THE NFL DRAFT IS ONLY ONE WEEK AWAY, AND NOT A MOMENT TOO SOON. The entire world of sports came to a grinding halt a month ago, and only NFL free agency and now the draft have given sports fans at least a modicum of entertainment and distraction.
A couple years ago, the Baltimore Ravens traded into the first round and grabbed Lamar Jackson with the final pick. One year earlier, the Chiefs rolled the dice at #10 on the talented but inconsistent Patrick Mahomes. Jackson and Mahomes won the last two MVPs, and Mahomes is now a Super Bowl champion. A year ago, everyone wanted the next Baker Mayfield or Jared Goff. Before that it was Carson Wentz. Things change quickly in the NFL, and a lot of it starts with the draft.
No position in sports is as important as quarterback. This year, as many as four quarterbacks could go in the top half of the first round, with at least seven guys projected to be drafted by the end of Round 3. So which one is ready to turn around an NFL franchise?
Why Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa are worth the big investment, why Justin Herbert and Jordan Love look like names to avoid, and how Jalen Hurts and Jake Fromm could be real sleepers…
Three simple telltale QB traits
NFL Draft talk is all about arm strength and hand measurements, but an accurate NFL quarterback is a winning quarterback. The league has changed. Teams rarely chuck it 40 yards downfield anymore, typically once or twice a game. Quarterbacks threw passes more than 20 yards downfield on 7% or fewer of their attempts each of the last three years.
The NFL is just as much a horizontal game as vertical these days. Teams use all 53 and 1/3 yards horizontally, completing high-percentage short-yardage throws and letting their stud athletes make a play. The short pass is the new run game. Quarterbacks need to make quick reads and get the ball to their playmakers quickly and accurately. Accuracy is everything.
As a general rule of thumb, any completion percentage over 65% is pretty good, while anything under 60% is very worrisome. There’s more to accuracy than that one number, of course, but it’s a great place to start.
2. Interception rate
Only a few NFL quarterbacks are asked to win a game all on their own. Most succeed within a successful system, even superstars like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. More and more systems don’t require the quarterback to win the game on their own, but just about all of them ask him not to lose it by giving the ball away to the other team.
Interception rates are all small and can look quite similar to the naked eye. Anything at 1.5% or under is terrific. Anything above 2.5% is troubling. That one percent difference might not look like much, but quarterbacks touch the ball every play. Most NFL teams throw 30 or more times a game over 16+ games. Over 500 passes, the QB at 1.5% finishes with 7.5 interceptions while the one at 2.5% is at 12.5 picks. Suddenly that narrow margin is not so narrow. Those extra five interceptions might mean three more losses.
3. Number of starts
It seems odd that such a simple number could be meaningful, but more QB starts means more data, a lot more data. It just means we know a lot more. One terrible game doesn’t taint the data as badly, and one hot stretch doesn’t help as much. More data is almost always better.
More starts also means more experience. It’s that many more snaps, more throws, more learning how to play the most complicated and most important position in sports. All the practice in the world can’t replace real, in-game experience. Over the years, quarterbacks who started three or four seasons in college are consistently more successful than those with one or two. Fewer starts are not a death knell, but it means we know far less, and that they probably do too.
With those three traits giving us a framework, here are my rankings for the presumed top seven quarterbacks in the 2020 NFL Draft…
TIER I — THE TOP OF THE DRAFT SUPERSTARS
1. Joe Burrow, LSU
2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama
Burrow and Tagovailoa have super similar profiles overall. Both of them won a national championship game. Both take care of the ball really well, with Burrow at 1.2% interception rate (elite!) and Tua at 1.6% (still really good!). Each is super accurate, with Tagovailoa carrying a slight edge there at 69.3% completion rate to Burrow’s 68.8%. Both of them started only two seasons, with Tua’s 24 starts especially low thanks to injuries. In the end, these are easily the two best quarterback prospects in the draft by a pretty wide margin, but both come with significant red flags and warnings signs.
Tua’s warning signs are more obvious. At 6'1, Tagovailoa has a long and ugly list of injuries. First, he was slowed in 2018 with multiple lower-leg injuries. This season he hurt his knee and had two ankle surgeries before a season-ending hip injury. That’s six games in 24 starts with a relatively significant injury. Both of those numbers are very concerning, especially since teams likely know far less medically this year of Coronavirus than normal.
The production itself is untouchable. Tua has 17 games with 3+ passing touchdowns, and remember, in only 24 starts. He has only four starts ever with under two passing TDs and only two with multiple turnovers. Tagovailoa went 22–2, and if you’re wondering about those two losses, he passed for 736 yards and six TDs in losses to two national champions. Seems decent. Tua averaged an incredible 10.9 yards per attempt for his career, ahead of even Burrow’s all-time season (10.8). Tagovailoa has special vision and decision-making skills. If he stays healthy, he could be a 22-year-old lefty Drew Brees with more agility and pocket mobility.
With Burrow, the red flags are more subtle. They kind of have to be after one of the greatest seasons in college football history.
Burrow had 65 touchdowns, at least two every game. He has 18 straight games with multiple TDs and just led his team to an unbeaten season and a national championship. In four games against Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson, Burrow completed 72% of his passes for 1698 yards and 19 touchdowns without an interception. Holy crap. You could argue the title game against Clemson was Burrow’s worst of the season, his 63% completion rate his only game below 70%. Of course, he also had 463 yards and five TDs and crushed a team that hadn’t lost in two seasons. Burrow also ran for more yards in each of his two seasons than Tua has his entire career.
As for those red flags? It’s all about sample size. Burrow was exquisite this season. Remember that 68.8% completion percentage? That included last year. Burrow completed an absurd 76.3% of his passes this season, but last year he was only at 59.3%. That’s worrisome. Burrow was quite forgettable last season. He wasn’t even seen as a real NFL prospect coming into this breakout season, though there’s a noticeable uptick in his numbers over the final four games last season that hinted at what was to come.
Is this Burrow breakout real? It sure looks like it. Watch any Burrow game this year and he looks like the clear #1 pick. But sample size warns us that it’s possible this was just one insane hot streak for a guy playing in the right system with the right talent around him. That doesn’t mean it is! But we’d feel a heck of a lot more certain about Burrow if we had even an extra five games of his production this season in another year. It means we don’t know.
Burrow is also 23, oldest among these seven top prospects. That’s another slight concern — not that he’s “old” but that he’s had more time to develop, that the others have more time to “catch up.” Tagovailoa being a lefty is also an interesting twist. Tua will be the first lefty QB in the entire NFL since 2017 and the first top-10 lefty QB pick since Matt Leinart in 2006. You wouldn’t think that matters, but it means the ball comes out differently, the QB rolls the opposite direction, and many plays and protections have to be flipped. For the right team, that could be a scheming advantage. For the wrong one, it could be disastrous.
No quarterback prospect is perfect, except maybe Peyton Manning. Heck, Andrew Luck was supposed to be the next great prospect, and he never made a Super Bowl and is out of the league. We just don’t know.
Burrow is being grouped into that Manning-Luck tier. I think there are more red flags than most are letting on, but I also think he’s a worthy #1 pick. Burrow has superstar upside at the most important position in sports. So does Tagovailoa, assuming his medicals check out. Any team that doesn’t have a surefire quarterback solution (*cough* Washington *cough*) would be crazy to pass on a QB prospect of this caliber.
Burrow and Tagovailoa are the only quarterbacks I’d take in the 2020 first round.
TIER II — ONE OTHER POTENTIAL STAR
3. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
There’s another timeline out there where Hurts and the Sooners make a few more plays in the playoffs, and maybe he’s the one shooting up draft boards.
Just look how similar Hurts’s profile is to Tagovailoa. His 65.1% completion rate is great, even better at 69.7% this year at Oklahoma. His 1.9% interception rate is nice. An extra year as a starter gives him 43 starts and makes those numbers more statistically significant. Hurts went 39–4 in his career. That’s prettay, prettay, prettay good.
Of course there’s one thing that makes Hurts unique from Burrow or Tua: his running ability. Don’t make the mistake of profiling Tagovailoa as a running quarterback. He’s agile and quick with excellent mobility, but he only ran two or three times a game, much more Russell Wilson than Lamar Jackson. Hurts is different. Hurts is an outstanding running threat, in addition to the terrific passing numbers. He ran for 3274 yards and 43 touchdowns in college, providing elite production both by ground and by air.
Remember that alternate timeline? Imagine another one, where the Ravens aren’t shocked by the Titans, where Baltimore rides the best run game in football to a win over Kansas City and beats the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Suddenly, instead of trying to pigeonhole Jordan Love as the next Patrick Mahomes, would everyone be looking for the next Lamar Jackson instead? And would it be Jalen Hurts?
Jackson has a similar size profile to Hurts, and Hurts is a significantly better passer than Jackson ever was in college and turns the ball over less. He’s not as electric a runner, but the similarities are there. This isn’t the 90s anymore. A smart team will know how to utilize Hurts as a runner and an accurate passer. In the right system, he could have genuine star upside.
It’s not all good. Hurts isn’t a top prospect on most boards for a reason. His biggest game in all three seasons was also his worst, as he struggled against elite defenses. Hurts holds the ball too long and makes slower decisions with a slowish release. He’s definitely not the passer Tagovailoa or Burrow is. But what if he’s a good-not-great passer but also a very good runner? I bet Baltimore would love to have Hurts backing up Lamar Jackson. I wonder if another team might let him do even more.
Put it this way: Jalen Hurts has a better chance of being the next Lamar Jackson than Jordan Love has of being the next Patrick Mahomes.
TIER III — JUST FINE, THANKS
4. Justin Herbert, Oregon
5. Jake Fromm, Georgia
We already saw how similar Burrow and Tagovailoa were statistically. Now check out how similar Herbert and Fromm are.
Herbert’s 64.0% completion percentage edges Fromm’s 63.3%. Fromm started 43 times to Herbert’s 42. Both are at 1.8% interception rate. The production was remarkably similar. But one is a top-10 prospect while the other could slide to the third round, because there’s one other key difference: Herbert “looks” like an NFL quarterback. He has elite height, arm strength, and athleticism. Fromm is 6'1, not 6'6, and lacks ideal height and arm strength.
But what good is arm strength and height really? Doesn’t it matter what you do on the field?
Fromm went 36–7 in three seasons, and he did that in the SEC. Herbert was 29–13 and just 22–12 against power five competition, even on a perennially strong PAC-12 team. Fromm is highly regarded for his intangibles, for his work ethic and high-IQ reads. Herbert’s accuracy is inconsistent and he tends to struggle under pressure. Watch Herbert in a big moment against a top opponent; suddenly height and arm strength aren’t worth much. Fromm’s timing and touch are far more valuable.
In the end, Herbert and Fromm look like similar prospects that fall in the “mostly fine” category, about how I rated prospects like Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen. Both look like potential average starting QBs, maybe something in the Kirk Cousins range. That’s valuable! But there’s no way I’m wasting a top-10 pick on Herbert when I can take Fromm at least 50 picks later.
I’d bank on Fromm being at least a quality career backup, which makes him a valuable third-round grab. How he and Herbert do from there will depend mostly on development, scheme, and team situation.
TIER IV — TANTALIZING BUT NOT MAHOMES
6. Jordan Love, Utah State
Jordan Love is not Patrick Mahomes. I’m sorry you had to find out this way.
Look, I love the idea of Jordan Love. It’s not hard to. He has a rocket arm and throws a tight spiral, and his mobility and ability to make plays on the fly only remind you of one NFL star. You look at Jordan Love and you dream. And if he were a Day 2 guy, that dream might be worth the investment.
But as Love has skyrocketed up draft boards, that potential value has faded more and more. Love’s metrics are far worse than the five guys above. His interception rate is much worse and was an awful 3.6% this season, with Turnover King Jameis Winston the only notable first-round pick with a worse final-season rate. Love’s completion percentage is below average. The mechanics are all over the place, and he looks like he has no idea how to read a defense or take what’s there. Love is a project. A super high-upside project, sure, but one that may never come close to completion.
Don’t forget how unlikely Patrick Mahomes was. Mahomes had many of the same obvious strengths and foibles, but he also had an elite creative once-in-a-generation mind for the game. He was also drafted into the perfect situation with the perfect coach and the perfect weapons to suit his strengths. The odds are heavily against Love’s chances of finding anything even close to that.
I really like Jordan Love. I’m rooting for him. But he has a far, far better chance of busting than hitting. The whole point of Patrick Mahomes is that there is no other Patrick Mahomes.
TIER V — NO THANKS
7. Jacob Eason, Washington
Eason is widely expected to be the fifth quarterback selected after Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert, and Love. He’s a likely second-round pick and could even sneak into the first. And I don’t get it.
Eason is poor in all our metrics. His 2.0% interception rate is below average. His 26 starts aren’t enough to provide much value. His 59.8% completion rate is terrible. Even this season, after two years of development since his 2016 starts, the numbers were average at best. Eason has a big frame and a big arm but the rest is “still developing.”
The numbers are extremely meh. Eason went only 10–10 against power five schools. He turns the ball over a good amount and doesn’t win, and he didn’t really have any big games. It’s all a profile of what a quarterback is supposed to be: tall, handsome, and white with a big arm. Eason profiles like big school Josh Allen but without the running. That’s, uh… not a compliment.
Eason ranks last among these seven quarterbacks, but he’s even lower than seventh on my overall QB board.
In case it’s not apparent by now, quarterback is about a lot more than ideal height and measurables. ■