his feet — check all the boxes. And for as much as we want to like him the reality is that he has yet to put it all together.
Sure, there’s the five-touchdown performances against Montana and the 79.1 completion percentage against Stanford back in September, but Herbert faced virtually no pressure against the Grizzlies and one-fifth of his throws have been screen passes, which help account for the uptick in his completion percentage. There were also the head-scratching efforts against Washington and Arizona State.
Many of Herbert’s throws at Oregon were some variety of screens, and to his credit, he was typically accurate in those situations. But once you get 15-plus yards down the field, the consistency wanes and he wasn’t in the same conversation with Burrow or Tagovailoa. Granted, he also didn’t have the same receivers, and that’s part of what NFL evaluators will have to figure out.
The Ducks’ offense could best be described as ill-fitting of Herbert’s talents. And after seeing the jump in Burrow’s game, imagine Herbert in LSU’s offense. But these are the projections NFL teams will have to make. There’s no mistaking Herbert’s physical attributes — he can make throws that take your breath away — but to gloss over (or worse, ignore) the mistakes he made, often on a weekly basis, will lead to him being overdrafted. And with that lofty draft status comes unrealistic expectations by a weary NFL fanbase beset by losing and a front office and coaching staff pressured to win now, even if that means pushing onto the field a quarterback not yet ready to face NFL defenses.
Ideally, Herbert would go to a low-pressure situation where he would be allowed to sit for a year. That doesn’t happen often in today’s NFL, though that strategy certainly worked well for the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes.
4. Jordan Love, Utah State
Love saved his best game of 2019 for Dec. 20 when the Aggies faced Kent State in the Frisco Bowl. He tied season highs in completion percentage (76.9) and touchdown passes (3). But this was the rare shining star for Love’s ’19 campaign; 11 of the previous 12 games, in some form or fashion, could be described as clunkers (the Fresno State matchup would be the only other exception).
Love is headed to the Senior Bowl where he’ll have another chance to impress NFL teams, some of whom considered him a first-round talent back in August. But the past four months barely resembled what we previously saw from Love; he completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,402 yards while throwing 20 touchdowns against 16 interceptions (in 2018, he completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,567 yards, 32 TDs and six INTs). And the only realistic conversations last fall about Love being a first-round pick always included the caveat: “He needs to go to a winning team, with a strong coaching staff and a situation where he can sit on the bench for a year and learn behind the current starting quarterback.”
So what will an NFL team get in Love, whose physical abilities, arm strength and playmaking abilities have drawn comparisons to Patrick Mahomes?
At various points during the 2019 campaign we saw glimpses of what makes Love so intriguing, starting with his arm strength. The ball explodes out of his hand, and he shows the ability to let it go before the receiver is out of his break, something that will be imperative at the next level. But when Love doesn’t get his feet set, or throws off-balance, his accuracy suffers. And this isn’t to say Love can’t throw on the run — because he can — but when he rushes, usually because he’s under pressure, the results have been mixed.
But there’s still so much to like. Love trusts his arm, even in the face of a heavy pass rush, because he knows he can snap one off to an outlet receiver at the last second. And that arm also allows him to fit the ball in tight spaces, which is especially evident when he’s on time with his delivery.
Yes, a big issue during the 2019 season was the lack of playmakers around him. In 2018, Ron’Quavion Tarver and Jalen Greene combined for 110 receptions and 14 touchdowns, and Dax Raymond was one of the best tight ends in the conference who many folks (us included) thought would get drafted. Darwin Thompson, who was drafted by the Chiefs, rushed for more than 1,000 yards and added another 351 receiving yards. All those weapons were gone before the ’19 campaign. And that had a noticeable effect on Utah State’s offense and, more specifically, Love’s productivity. For much of the season he played like someone who knew that he has to do everything. And for much of the season it didn’t go well.
NFL teams know all this but it’s still a calculated risk taking him in Round 1. But just like Herbert, Love could use a year on clipboard duty before graduating to the role of NFL starter.
5. Jacob Eason, Washington
Eason spent an impressive season with the Huskies and it culminated in a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Boise State; he was a tidy 22 of 32 for 210 yards and a touchdown in that game, and he leaves the program having completed 64 percent of his passes for 3,132 yards, with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
It was Eason’s only season in Washington and he arrived on campus having played in just 13 games and attempted 370 passes during his freshman season at Georgia in 2016. Prior to this season, Eason threw seven passes, all in 2017, because he was benched for Jake Fromm.
That prompted him to transfer to Washington before 2018. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, he certainly looks the part, and he has the arm strength to make every throw look easy. But the biggest question for much of the fall was whether he would be NFL-ready after this season.
First things first, Eason passes the eyeball test with flying colors. He looks like a franchise quarterback, and he’ll undoubtedly draw comparisons to Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford in the coming months. In related news, he can throw the ball out of the stadium. And while he hasn’t played a lot of football in recent years, you wouldn’t have known it to watch him against Eastern Washington in the Huskies season opener. And Eason was the best quarterback on the field when the Huskies hosted Justin Herbert and the Ducks on Oct. 19.
Not surprisingly, Eason struggled with consistency, particularly over the second half of the season. He had 10 touchdowns and two interceptions through the first four games. In the nine games since, he had 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Over the first eight games, only once did Eason complete fewer than 60 percent of his throws and on four occasions he had a completion percentage north of 70. In his last five games he twice completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes and didn’t eclipse the 70 percent mark once.
The good: Eason is one of the most accurate short and intermediate passers, and he excels at throwing slants. Not only is he accurate, but he puts the ball in a position where his receiver can maximize yards after the catch. It’s something we saw from him just about every week during the 2019 campaign.
The bad: Things start to break down when Eason is pressured. We saw this against Utah, where Washington dominated the first half and imploded in the second half. We saw it three weeks later against Colorado, where the Buffs spent much of the game in the backfield, harassing Eason, and forcing him into bad decisions. Eason can also lack touch on deep throws even though his arm strength rivals Herbert’s. And unlike Love, who can drop a 50-yard bomb into a bucket, Eason struggles with touch on these types of passes, either allowing the underneath defender to make a play on the ball or overthrowing everyone on the field.
Because of the lack of experience we thought Eason might return to school. He didn’t, of course, and now the question is if he can sneak into the first round.