NFL draft: Could Joe Burrow surpass Tua Tagovailoa? For some teams, he surely could

They might be tanking for Tua in Miami, for all we know. But it wouldn’t be shocking if, in some other NFL city, they might be bottoming out for Burrow.

That would be Joe Burrow, quarterback, LSU. On Saturday, Burrow threw as many incompletions (three) as he did touchdown passes in the Tigers’ win over Florida, and it got me thinking as to whether Burrow — and not, say, Oregon’s Justin Herbert — might have the best chance to overtake Tua on some teams’ boards.

I texted three people in NFL scouting Saturday night asking them just that. All three were careful to explain that player grades and big-picture draft boards are still months away from taking shape. There were reminders that Burrow has been really good now for about 10 games — the final four of the 2018 season and the first six of this one.

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But the sense I got is that the idea of some teams rating Burrow (or Herbert or whomever) over Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa isn’t all that absurd. Needless to say, the meeting of LSU and Alabama — and Burrow and Tagovailoa — on Nov. 9 will be some of the great draft theater that we’ll see this college football season, not to mention a critical game for conference supremacy and playoff implications.

“If you like either one, it might be the first tape you watch and the tape you go back to the most,” a senior college scout told us.

LSU's Joe Burrow could end up as some NFL teams' top-rated QB prospect in 2020. (Getty Images)
LSU's Joe Burrow could end up as some NFL teams' top-rated QB prospect in 2020. (Getty Images)

Shades of the 2018 QB class

The similarities to the 2018 NFL draft, at least at quarterback, are starting to bubble up. There were five taken in Round 1 that year. Baker Mayfield was the first overall pick, but he wasn’t close to being a consensus top pick on the other 31 teams’ boards. Some teams had Sam Darnold, who went third overall, as their QB1. Others really were fascinated by Josh Allen, the seventh pick. The other quarterbacks in Round 1 that year, Josh Rosen (10th) and Lamar Jackson (32nd), had a wide range of grades and opinions in NFL circles.

The 2020 NFL draft could be somewhat similar. Tagovailoa is an exceptional college quarterback and also product of incredible hype — both can be true, and it’s not knocking down him as a prospect. Herbert has been almost the opposite, with the understanding that he’s being a bit reined in by Oregon’s offensive system and injuries at wide receiver.

But with the 6-foot-4 Burrow, who is now completing 79.6 percent of his passes on the season, there just seems to be a real fascination with him in the league right now.

“Accuracy, toughness, confidence, athleticism [and] good, quick decision making,” the senior scout told us. “It’s all on display there. It’s hard not to like.”

Burrow’s clean-pocket production, which is a very good indicator of future NFL success, is exceptional (an NFL passer rating of 145.0) and just behind Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts among draft-eligible QBs. And Burrow’s adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for dropped passes, throwaways, spiked passes, batted ball and passes where the QB was hit while they threw) is an astounding 85.2 right now — no other college QB with at least 160 dropbacks this season is within three percentage points of him this season.

It’s to the point where Burrow landing in the top 10 picks, maybe even crashing the top five, just isn’t all that wild a concept right now. When I asked one scout how my latest mock draft from last week looks now, with me placing Burrow at the No. 30 pick to the New Orleans Saints, he said: “I suspect you’ll be moving him up for the next one.”

It will depend on which teams are drafting where

It’s worth noting that the Miami Dolphins have scouted Burrow extensively, right alongside the other handful of top quarterbacks in next year’s draft picture. The NFL’s other winless team, the 0-6 Cincinnati Bengals, sent their top scouting executive (Duke Tobin) to the game matching Burrow and Utah State’s Jordan Love two weeks ago. (Right now, the Bengals technically would pick first overall, as they have one more loss than the Dolphins, although Miami’s opponent win percentage, which is the first tiebreaker in determining draft order, is lower than that of Cincy.)

The bottom line is that every team will have a different QB order. Some might even factor Georgia’s Jake Fromm (even after a poor performance Saturday), Washington’s Jacob Eason (who quietly has been great outside of the Cal game in terrible weather), as well as Love (even with his tough season) and Hurts (the wild card QB in this whole 2020 draft picture).

So there is no consensus on this QB class, nor will there likely be, even when it comes to the more established Tagovailoa. Some people like raspberry sherbet. Some like mint chocolate chip. Others prefer plain-old vanilla.

Tua Tagovailoa has plenty of NFL supporters, but he's not universally beloved. (Getty Images)
Tua Tagovailoa has plenty of NFL supporters, but he's not universally beloved. (Getty Images)

But there is a sense I’ve gathered on Tagovailoa in scouting circles that is pretty interesting. Let’s just say that’s he’s not for everyone.

Some teams will lament his lack of great arm talent. Some might question his build. The fact that he’s lefthanded might work against him with certain coaches who now have to flip round their offenses (it’s a bigger deal for some coaches than others, believe it or not). Others will suggest Tagovailoa is a product of four future NFL receivers, plus an NFL back and an offensive line that has at least three draftable talents. There isn’t universal love for him as a prospect, it’s become clear.

“He’s not Andrew Luck or anything, in terms of how [the league] will view him, I think,” the scout said.

Tagovailoa has been mostly special again this season, and there have been times when he’s played less hero ball and more taking what defenses have given him. But on Saturday, in Bama’s win over Texas A&M, it was the first time this season that Tagovailoa played — at least by his lofty standards — a poor game. Most quarterbacks would dream of throwing for four TDs and only one pick on the road against a ranked team in the SEC. But our review of the tape showed one of his least impressive performances, and Pro Football Focus’ grades back that assessment up.

It’s fair to suggest that a quarterback with a career 80-9 TD-INT ratio in the best college football conference will have some measure of universal appeal. But Tagovailoa’s hype in the media and among fans might surpass what the collective view of 32 NFL teams could be. Again, it’s impossible to say without receiving straightforward answers directly from 32 teams’ decision makers, but the sense I get is that the fascination with him might not be as high in the league as one might think.

“Sam Bradford and [Marcus] Mariota also had great production in college — really low interception totals, high TD totals, high completion percentages and all that,” the senior scout said. “I come back a lot to Matt Leinart a little with Tua, and what I overlooked with Matt in scouting is what I will be asking myself with Tua.”

When it’s all said and done, the 2020 QB class might actually rate stronger overall than the 2018 class that landed five passers in Round 1. Just like that year, there will be a wide range of opinions on the prospects available. And it’s becoming clear with each passing week — even factoring in the 32 different draft boards — that there are enough Burrow supporters out there that the idea of him going ahead of Tagovailoa might not be the most far-fetched draft projection ever made.

We don’t know if that will happen. We’re just giving you ample warning: Do not be completely shocked if it does.

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