Figures who will shape 2020 NFL season: Will Joe Burrow overcome unprecedented offseason to make an instant impact?

Matt Harmon
·9 min read

The football universe at large won’t have high expectations for the 2020 Cincinnati Bengals.

A team that sported the worst record in the NFL last year manned by a still-green head coach along with a rookie passer is hardly expected to make much noise.

On the other hand, fantasy managers will be expecting a good deal from this year’s Bengals squad. Joe Mixon is a consensus top-10 running back off the board in all formats. A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd are destined to leave drafts between Rounds 5 to 7. Even Tee Higgins and John Ross carry some late-round appeal, particularly in best ball outfits. In short, the Cincinnati roster doesn’t lack for skill position talent.

Despite all that appeal, the 2019 iteration of the Bengals offense puttered along to a 29th overall finish in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics. Not what you want.

Yet, there is a clear difference between the crew Cincinnati rolled out last year vs. what they’ll feature in 2020: No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow will at the controls at quarterback.

Just how much can be unlocked from an offense packed with underrated pieces will come down to how Burrow plays as a rookie.

Quarterback Joe Burrow #9 of the LSU Tigers
Can Joe Burrow translate his collegiate success to the pros? (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

From an expectations standpoint, Burrow can’t be much worse than the Andy Dalton/Ryan Finley combination head coach Zac Taylor suffered through in 2019. As a passing offense, the Bengals ranked 31st in touchdown rate, 30th in yards per attempt, and 30th in passer rating. They were an unproductive mess. Such a dreadful campaign stacked on top of a long history of being lost at sea behind center prompted the current Bengals brass to select the Heisman-winning quarterback out of LSU.

And let’s be clear: Barring something absolutely wild (it’s 2020 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so anything goes) Joe Burrow will be the Week 1 starter. The Bengals depth chart dictates it as the case; they certainly aren’t going to let Finley see the field after his disastrous run last year. Zac Taylor nor anyone associated with the team has come out with fluff-based talking points about how Burrow has to “earn it.” The 2020 Bengals will go as far as Burrow is capable of carrying them in his inaugural pro campaign.

With that said, we should have some degree of confidence Burrow is ready to carry them quite a decent distance. Burrow has the on-paper profile of a player who is ready for this task.

On the other hand, as noted, we are in the middle of a pandemic. Due to the restrictions dealt to the NFL world amid COVID-19 lockdowns, Burrow is even more behind than a traditional rookie. While your typical first-year quarterback has spent weeks and months working at the facility and going through OTAs and minicamps with his teammates, Burrow will have just now entered the halls of Paul Brown Stadium for the first time last week. He’s absolutely fighting an uphill battle to be prepped for the kickoff of his rookie season, scheduled in a little over a month.

We’ve seen rookie passers come into the NFL and instantly inject both credibility to a wayward franchise and juice to the stock of fantasy players around them on offense. Unlike all of those guys in recent history, Burrow will be expected to do it without a running head start.

Not good, not ideal but … maybe not impossible.

Here’s what Joe Burrow has on his side

The Bengals offensive coaches have already been working to counteract the lost time. Through four two-hour Zoom sessions per week, offensive coordinator Brian Callahan has broken out all the stops to immerse Burrow in the ways of NFL quarterbacking from a distance. Callahan came away impressed, noting, “His processing information and applying it to the next level was what was really impressive to me.” Quarterbacks coach Dave Pitcher carried a similar tone, stating, “We are very fortunate working with Joe and his skill set, I don’t anticipate there being a lot of mental failing when it comes to Joe.”

All of that is exactly what you want to hear about a player coming into the NFL with high expectations despite trailing literally any other rookie quarterback in recent memory from a prep standpoint.

And Callahan and Pitcher are on the money. Burrow’s pre-snap work was on display for all to see as he captained LSU’s new-look offense. Once a painfully dull, run-first attack, LSU changed courses last year. Coach O and company hired former New Orleans Saints offensive prodigy Joe Brady as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. Burrow instantly installed a “spread coast” offense, blending the spread offense with the traditional West Coast offense principles. We’ve seen Andy Reid do something similar in his Chiefs’ tenure and, of course, Sean Payton down in New Orleans.

The change in scheme boosted their use of RPOs, which places a ton of responsibility on the quarterback to make decisions pre- and post-snap. According to Pro Football Focus, “On plays where the RPO ended in a hand-off to the running back, LSU averaged 7.0 yards per play — over 2.3 yards more than on non-RPO rushing plays.” Burrow’s pre-snap diagnosing of defenses led the Tigers’ running game to lofty heights. Additionally, Burrow graded out as one of the nation’s two highest-graded passers when throwing to his first read, per PFF. You can chalk that up to his pre-snap work as well, cracking the code of defenses before the play even begins. Brady and the offensive staff did plenty right in terms of creating a system that works perfectly in the modern era of football, but smart observers note that Burrow’s execution of the offense in near-perfect form was the key.

In that vein, let’s not mistake Burrow for some product-of-the-system entity. Despite a strong guideline provided by the scheme, Burrow still created outside of structure. He ranked first in the nation in “under pressure” completion percentage, per Pro Football Focus. Burrow also averaged 27 rushing yards per game at LSU, showing he can make things happen on the move which will only boost the overall offense and his own individual fantasy outlook.

In short, Joe Brady and LSU put a lot on Burrow’s shoulders — and Burrow carried that weight without breaking much of a sweat.

Having to mentally negotiate so much in his college offense may well provide Burrow with just the advantage he needs to tackle 2020. The Bengals need Burrow to be an effective Day 1 starter despite not seeing much live prep heading into training camp. Based on what we saw him do last year as a perfect point guard for a difficult offense, he might just be uniquely positioned among rookie quarterbacks to do it. Zac Taylor is something of an unknown in terms of a head coach but he does come from a progressive background as a play-caller. He can implement much of his own concepts while integrating what his new quarterback did well as a collegiate player.

If Burrow does indeed become a competent starter right away, it shifts the landscape for fantasy managers, as well.

The [Burrow] fantasy effect on the Bengals

Joe Mixon could become a draft value, even at his lofty RB7 Yahoo ADP. Mixon was the RB13 in Yahoo scoring last season but could reach new heights with a competent offense. Additionally, Burrow made plenty of use of a receiving back in college and one of the biggest blocks to a high ceiling for Mixon in 2019 was his lack receiving usage. Now, just because Clyde Edwards-Helaire put up big numbers as a pass-catcher doesn’t mean Burrow will always throw to his backs. But Burrow’s tendency to find mismatches pre-snap and throw to his first read could lead to Mixon seeing a touch more targets than his measly 45 of 2019.

A.J. Green and/or Tyler Boyd should be priority targets in the mid-rounds if you believe Burrow can beat the odds. The former is an impossible evaluation right now because we didn’t see him play football last year but if he has any juice left, the 2018 version of A.J. Green was still quite good. Meanwhile, Boyd could pile up catches as the primary slot player for the Bengals. His work on quick slants and crosses are a near 1-to-1 fit with what Burrow did at LSU.

Even players like John Ross, Auden Tate, and Tee Higgins should be on your late-round radar if Burrow is going to succeed. The latter two of the three got some work in with Burrow over the summer. Moreso, it’s just a volume bet. The Bengals ranked fifth in passing play percentage last year and with a still-hurting defense heading into 2020, should push that number up again.

Burrow himself might carry more upside as a QB2 in SuperFlex formats than his mid 20’s positional ADP indicates. If he hits, all these receivers stay healthy and he continues to add 20 to 30 yards on the ground per game as a pro, Burrow could throw enough balls as a rookie with the Bengals trailing to put up surprising numbers.

Keep in mind, the offensive line got better this offseason. The Bengals will see the desperately welcome return of 2019 first-round left tackle Jonah Williams and they added former Cowboys guard Xavier Su'a-Filo. All of the Bengals’ fantasy weapons will operate behind an offensive line that should at least be functional, providing Williams plays to potential.

Joe Burrow has plenty of ability to tell a compelling portion of the story of the 2020 NFL season. He’s already in the national spotlight as the No. 1 overall pick, but he’ll draw even more attention as a rookie trying to thrive on borrowed time following a lost offseason.

Given what we know about him, he can accomplish that task. If and when he does, fantasy managers are going to be reaping the benefits via a potentially discounted offense.

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