Futures: LSU QB Joe Burrow
It is almost not worth thinking about how LSU quarterback Joe Burrow arrived at the doorstep of being the first overall draft pick. Trying to wrap your head around Burrow going from just another LSU quarterback to blossoming into one of the best prospects the sport has seen in a decade is a tiresome exercise. Burrow's story feels rather unprecedented, but the fact that we can not directly explain it does not make him any less legitimate.
Truth be told, it does not matter how Burrow arrived here. What matters is what Burrow put on tape to prove himself as an NFL quarterback. Once you wash away the noise about him being a one-year wonder, there are not many firm arguments that point to Burrow being anything less than a top-five pick.
The starting point with Burrow is his accuracy, but being that it is such a clear and obvious strength for him, it is not worth my time or yours to focus on that in particular. Any uninformed spectator could come to the conclusion that, if nothing else, Burrow can throw an accurate ball. With that in mind, let's take a look at the handful of other traits that make Burrow a desirable quarterback prospect.
At least to me, getting to the back side of a passing concept on time is a good barometer for quarterback prospects. At the college level, quarterbacks do not always need to work to the back side of a concept that often in a given game, but at the pro level, it becomes a necessity. Not being able to read the full field in the NFL puts a ceiling on a passer's ability, even if they are plenty skilled in other areas. Burrow clears this bar with ease.
LSU is in a shotgun trey (trips with an in-line tight end) formation with the back to the strong side. Before the snap, Texas shows a two-high safety shell with outside corners off the ball and the nickel defender creeped inside as if he might blitz. Burrow knows that if the nickel blitzes, the strong safety has to take the slot receiver and the free safety has to rotate to the strong side to ensure they have numbers (keep in mind, LSU has four players to that side). Burrow takes the snap and confirms the blitz and safety rotation as he executes the fake handoff. Burrow's first read is the short post over the middle, but with the middle of the field "closed" and no receiving threats to force the linebackers out of the box, Burrow decides to make a quick transition and throw to the back-side 12-yard curl. This play is not exactly special, but it does set a good baseline.
Now let's turn up the difficulty a notch or two in the next example. Flat/corner smash (to the right) and drive (from the left) was a common pairing of route concepts for LSU last season -- and it's not hard to see why when the quarterback can execute like this. The play is designed for the quarterback to be able to read the smash combo, then work to a back-side combination that is already running into his field of vision.
Upon receiving the snap here, Burrow looks to his tight end, Thaddeus Moss (81). Moss gets swallowed up by press coverage immediately, pushing Burrow to the running back in the flat. Like Moss, the back is getting swarmed and is not open. Burrow realizes this and resets himself back to the middle of the field -- just as slot receiver Justin Jefferson (2) is just about to cut inside on the square-in. Burrow finds Jefferson out of the break with room to run, in large part because he operated perfectly on schedule and did not waste any time with his first two reads. That is the kind of processing and time management that separates Burrow from the rest of the class.
Burrow's pre-snap awareness and seamless processing also come in handy versus blitzes. At all levels of football, there will be instances where a quarterback knows his protection will be outnumbered and he is responsible for handling the extra rusher. There are only two ways to handle that extra rusher: bail out of the pocket to evade him, or get the ball out before he can make a play. Burrow is excellent at both, but it fancies me more to admire the latter.
Kind of like we saw in the first clip versus Texas, Georgia's nickel cornerback (to Burrow's left) is creeping inside, and Burrow knows it. Burrow knows right off the bat that when that player blitzes from the field, LSU's offensive line is going to have issues if Georgia also blitzes from the boundary. Well, Georgia tries to do just that, bringing both the linebacker and cornerback from the right side. Burrow catches the blitzing linebacker before finishing his dropback and instantly knows to throw to his running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (22) running a short inside route to the area where the linebacker vacated. In all honesty, this is a hell of a blitz from Georgia and likely would have worked against almost any other college quarterback, but it is tough to get one by Burrow.
Similarly, Burrow is an assassin out of empty formations. LSU's empty offense was as creative and multiple as any, but only because Burrow has the chops to execute in the split-second windows that empty formations bring about and is not afraid of his offensive line potentially being overwhelmed in five-man protection.
On this play, Burrow knows he wants the No. 3 (innermost) receiver to the right side of the formation. The No. 3 receiver is only capped by a safety 10 yards off the ball, and Mississippi State has no linebacker covering the middle of the field. The hash-to-hash area is free real estate for the No. 3 receiver. With that in mind, Burrow stands strong in the pocket until the receiver shimmies open and hits him for a first down.
This play is from LSU's 2019 opener, before the country truly knew what Burrow could be. Like in a couple other clips, Burrow sees the creeping nickel and senses that he will be sent to rush the passer. Burrow opens to the nickel's side and aims to throw into the vacated area. LSU's left tackle short-circuits because of the nickel blitz and allows a defensive linemen to get through immediately, but Burrow stands tall and delivers a catchable, albeit imperfect, throw.
And finally, this play is from a critical LSU scoring drive that effectively put Alabama away for good. Alabama sends five defenders at Burrow, including their middle linebacker straight through the left A-gap (between the center and the guard). Burrow knows the blitzing linebacker is free, so he turns to the short side of the field and flips a quick pass out to Edwards-Helaire, who was flexed out to the slot for this snap. Though this pass is well behind the sticks on third down and most of the heavy lifting is done by Edwards-Helaire, that Burrow could get this ball out at all and give this play a chance is impressive.
Burrow is not just a savant of LSU's system, though. Burrow is a bold, creative player who is willing to take chances under pressure and exploit defenses late in the down. He is not fazed by broken pockets or being forced to move off his spot. If anything, Burrow has an aura of calmness to him when things start to break down. While his middling arm strength does hold him back from that elite top shelf of throwers (the Mahomes/Wilson/Rodgers tier), Burrow's creativity and instant decision-making are almost always enough to make a play.
This was LSU's last real drive of the game against Texas. Though up 37-31, they needed another score to put away the Longhorns for good. Faced with a dire third-and-17 and six pass-rushers (as well as a spy), Burrow does not seem to feel the pressure of the moment at all. He slides up in the pocket, side-steps and shoulder-dips away from a blitzing linebacker (Jeffrey McCulloch, 23), and uncorks a 20-yard throw to Jefferson on a deep crossing route. The clip cuts off, but Jefferson went on to run that catch in for a touchdown, giving LSU a two-score lead that ultimately netted them the win.
While the situation was not nearly as tense in this clip, Burrow does show off some of the same calm and collected play style. Pressure from over the center forces Burrow to move off his spot rather early in the play. Rather than take off, Burrow weaves around the rusher to slide up in the pocket and get right back to reading the play. Upon resetting from his little escape maneuver, Burrow immediately draws his arm back to throw to the slot receiver (Jefferson, 2) on the over route, but realizes before he can finish his motion that the route is not actually open. In what feels like the same string of motion, Burrow instantly draws his arm again to find the outside receiver (Terrace Marshall Jr., 6) trailing behind Jefferson. Just Burrow's ability to navigate the pocket and get back to his progressions is impressive by itself, but for him to show off those quick, moldable mechanics to deliver a well-placed ball requires a next-level mastery of the position.
And every now and then, Burrow swings for the fences when forced to make a play. Burrow is not reckless in the way Sam Darnold or even Deshaun Watson are, but he does not hold back when a big-play opportunity presents itself. In this instance, Burrow is looking to the left at his isolated receiver. Mississippi State's five-man pressure gets home in a hurry, though, and Burrow is forced to find an escape route. Once he starts to break free from the pocket, Burrow turns his attention back to the middle of the field and makes an instant decision to rip a pass to the deep post player. Despite having to make the throw with his momentum still pulling him to the left (away from his throwing hand), Burrow drops a dime about 45 yards from where his back foot was planted. Even with as many incredible throws as Burrow had in 2019, you would have a tough time finding more than a handful better than that one.
Everything evaluators need to see from a high-end quarterback prospect can be found in Burrow's 2019 film. The concern that he has only produced for one season need not apply given how unprecedented his excellence was in that one season. Burrow's 2019 was not merely a decent season with moments of potential sprinkled in (a la Mitchell Trubisky at North Carolina) -- it was arguably the greatest passing season college football has ever seen, especially considering that LSU plays in the SEC and faced Clemson in the National Championship Game.
Aside from having just one year of excellent play, there are not many ways to poke holes in Burrow's game. Sizing up Burrow's skill set is less about where to find flaws and more about gauging exactly where his ceiling is. His arm strength hovers just above the NFL baseline and will hold him back from making as many special throws as the league's elite, but there is little evidence to suggest his arm alone will stop him from being a good pro. If Andy Dalton could get by for this long with his arm strength, Burrow should be just fine considering the plethora of other skills that allow him to win.