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Can Joe Burrow ball out as a rookie in 2020?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: May 22, 2020, 1:05 am ET

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

Joe Burrow is the new face of the Bengals' franchise. The 2019 National Championship and Heisman Trophy winner has a combination of accuracy and off-script goodness that has drawn comparisons to Tony Romo. Expectations are fairly low for Burrow and company in year one considering only the Jaguars (4.5) have a lower win total than the Bengals (5). Still, the addition of a high-end QB to any offense has the potential to take a team from bad to good in a hurry.

What follows is a breakdown of Burrow as a prospect as well as what we should expect from him in 2020.

Burrow's 2019 was one of the best collegiate seasons ... ever

It’s difficult to fully appreciate just how special Burrow’s 2019 season wound up being. The man threw for 5,671 yards, 60 TDs and just 6 INTs in 15 games while completing 76.3% of his passes and averaging 10.8 yards per attempt. Burrow ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in completion rate under pressure and on deep balls (20-plus yards) among 242 qualified QBs (PFF).

Per PlayerProfiler, Burrow posted asinine ranks in college QBR (99th percentile) and yards per attempt (97th). The concerns about him are 1) That he transferred from Ohio State and 2) He's "old" at 23. Ultimately, losing a competition to Dwayne Haskins, who went on to break Drew Brees' single-season Big Ten touchdown record, shouldn't be viewed as a massive red flag, particularly when Burrow went on to top Haskins' output in the SEC. The age isn't ideal for a prospect that might be incredibly raw, but that's clearly not the case with Burrow.

LSU's star QB managed to maintain ridiculous efficiency despite consistently testing defenses downfield in 2019. Burrow doesn't possess the most-absurd athleticism or arm strength, but he more than makes up for it with pin-point accuracy and play-making ability.

Clearly he benefited from some pristine play from his teammates, but that's not exactly a concern that we need to worry about from the 2020 Bengals Offense.

Cincy has enough talent around Burrow to put up points  

This unit is surprisingly littered with talented WRs and RBs despite finishing last season as the league's 30th-ranked scoring offense:

  • A.J. Green has gained over 1,000 yards and scored at least six TDs in every season of his career that has consisted of more than 10 games. He's a true alpha No. 1 WR ... when healthy, which he should be after missing the entire 2019 season.
  • Tyler Boyd has cleared the 1,000-yard mark in back-to-back seasons and has proven to be a force out of the slot, where Burrow enabled Justin Jefferson to reach great heights last fall.
  • John Ross posted electric 7-158-2 and 4-112-1 lines to start 2019 before (again) missing time due to injury. He's been the subject of trade rumors, but possesses the sort of game-breaking speed that is hard to part ways with.
  • Auden Tate made a slew of fantastic contested-catch snags throughout the year and finished second on the team in yards per target. Perhaps Burrow's willingness to give his WR's 50/50 balls could keep Tate (6-foot-5 and 228-pounds) on the roster. 
  • Tee Higgins (18.1 yards per reception at Clemson) boasts some field-stretching ability and was drafted with the No. 33 overall pick. The pecking order is up for grabs behind AJG, meaning Higgins could feasibly flirt with triple-digit targets if he quickly earns a spot in three-WR sets.
  • Joe Mixon finished 2018 and 2019 as the PPR RB10 and RB13, respectively, despite operating behind one of the league's worst offensive lines. His receiving ability has never truly been tapped into but make no mistake about it: Mixon is anyone's idea of a true three-down back.
  • Giovani Bernard has caught at least 30 passes in all seven seasons of his career. The long-time scat back continues to be just a bit too good to fully take off the field in favor of Mixon.

The biggest problem facing the entire offense is the performance of the offensive line. The return of 2019 first-round OT Jonah Williams from injury is huge, and adding former Texans and Cowboys G Xavier Su'a-Filo to the group can't hurt. Still, this front needs all the help it can get: the Bengals ranked 26th in adjusted line yards per rush and 21st in adjusted sack rate in 2019. They were one of just eight teams to average fewer than two yards before contact per attempt. There are plenty of holes to solve on the defensive side of the ball as well, but the organization's lack of interest in putting more resources into this group remains a bit worrisome. They're one of just seven teams with fewer than $30 million in 2020 cap dollars devoted to the offensive line.

Add it all together and ...

Burrow is a high-upside QB2 worth targeting

There's a reason why the Bengals were in a position to draft Burrow: they sucked last season. The defense was a train wreck that finished as a bottom-five unit in both pass and run efficiency (Football Outsiders), while the offensive line's aforementioned issues and injuries largely doomed that side of the ball from the start.

And yet, Burrow possesses the type of profile that we've seen result in stud rookie fantasy performers. Year-one fantasy expectations deserve to be high. Only Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson as well as Kyler Murray have posted QB1-fantasy production as a rookie since 2010, and Burrow meets the two-most common criteria of 1) Being a Week 1 starter and 2) Having at least a decent rushing floor (averaged 27 rushing yards per game at LSU). Nobody is going to confuse Burrow with Lamar Jackson anytime soon. Still, a 243-767-12 rushing line in 28 games at LSU is incredibly productive considering sacks count against collegiate rushing yards. He's more than capable of providing 250-300 rushing yards while falling into the end zone a few times, which is more than most starting NFL QBs can say.

Burrow is currently carrying an average draft position as the QB20 in best-ball formats, and QB22 in re-draft leagues. This is a beautiful spot to be targeting him. Nobody is going to draft Burrow with the intention of starting him in one-QB leagues, but he possesses the type of floor (locked-in starter no matter what) and ceiling (just had maybe *the* all-time great college season) to more than warrant a look over similarly-valued QBs in run-first offenses like Ryan Tannehill, Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins.

I've grown more and more found of Burrow's 2020 projection as the offseason has gone on. Currently he's my QB16 behind the likes of Daniel Jones (QB13), Aaron Rodgers (QB14) and Baker Mayfield (QB15). Perhaps Burrow's rookie season will more closely resemble his first year at LSU and be more of a learning experience than anything. Luckily, you can fetch his fantasy services at a price that is essentially assuming he'll finish as a low-end QB2. If last season told us anything, it's that Burrow is fully capable of being a helluva lot more than a middling QB2.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.