Although he went No. 1 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, Joe Burrow still entered the league as an imperfect prospect. Sure, he checked off more boxes than just about every other player in his draft class. But even the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner joined the Cincinnati Bengals with the need to improve in a few areas.
Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, Burrow has accomplished an important goal that should set him up for success for years to come. And if the talented quarterback stays healthy and takes his game to another level, the Bengals could challenge for a playoff spot sooner than anticipated.
Joe Burrow experienced both highs and lows during his first year with the Bengals
Before the 2019 college football season, nobody mentioned Burrow as a potential top draft pick. Widely viewed as a late-round prospect, he forced NFL scouts and general managers to abandon any preconceived notions about his future in pro football. Burrow looked like a completely different player operating Joe Brady’s spread-oriented scheme. By demonstrating excellent pocket presence, good decision-making skills, pinpoint accuracy, and impressive maturity and leadership qualities, he proved himself worthy of going No. 1 overall.
By landing with the Bengals, Burrow became the new face of a franchise in desperate need of a bonafide star. And it didn’t take long for the talented signal-caller to show why Cincinnati finally pulled the plug on Andy Dalton.
Burrow surpassed 300 passing yards in three of his first four games as a Bengal, and he looked like a rock-solid candidate to earn NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. However, he had shaky performances against the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, and Pittsburgh Steelers that included a total of one passing touchdown. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, Burrow tore his ACL against the Washington Football Team in Week 11.
The former LSU star finished his rookie year with 2,688 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, and a 65.3% completion rate. He also totaled 142 yards and three touchdowns as a runner. Burrow definitely made the offense better, but he failed to find much success in one critical area as a passer. And that’s exactly why he spent the offseason working to fix a flaw in his game.
Burrow accomplished a career-altering goal this offseason that will make him even more dangerous
The Bengals drafted Burrow partly because of his high character and strong work ethic. So after struggling to hit deep throws as a rookie (he completed 9-of-46 attempts of 20-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats), it shouldn’t be a surprise that the young quarterback dedicated the last few months to making sure that won’t happen again. And based on the latest update from Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, it’s clear Burrow accomplished his offseason goal of becoming a more explosive thrower.
“He’s had a goal in mind of how he wanted to change his throwing motion and his mechanics — I shouldn’t say motion. But some of his footwork and stance and how he was going to some more velocity on the ball and all those things,” Callahan said during his Wednesday press conference. “And I think he’s done that. I have noticed it. He’s throwing the ball with a little more velocity. It’s allowing him to maybe hang onto the ball an extra split second and be able to fit into a window a little bit later than he did a year ago. I think all those things are a positive.”
Better arm strength should give Burrow the ability to make an even bigger impact moving forward. He already has the mental makeup to live up to the “franchise quarterback” label, and any strides he makes physically will only put him in a better position to carve up defenses. With improved footwork, hip strength, and mechanics, it’s scary to think how much better Burrow will be in his second season, let alone a few years from now.
Can the young quarterback lead the Bengals to their first playoff birth since 2015?
As long as Burrow doesn’t experience any setbacks with his surgically repaired knee, the Bengals have a chance to put up some big point totals this season. In fact, don’t be shocked if Cincinnati takes a substantial leap forward on that side of the ball.
Besides getting Burrow back, the Bengals also have another key player returning from a major injury: Jonah Williams. The 2019 first-round pick didn’t play a single snap as a rookie because of a shoulder problem, and he finished the 2020 season on injured reserve due to a knee injury. Williams must stay healthy and lock down the left tackle position in order for the offense to live up to its potential. Luckily for the Bengals, he has the talent to make that happen.
While the offensive line remains a work in progress, the Bengals should feel confident about their other projected starters. Ja’Marr Chase should excel as Burrow’s new No. 1 target. After all, he already showed tremendous chemistry with him at LSU. Plus, veteran Tyler Boyd and 2020 second-round pick Tee Higgins bring different skills to the mix at receiver. Meanwhile, Joe Mixon has the talent to inflict major damage as a runner and as a pass-catcher.
The Burrow-led Bengals possess the upside to finish as a top-10 scoring offense. But will that be enough to take the team back to the playoffs? Cincinnati’s defense features some intriguing players, but the unit lacks blue-chip talent. It will take some magic from Burrow and the offense (on a consistent basis) for the Bengals to make up for their defensive deficiencies.
Based on his history, though, it wouldn’t be smart to bet against him.