The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.
Depending on which parts of Joe Burrow's story one sees, he can be cast easily as a front-runner — a four-star recruit out of high school, top 10 nationally at his position, a Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, and now the projected No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft.
But pull on other strands of Burrow’s yarn and his is a classic underdog’s tale — a quarterback who did not win the starting job in three years at Ohio State and chose to transfer, a junior starter at Louisiana State who completed less than 60% of his passes, and a pro prospect who elected not to throw or work out at the NFL scouting combine, knowing his skills would only be picked apart.
“My physical traits are limited compared to some of the guys here. Everyone can see it,” Burrow said during his combine interview. “I have to be smarter. I have to prepare better, and I have to know what’s happening before it happens so I can play fast.”
Even after compiling one of the all-time great seasons by a college quarterback in 2019 — he completed 76.3% of his passes and threw for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns with just six interceptions, leading to a runaway Heisman win — the determined kid who could not beat out Ohio State quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins is speeding toward a future no one could have imagined a year ago.
It’s easy to forget that ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay had Burrow pegged as a fifth-round pick entering last season. And Burrow would be the first to admit that what happened at LSU in 2019 had just as much to do with his talents meeting the right system — the Tigers hired passing game coordinator Joe Brady away from the New Orleans Saints to install a modern spread attack — as it was him suddenly blossoming into a surefire franchise quarterback.
That said, his decision not to work out at the combine made perfect sense. There were 15 games of tape from 2019 that showed very clearly that Burrow can make all the throws.
“It’s been a crazy six to eight months, however you want to look at it,” Burrow said. “A lot of hard work went into it, and I had great people around me.”
It is now up to the Cincinnati Bengals — the closest NFL franchise to Burrow’s hometown of Athens, Ohio, and owners of the top pick — to decide whether they can put the right team around Burrow to help him continue to thrive.
Of course, a team that likes Burrow more could make the Bengals an offer they can’t refuse to move up and get him, but the smart money is still on Cincinnati drafting Burrow.
Chatter in February of Burrow not wanting to play for the Bengals has cooled.
“It’s 2 hours 15 minutes from my house,” he said. “I could go home for dinner if I wanted to. Not a lot of pro athletes could get to do that.”