Joe Burrow goes No. 1 to Bengals, who are betting on his out-of-nowhere story being legit

A year ago, chances seemed good Joe Burrow would get drafted this week. Just on Saturday, when the fourth through seventh rounds are held.

Phil Steele’s college football preview is a bible to many, and he had Burrow as the 15th-ranked draft eligible quarterback heading into last season. Among the main “way-too-early” 2020 mock drafts last April, none had Burrow in the first round. An ESPN story last December quoted an unnamed AFC scout, saying Burrow “quite frankly looked like a backup at best last year.” He looked like a good college player for LSU and a mid- to-late-round NFL pick. Nothing wrong with that.

Imagine anyone’s shock last August if you’d have described the scene to kick off the NFL draft on Thursday (and that doesn’t include the picks being made from Roger Goodell’s house due to a global health crisis). After winning the Heisman Trophy — he opened at about 200-to-1 odds to win, then won in the biggest landslide vote in Heisman history — Burrow was the first overall pick of the draft to the Cincinnati Bengals.

It wasn’t exactly the pomp and circumstance we’ve seen with most first overall picks, due to the coronavirus restrictions turning Thursday night into a virtual NFL draft.

Burrow’s parents joined him on the couch later when the pick was made. Burrow got a couple pats on the back from his parents and seemed to be on FaceTime with the Bengals as commissioner Roger Goodell announced the pick. After some analysis on the broadcast, we saw Burrow again in his living room, quietly putting on a Bengals hat and hugging his parents. It was a strange scene.

The only believable part of the entire scenario might have been that the Bengals earned the first overall pick.

“It’s been a crazy six to eight months, however you want to look at it,” Burrow said at the NFL scouting combine.

To say the least.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) wasn't on the radar as a first-round pick a year ago. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow (9) wasn't on the radar as a first-round pick a year ago. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

Joe Burrow third QB in a row to be a surprise No. 1 pick

We can’t treat Burrow like a unique out-of-nowhere story since each of the past three top picks have been surprises, at least relative to where they were entering their final college season.

Baker Mayfield wasn’t on the NFL draft radar before the 2017 college season, then he won a Heisman at Oklahoma and the Cleveland Browns eventually made him the top pick. Kyler Murray might have been even further off the draft radar entering the 2018 season. He too won a Heisman for Oklahoma and became a top pick for the Arizona Cardinals. Both players had fantastic rookie seasons, too.

Just because the NFL has seen a rise like Burrow before — in each of the past two years — doesn’t make his story any less remarkable.

Burrow transferred from Ohio State to LSU, won the Tigers’ starting job in 2018 and had a solid year. He finished strong, leading to some optimism about the Tigers for 2019. LSU coach Ed Orgeron said before last season the team started to believe in Burrow after a win over Georgia in mid-October of 2018, but Burrow threw for only 200 yards in that game, though he did run for two touchdowns.

A lot of the focus on Burrow before last season was his threat as a runner on run-pass option plays in new passing game coordinator Joe Brady’s spread attack. A lot of features on Burrow before last season talked about his toughness, not his ability as a passer.

Then, playing in a conference that was expected to produce the most first-round picks in a single draft in NFL history, Burrow threw for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns. LSU went 15-0 and won a national title. It’s perhaps the greatest season by a player in college football history.

That’s how you go from a fairly unexciting college quarterback to the first pick of the NFL draft. And there was no doubt about it: The Bengals didn’t even entertain trade offers from the Miami Dolphins, and presumably there were other teams who took a shot as well.

Bengals gamble on Burrow

Everyone with an online mock draft has a high grade and opinion of Burrow, and rightfully so. The production is undeniable. His accuracy is as good as you’ll find from a college quarterback. There was never any real debate about who would be the first pick of the draft, which says something.

That doesn’t mean there’s no risk for the Bengals. Burrow couldn’t win a job at Ohio State. In 2018, Burrow had 200 yards or less in eight of his first 10 games. In those 10 games, before a huge three-game finish, Burrow had just seven touchdowns. Three came in one game.

Then he took off last season in Brady’s offense, with a phenomenal supporting cast around him. It’s OK to consider the possibility that Burrow could be a one-year wonder that found himself in a perfect situation at LSU.

Realistically, the Bengals had no choice but to take Burrow. They were ready to try something new at quarterback. Andy Dalton has had a solid career but they had gone as far as they could with him. It’s time for a new era in Cincinnati.

It’s just that nobody a year ago thought Burrow would be a quarterback any NFL team would be excited about, or use a top pick on. Keep in mind that some under-the-radar quarterback could have an unexpected phenomenal season and become the first pick of the 2021 NFL draft. We’ve seen that happen three years in a row.