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Joe Burrow vs. Justin Herbert: Who do NFL sources, PFF analysts prefer long-term?

The Cincinnati Bengals had an easy decision to make when they held the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Fresh off of a rock-bottom 2-14 season and selecting first overall, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow was the obvious choice for Cincinnati after a Heisman Trophy-winning and record-setting campaign on the way to a national championship.

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While the Bengals should still feel fully confident in that pick after winning the AFC North in Burrow’s second season, the decision would be made much more difficult today with the benefit of hindsight after seeing what Los Angeles Chargers quarterback and No. 6 overall pick in that same draft Justin Herbert has accomplished through the first two seasons of his NFL career.

Burrow vs. Herbert | First two seasons
Joe Burrow Justin Herbert
PFF Grade 90.0 89.8
PFF Passing Grade 89.0 86.4
Big Time Throw % 5.2% 4.3%
Turnover Worthy Throw % 2.7% 2.0%
Avg. Season WAR 2.75 3.31
Adjusted completion % 75.2% 74.6%
Average depth of target 9.0 8.2
Accuracy % 62.9 61.7
Accuracy Plus % 20.4 16.3
Inaccurate uncatchable % 17.8% 18.0%
PFF Clean Pocket Grade 94.0 90.4

Both quarterbacks are among the best young passers in the NFL and led their teams to winning records in just their second seasons. While Burrow will try to help the Bengals win a playoff game for the first time in 31 years as Cincinnati prepares to take on the Las Vegas Raiders on Saturday, Hebert’s Chargers will stay home after missing the playoffs through no fault of their passer. Herbert churned out a gutsy performance Sunday night as Los Angeles came up just short against the Raiders in a loser-stays-home matchup that would have seen both teams make the playoffs if they had just agreed to a tie.

Burrow vs. Herbert | 2021
Joe Burrow Justin Herbert
PFF Grade 91.7 90.1
PFF Passing Grade 91.2 86.2
Completion % 70.4% 65.9%
Passing Yards 4,611 5,014
TDs 34 38
INTs 14 15
Big Time Throw % 6.4% 3.8%
Turnover Worthy Throw % 2.4% 1.6%
WAR 3.91 4.45
Adjusted completion % 79.4% 77.1%
Average depth of target 8.6 7.9
Accuracy % 65.2% 62.4%
Accuracy Plus % 21.0% 16.4%
Inaccurate uncatchable % 16.1% 15.8%
PFF Clean Pocket Grade 94.6 91.8

There’s no truly wrong answer to whether the Bengals or Chargers picked a better franchise quarterback in the top six picks of the 2020 NFL Draft, but PFF asked over a dozen NFL coaches, executives and scouts which QB they would choose long-term. I also polled PFF analysts to see if they would make the same decision.

Two-thirds of those NFL coaches, executives and scouts responded with Burrow. 

It was a difficult choice for most people who were polled, and the answer typically came down to a matter of intangibles vs. tools. One high-level NFL executive did call it an “easy” decision, though: “Burrow.”

Nov 28, 2021; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

An NFC quarterback coach had a tougher time picking between the two young quarterbacks but ultimately went with his gut and settled on Burrow who is “just a winner.”

Every front-office executive and coach we polled picked Burrow.

“Tough call, but I’d go with Burrow,” an assistant coach said. “Such a gamer in big moments. Herbert did make some unreal throws (Sunday) night down the stretch. Still would go Burrow for the long haul. I think he’ll find a way to win Super Bowls.”

A source in an NFL’s analytics department wavered but went with Herbert.

“Definitely feeling the weight of Burrow’s recent performances, but I’d go with Herbert,” he said.

One scout picked Burrow and cited his leadership and ability to win.

“Effectively turned around a downtrodden franchise within a year,” he said.

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Another scout went with Herbert and cited his tools.

“He’s got Aaron Rodgers-like arm talent and just a truly rare skill set,” he said. “Obviously, Burrow is awesome. He’s an absolute stud, but the way the ball comes off Herbert’s arm is different. From an intangible/leadership standpoint, they’re similar, too — both guys that teammates love to play with and rally around.”

PFF analysts had a more difficult time picking between Herbert and Burrow, ultimately settling on the Chargers’ second-year quarterback — barely:

  • Herbert: 52.2%
  • Burrow: 47.8%

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