2020 NFL Draft QB Stock Watch: Joe Burrow shows why he's best in class, Herbert and Eason bounce back
The 2019 college football season is in the books and Joe Burrow is the undisputed No. 1 QB -- and it's not particularly close
The theme of rivalry week, at least as it pertains to NFL Draft QB Stock Watch, is that all but one of the quarterbacks on this list didn't have a lot to do; the offense either leaned on the running game or the defense -- or both -- to secure an easy win. The notable exception, of course, is LSU's Joe Burrow, who needed just three quarters to break one record and tie another on his way to a likely Heisman Trophy and a few months after that, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
For the final time of the 2019 college football regular season, let's see how some of the top draft-eligible quarterbacks fared.
Joe Burrow, LSU
At this point, we're out of superlatives. Joe Burrow is a special player having a special season and the only question facing the Cincinnati Bengals is whether they'll use the No. 1 overall pick in next spring's NFL Draft on Burrow or Ohio State edge rusher Chase Young. Anything other than those two names and everyone in the organization should be fired.
On Saturday night against Texas A&M, LSU scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, including two Burrow passing scores. A lot of what transpired on the field in Baton Rouge looked exactly like what we've seen Burrow and the Tigers offense do over the previous three months. Burrow was clinical in the pocket, accurate with his throws -- short, intermediate and deep -- was surprisingly athletic, and was always in control.
Here's Burrow on LSU's third drive. With time in the pocket, he throws a dime to Ja'Marr Chase for a 73-yard score that was made to look as effortless as a handoff.
For three quarters, Burrow showed off his savviness in the pocket, both to buy more time and find receivers downfield and to take off running. On the second series of the game, he avoided the rush and gained 13 yards and 11 yards on back-to-back plays. The drive ended with Burrow finding a wide-open Justin Jefferson in the back of the end zone for an easy touchdown.
But perhaps no play serves as more of microcosm of Burrow's season than the one below. This was LSU's fourth drive of the first quarter, which began with an on-the-money throw to Terrace Marshall on a crossing route and ended with Justin Jefferson's post pattern (again, on the money) that set up a Tyrion Davis-Price walk-in touchdown. But in between, this happened, which nicely encapsulates just about everything there is to love about Burrow's game this season:
By the time he walked off the field one play into the fourth quarter, Burrow had set the SEC's single-season passing record (now at 4,366 yards), tied the SEC's single-season touchdown mark (44, originally set by Drew Lock in 2017), completed at last 20 passes for the 15th straight game and thrown for at least 300 yards in six straight.
The only way Burrow isn't the first quarterback taken -- and almost certainly the first-overall pick -- is if he retires from football.
Justin Herbert, Oregon
Justin Herbert was coming off his worst game of the season and while he put forth a much better performance against Oregon State there was not one moment that stopped you in your tracks and made you think, "This is why Herbert is the best quarterback in this draft class."
Herbert's good, for sure, but as we've been writing all season, it's the lack of inconsistency that will drive you mad and eventually cost some NFL general manager his job. He finished Saturday's game 18 of 30 for 174 yards and a touchdown. And that touchdown was impressive -- a 28-yard laser to Johnny Johnson after Herbert comes off his first read. He sets his feet, steps into the throw and everything works flawlessly.
Unfortunately, when Herbert's pressured or confused he struggles with all those things that led to the touchdown throw above. And that will be the task facing the team that drafts him. Because no one denies that Herbert checks every box when it comes to his physical abilities. It's just that it hasn't yet come together, at least to the point where we can call him a franchise quarterback that can get a middling NFL team over the hump.
We still see the same mistakes we saw last season and even earlier this season: The unforced errant throws that every NFL quarterback will need to make, the poor decision making and bad interceptions, the no-showing in big moments.
Best-case scenario for Herbert: He goes to an NFL team with a veteran quarterback and he can sit for a year, maybe more, and grow into the offense. Put another way: It's not in anyone's best interests to just throw him out there as a rookie next season.
Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
The reality is that Jalen Hurts probably won't be a first-round pick. A lot can change between now and April, of course, but from the perspective of early December, Hurts is a really good college player who is having success in Lincoln Riley's system -- the same system that saw Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray not only flourish but win the Heisman Trophy and go first-overall in back-to-back NFL Drafts.
Mayfield and Murray each threw for over 4,300 yards and 42 touchdowns in their final seasons in Norman. Hurts' 3,347 yards and 31 touchdowns are otherworldly -- on any other world but this one, where he's succeeding Mayfield and Murray. The difference is that Hurts has rushed for 1,217 yards and 18 scores -- Mayfield managed just 311 yards and five touchdowns in his final season while Murray was good for 1,001 and 12 scores.
And we shouldn't diminish the totality of Hurts' contributions this season, especially since he didn't arrive until the spring after transferring from Alabama. But his biggest strength this season is also a legitimate liability at the next level; Hurts runs like a running back, and at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he moves like one too. But he's not elusive like Murray or Lamar Jackson, but instead happily takes on would-be tacklers, usually trucking them on the way to a first down or more. That works well in college but not so much in the NFL, where one hit could end a franchise quarterback's season.
In open space Hurts is masterful, and we saw that on Saturday night against Oklahoma State:
But that open space closes quickly -- and often violently -- at the next level. And given that Hurts is still evolving as a passer; only once all season has he attempted more than 26 passes in a game (he's rushed at least 10 times in all but two games), and while he has the arm strength to make every throw issues arise when he's forced to come off his first read. If it's not there, Hurts' first instinct is to drop his eyes and rely on his legs. That isn't a long-term strategy in the NFL.
As it stands, Hurts is more Taysom Hill -- an invaluable jack of all trades that can do a little bit of everything -- than proper franchise quarterback.
There's nothing wrong with that, especially if Hurts is given time to continue to grow into the position. But it's unfair and misguided to expect him to be a starting NFL quarterback as a rookie.
Jacob Eason, Washington
Jacob Eason would probably benefit from another year in college. But like Herbert, he has all the physical tools to play at a high level in the NFL. The biggest question right now is would the NFL team that drafts him have the patience to let him mature into that player.
Eason does so many things well already; he's insanely accurate on short and intermediate throws. More than any other quarterback we've watched this season, Eason gives his receivers the best opportunity to maximize yards after catch because he's able to put the ball right on them, in stride, and there is no wasted space adjusting for a less-than-perfect throw.
Things get away from him once pressure becomes a factor, and Eason can sometimes struggle with his touch on deep throws, but when it all comes together it's a lot of fun to watch. After airmailing a deep ball earlier in the game, Eason lofted this perfectly thrown pass to Terrell Bynum late in the first quarter:
So easy, so effortless.
Eason's touch was even better on this fade route, again to Bynum, this time for a touchdown:
Eason faced little pressure on the afternoon and with a good rushing attack and a stout defense, Washington had little trouble with Washington State's high-powered offense. And if Eason could be guaranteed all day in the pocket and a strong running game to lean on in the NFL, he'd be a top-15 pick. But he hasn't played a lot of football and reps, more than anything, are what he needs. The only question is whether those reps come as Washington's starter next season or running the scout team for an NFL club.
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