Imperfect prospect: After historic season, focus shifts to Joe Burrow’s flaws

INDIANAPOLIS — Give Joe Burrow credit, before the drills of the 2020 NFL scouting combine even began he’d already delivered what promises to be the week’s best line.

Burrow’s tweet mocking the mock draft culture nearly broke the Internet on Monday. When Yahoo Sports first reported Burrow’s relatively small hand size — 9 inches — he delivered a zinger into the metaphorical that doubled as a puncture wound to the draftnick’s soul.

“Considering retirement after I was informed the football will be slipping out of my tiny hands,” Burrow said on Twitter. “Please keep me in your thoughts.”

That hand size reportedly tied with the smallest for a first-round pick since 2008. And it opened a window into the next wave of scrutiny Burrow will face as the Underwear Olympics portion of the draft process kicks off in Indianapolis this week.

This is the moment when Burrow’s transcendent season at LSU — a Bayou fever dream that even the widest-eyed fan couldn’t have envisioned — meets the wet blanket of draft scrutiny. After a season that featured a Heisman Trophy, a national title and a single-season NCAA-record 60 touchdown passes, a year of relentless high-fives now will be traded for criticism of hand size.

Former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow answers questions from the media during the NFL scouting combine on Tuesday in Indianapolis. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow answers questions from the media during the NFL scouting combine on Tuesday in Indianapolis. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There’s no such thing as a perfect prospect. And with Burrow deciding not to throw or work out at the combine — an expected decision for a prospect of his caliber — the scrutiny immediately dials into the micro.

Burrow brushed away a popular storyline leading into the draft almost immediately in his interview session here on Tuesday. He shot down any notion that he’d pull an Eli Manning and not play for Cincinnati, which has the top pick and is widely expected to take him. He said that the media “took that narrative and ran with it.”

“Whoever takes me, I’m going to go show up,” Burrow said. “I’ll play for whoever drafts me. I’m just not going to be presumptuous about what [the Bengals] want to do.”

The root of questions that NFL teams will have surrounding Burrow remain tied to his pedestrian 2018 season when he completed under 58 percent of his passes and threw only 16 touchdown passes. With a year of experience, new coordinator and resplendent trio of receivers, Burrow transformed the paradigm in which modern quarterbacks will be judged, but the subpar redshirt junior season left lingering questions. Burrow put forth a season of such blunt force that the question of whether it was more tied to new pass game coordinator Joe Brady’s schemes or Burrow’s development is vexing in NFL scouting circles.

The case for Burrow is obvious, as he authored one of the greatest seasons in the history of college football. But draft season is more about building up cases against a prospect, not dwelling on his 76.3 completion percentage. And with Burrow, his milquetoast 2018, average arm strength and pedestrian athleticism will be the things that are poked, prodded and pondered in Bengals scouting circles. (Of course, the Bengals have an infamously small scouting department, and that type of organizational apathy is one of the reasons the narrative for Burrow to seek his professional employment elsewhere began in the first place.)

Burrow gave mostly stock answers during his media session on Tuesday, straight from the agent-preparation playbook. But his answer to a question about his strengths underscored some of the NFL’s general concerns about him. Burrow is not tiny, as he’s 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds. He’s athletic enough that he played AAU basketball and was considered a lower Division I prospect in that sport. But he also acknowledged that he’s not any kind of athletic freak.

“I do think it’s my mental capacity in the game,” he said. “Like I said earlier, I prepare better than anybody else. My physical traits are limited compared to some of the guys here, right, and everyone can see it. So, I’ve got to be smarter, I’ve got to prepare better and I’ve got to know what’s happening before it happens so I can play fast.”

To Burrow’s credit, his answers showed his ease in the setting. That’s important for a team preparing to make him the face of a franchise, as none of the personality questions that followed a Josh Rosen or Baker Mayfield to the combine have emerged here.

Burrow embraced a question about his confidence level being similar to Mayfield by saying that he hopes his ability to know what was coming on Saturdays in college football translates to Sundays in the NFL. He was quick to say that would happen only with the help of veteran teammates and his coaches.

“I really admire Baker’s mentality,” he said. “Coming in, if you’re the No. 1 pick, the team that’s picking No. 1 is there for a reason so there are going to be ups and downs and you have to stay steady through the process.”

Prior to the national title game, Brady insisted that Burrow wasn’t “a system quarterback.” Considering the amount of processing and pre-snap decisions Burrow had to make at LSU to diagnose defenses, there are few that question that notion.

Perhaps the fairest criticism of both Burrow and Brady, now the offensive coordinator for Matt Rhule in Carolina, came from an NFL scout to Yahoo Sports. The scout pointed out that both operated with such a distinct talent advantage last season that won’t be replicated in the NFL. What happens when that disappears? We’re about to find out.

“You don’t have a lot of say in that in the draft,” Burrow said. “Whoever picks you, picks you, and you’ve gotta go play. I’m going to try to make whoever picks me work. I think that my skill set is really diverse, that can fit in a lot of different schemes.”

Burrow’s hands may be small. But he showed during his first exposure to the NFL’s silly season that he’s not going to be afraid to get them dirty.

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