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Setting expectations for Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow in 2020

After a 2019 season that saw him earn the highest PFF passing grade ever awarded to a college football player, Joe Burrow is now due for an encore.

No rookie quarterback is immune from growing pains, so setting realistic expectations will be an essential first step for Burrow and his early development in Cincinnati. Here, we will look at some of the most recent and productive rookie performances in order to look at a broad range of outcomes and develop a more realistic picture of what we can expect from Burrow during his first NFL season. 

[Editor’s Note: PFF’s advanced statistics and player grades are powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]

Measuring success

Success can come in many different forms for rookie quarterbacks. Of course, leading a team to double-digit wins and a postseason run is the desired outcome, but this form of achievement will also require the quarterback to perform at an adequate level in some of the game’s most critical areas.

The most stable metrics for measuring quarterback performance include performance from a clean pocket, performance on non-play-action dropbacks, performance on first- and second-down plays and performance on passes targeted at or beyond the line to gain.

Joe Burrow’s final college season

Top-tier Decision-making and accuracy helped Burrow to his record-setting season in LSU’s pro-style offense in 2019. His 61.6% accuracy rate on passes thrown at least 10 yards downfield set a single-season PFF College record, while just 13.7% of his passes were charted as uncatchably inaccurate, first among quarterbacks with at least 400 pass attempts.

Burrow commanded the game at an elite level in 2019 and graded as college football’s best quarterback in the most reliable and stable metrics.

Joe Burrow: PFF passing grade and rank in several stable aspects of QB play (2019, ranks among QBs with 300-plus pass attempts)
Stat Rank
Passing grade from a clean pocket 94.8 1st of 39
Passing grade on throws from inside the pocket 93.7 1st of 75
Passing grade on first and second down 94.7 1st of 33
Passing grade on non-play-action dropbacks 92.3 1st of 29
Passing grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks 97.9 1st of 50

Burrow’s final season of college football seems to have prepared him for every element of playing quarterback at the professional level. And while Burrow’s success will largely depend upon the offensive scheme and the surrounding talent of his teammates, his performance in college has set him up to compare favorably to some of the most successful rookie seasons of the PFF era.

Matt Ryan (2008)

Ryan finished a stellar rookie season with a top-five ranking in many of the most stable metrics used to evaluate quarterback play. Ryan performed well enough to earn Offensive Rookie of the Year honors while also earning an overall passing grade of 87.2, second only to Peyton Manning that season.

Matt Ryan: PFF passing grade and rank in several stable aspects of QB play (2008, ranks among QBs with 300-plus pass attempts)
Stat Rank
Passing grade from a clean pocket 90.7 3rd of 23
Passing grade on throws from inside the pocket 87.2 2nd of 30
Passing grade on first and second down 85.8 2nd of 29
Passing grade on non-play-action dropbacks 87.2 2nd of 41
Passing grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks 93.9 3rd of 33

After completing his first career pass in the NFL on a big-time throw that resulted in a 62-yard touchdown, Ryan has more than lived up to his expected role as a franchise player. He has earned PFF grades above 70.0 in 11 of his 12 seasons to date, with his career-high single-season grade of 92.2 coming in a year that also earned league MVP honors.

Andrew Luck (2012)

Like Burrow, Andrew Luck was drafted with the first overall pick, and expectations could not have been any higher during his rookie season in 2012. But even though he managed to lead the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as their starting quarterback, Luck graded below expectations early in his career.

Andrew Luck: PFF passing grade and rank in several stable aspects of QB play (2012, ranks among QBs with 300-plus pass attempts)
Stat Rank
Passing grade from a clean pocket 71.3 22nd of 31
Passing grade on throws from inside the pocket 65.5 19th of 28
Passing grade on first and second down 56.5 26th of 32
Passing grade on non-play-action dropbacks 56.9 29th of 33
Passing grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks 70.0 27th of 34

Luck’s somewhat volatile playstyle got him into trouble early on. He ended his rookie season with a 66.7 overall grade, 22nd among 39 qualifying passers, while his 5.9% turnover-worthy play rate ranked 37th among that same group of players.

The good news for Bengals fans is that Joe Burrow’s final college season surpassed Luck’s in many critical areas, which should make for a smoother transition. Luck’s 48.9% accuracy rate on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield in 2011 pales in comparison to Burrow’s 2019 mark of 61.6%, while Luck’s final-season turnover-worthy play rate of 2.9% was almost a full percentage point higher than Burrow’s (2.0%).

Burrow also graded out higher than Luck on passes from a clean pocket (94.8 vs. 91.0), passes from inside the pocket (93.7 vs. 90.0), passes on early downs (94.7 vs. 92.2), non-play-action passes (92.3 vs. 90.1) and passes targeted at or beyond the first-down marker (97.9 vs. 93.1). But even if Burrow does get off to a rocky start in the Queen City, Luck’s career trajectory is proof that talented players can always overcome those rough stretches.

Russell Wilson (2012)

Wilson wasted no time becoming an immediate success during his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks. He finished the 2012 season with the NFL’s fifth-highest passing grade (87.7) while posting a 15th-ranked 33 big-time throws. Meanwhile, his nine turnover-worthy plays were the fewest among all 32 starting quarterbacks.

Wilson ranked second to only Peyton Manning in passing grade from a clean pocket (92.3) and on passing grade on non-play-action attempts (86.8), while Wilson’s 94.1 grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks fell short of only Robert Griffin III’s grade of 95.0.

After leading the Seahawks to the postseason in seven of his eight years, Wilson’s success is marked by his leadership and his overall effective play in the most critical areas needed to play the position. And while their final-year on-field production was very similar, the former LSU signal-caller will also need to mirror Wilson’s early command of the NFL playbook and the ease in which he made the lockerroom his very own.

Joe Burrow vs. Russell Wilson: PFF passing grades in their final college seasons
Stat Burrow (2019) Wilson (2011)
Passing grade from a clean pocket 94.8 95.8
Passing grade on throws from inside the pocket 93.7 93.2
Passing grade on first and second down 94.7 91.8
Passing grade on non-play-action dropbacks 92.3 90.9
Passing grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks 97.9 97.4

Dak Prescott (2016)

As only a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, Dak Prescott quickly exceeded expectations taking over from Tony Romo in Dallas. Prescott was unspectacular, but he was also very methodical while operating the offense, protecting the football and limiting negative plays. Prescott’s turnover-worthy play rate of 2.6% ranked ninth among 39 qualifying quarterbacks that year, and it was a driving force behind his ability to manage games and perform effectively within his offense.

Prescott’s rookie season proved that replacing big plays with ball-controlled passing can lead to productive play at quarterback. He finished the regular season with an eighth-ranked 81.5 overall grade, and he led the Cowboys offense to a third-place finish in EPA per pass play (0.204), beating the likes of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (0.188, fourth) and Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (0.154, sixth).

Baker Mayfield (2018)

As the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield inherited a suboptimal environment. After becoming the starting quarterback for the final 13 games of his rookie campaign, Mayfield finished his campaign with an 11th-ranked 83.2 overall grade and unleashed 40 big-time throws on the year, the third-most among quarterbacks.

Despite the midseason coaching change, Mayfield concluded his rookie season ranked in the top half of the league in the most critical areas of QB play. His 86.1 passing grade from a clean pocket ranked 12th among qualifying passers, his 79.1 in-pocket passing grade ranked 11th, his 81.0 grade on early downs ranked 11th and his 76.1 passing grade on non-play-action attempts ranked ninth. 

Highest graded rookie quarterbacks since 2006 (regular season only, min. 250 dropbacks)
Rank Name Team Season PFF Overall Grade
1 Russell Wilson Seahawks 2012 89.7
2 Robert Griffin III Washington 2012 83.7
3 Baker Mayfield Browns 2018 83.2
4 Dak Prescott Cowboys 2016 81.5
5 Matt Ryan Falcons 2008 80.6

Burrow should hope to avoid the early dysfunction that can quickly engulf a rookie quarterback, but Mayfield’s first year also serves as a good example that a talented quarterback has the ability to lift his team beyond such dysfunction.

Before Kyler Murray and Burrow came along, Mayfield was the highest-graded signal-caller of the PFF College era. He earned elite grades from a clean pocket (95.6), on early downs (96.4), from the pocket (93.9), on non-play-action (89.0) and on throws targeted beyond the line to gain (96.7) — all of which are incredibly similar to Burrow’s 2019 grades.

Mayfield finished the 2018 season with the third-highest grade that we’ve ever given to a rookie quarterback, so it stands to reason that Burrow can challenge that standing in 2020.

What’s in store for Burrow in 2020?

When Burrow lines up to play his rookie season in Cincinnati, he will inherit an offense that was deficient in many areas a season ago.

The most glaring area of weakness was the offensive line, which finished 27th in the league in pass-blocking grade (63.7) after allowing 215 pressures on the year, the seventh-most among teams. The shortcomings up front also extended to the running game, as the line also ended the 2019 season with a 31st-ranked 46.9 team run-blocking grade. So, even with two talented running backs like Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, the Cincinnati ground attack could only manage a 20th-ranked rushing grade (72.4) and a 22nd-ranked first down/touchdown percentage (21.9%).

Because of injuries, the offense was also forced to play the entire season without first-round offensive tackle Jonah Williams and superstar receiver A.J. Green, so the return of both these players, along with Burrow’s arrival, should immediately upgrade this passing attack. Last season, the Bengals’ wide receivers and tight ends combined for a mid-level 5.11 yards per route run, ranking 18th league-wide. But in 2020, Burrow will have an improved receiving corps with the veteran Green, Tyler Boyd and first-round rookie Tee Higgins

Burrow will now be looking to lift the Bengals passing offense that struggled in several key aspects of the passing game last year on its way to a 30th-ranked team passing grade of 57.5.

Cincinnati Bengals: PFF passing game grades in 2019
Stat Rank
Passing grade from a clean pocket 65.8 32nd of 32
Passing grade on throws from inside the pocket 60.0 29th of 32
Passing grade on first and second down 56.8 29th of 32
Passing grade on non-play-action dropbacks 53.0 30th of 32
Passing grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks 66.5 29th of 32

To reach the lofty expectations now surrounding him, Joe Burrow will not only need to see an improvement in every area of the Bengals’ offense, but he will also need to provide the kind of leadership that inspires the increase in production.

Quarterback evaluation is never a slam dunk, but Burrow put together one of the best college seasons of all time while showing projectable NFL skills along the way. He has the physical tools and the professional acuity to function as an NFL quarterback, and his domination in every phase of the game bodes well for his future in an NFL offense.

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