Zac Taylor, the second-year coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, was kind enough to return a call last week. His team drafted quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft, and I told him we were doing a story about expectations for rookie quarterbacks. His first response was basically that he didn’t feel like he had one.
“You’re at the point where, out on the field with him, you don’t even feel like you have a rookie quarterback,” Taylor said of Burrow. “It doesn’t feel that way. You don’t talk about him that way.”
Hopes are high in Cincinnati for an instant impact from the Heisman Trophy-winning, national champion quarterback from LSU. But not all rookie quarterback situations are the same.
There were five quarterbacks drafted in the first two rounds in April, and the range of first-year expectations on them is wide. The Bengals expect theirs to play well right out of the gate. The Packers would rather theirs not play for a couple of years. The Eagles might use theirs in Year 1, but maybe not as a starting quarterback.
Let’s take a look at each of these five situations with the help of people close to them. We begin at the very top.
Pick: No. 1 | College: LSU
In this strangest of all offseasons, coaches haven’t seen their players on the field much. This makes it especially tough for rookies, who need time on task for development purposes. It changes the nature of and criteria for evaluation. Taylor, the 37-year-old former Sean McVay assistant, is entering his second year as a head coach. As you can tell by the fact that he had the first pick in the draft, his first did not go very well.
Enter Burrow, on whose shoulders rest the hopes of Cincinnati fans yearning for their team’s climb to relevance and of Taylor to lead them there. Without much time to see Burrow actually play — no preseason games, no OTAs or minicamps, few padded practices — Taylor draws on other evidence to bolster his confidence.
“What’s great about him is the communication level,” Taylor said. “The way he says things, the confidence, the way he draws guys in and holds their attention. He asks the right questions, and he’s not afraid to say what he thinks. And that’s so important for early development. Probably more than most rookie quarterbacks, he’s comfortable in that role — being an extension of the coaching staff. You can see, the way he talks to guys on the field, in the huddle, that he knows that’s his role and he embraces it.”
That’s a McVay-ism — the idea of the quarterback as an “extension of the coaching staff.” It requires the quarterback to be an effective two-way communicator — not just someone who can relay the coaching staff’s message to the players on the field, but one who also can relay to the coaching staff why something might work and why it might not. Burrow, says Taylor, has not shied away from the latter.
The other thing that makes Taylor believe this can work right away is the group around Burrow. The Bengals return a wide receiver corps that got strong 2019 performances from Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate and John Ross. They drafted Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins with the first pick of the second round. They just extended workhorse running back Joe Mixon. And they’re getting back star wideout A.J. Green, who missed all of last season with an injury.
“It’s like we got a No. 1 receiver in free agency,” Taylor said. “I hadn’t even seen him practice until this fall.”
Like any rookie, Burrow will have things to work on. Taylor said the biggest is learning about the speed of an NFL pass rush and how throws he might have been able to make while extending the play with his legs in college may not be makeable at this level. But those communication and listening skills are helpful there too, and the Bengals’ staff has reason to believe Burrow will learn his lessons quickly.
“Obviously, there are going to be a few wrinkles from defenses every week, and he’s going to have to work to react to what he sees and make changes as we go along,” Taylor said. “But he’s capable. We expect him to hit the ground running and to play well.”
Pick: No. 5 | College: Alabama
A year ago, before Burrow-mania came frothing up out of Baton Rouge and consumed college football, Tagovailoa was the favorite to be the first pick in the 2020 NFL draft. A severe hip injury cut short his final season at Alabama and raised questions about his future durability, but Miami found the answers to those questions satisfactorily enough to pick him at No. 5.
He will not, however, be the Dolphins’ starting quarterback in Week 1, and they’re not giving any indication of when he will be. Ryan Fitzpatrick led a Miami team many predicted could go winless to respectability in the second half of 2019, and the 37-year-old will continue as Miami’s starter while Tagovailoa learns and develops.
“Tua’s done a great job, coming into the NFL, learning a new playbook and new defenses and things like that in a short period of time,” Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki told me. “For a rookie, your head is always going to be spinning. But with him, you haven’t been able to tell that his head is spinning. He carries himself like somebody who’s been there before and competed at a high level, which he has.”
Ryan Clark asserts that Tua Tagovailoa is the future at the quarterback position in Miami and the Dolphins should develop a package for him so he can get meaningful reps.
Dolphins players are all-in on starting the season with Fitzpatrick, who they say has been a great asset for Tagovailoa even as he has functioned as one of the leaders on the team that will actually take the field Sunday. Still, the No. 5 pick is the quarterback of the future. When exactly that future starts is not something the Dolphins are talking about right now. They will try to win games with Fitzpatrick and a roster they believe they improved in free agency, and when the time is right and they deem Tagovailoa sufficiently prepared, he will take over. Could be this season, could be next.
Meanwhile, he has so far shown himself to be healthy and a quick learner. And he and Fitzpatrick are the only quarterbacks on the roster, so if something happens to Fitzpatrick, Tagovailoa would have to play.
“He throws a good ball, and he’s got natural leadership, and I think that’s something you can really see as soon as you meet him,” Gesicki said. “He’s a guy who knows what it’s like to lead.”
Pick: No. 6 | College: Oregon
Herbert will likely be active on game days as well. But like Tagovailoa, he is not going to open the season as his team’s starter. That honor goes to Tyrod Taylor, who just two years ago began the season as the starter in Cleveland only to lose the job three games in to No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. Yes, that situation could repeat itself in L.A., but coach Anthony Lynn is a fan of Taylor’s from their time together in Buffalo, and the team seems to be looking at Herbert as something of a project right now.
“He needs to get better at communication, protection calls, all the stuff he didn’t do in college because he wasn’t asked to do it in college,” Lynn said. “Where’s the ball going to go? How fast do I have to get rid of it? You can’t coach experience. What you can do is get him a lot of reps and put him in situations where he’s going to fail, and I believe that increases the learning curve.”
Lynn said the Chargers are using a 20-second play clock in practice when Herbert is taking his reps, as opposed to the usual 40-second play clock, because they want him to be thinking, moving and processing faster.
“We’re trying to make things somewhat tough on him, so when the games come around — not that the game’s going to be easy — but it won’t be as fast,” Lynn said. “That’s what it’s about — whatever you can do to slow the game down for him.”
Herbert’s physical traits were a big draw for the Chargers. He’s 6-foot-6 and mobile, a rare combination. In the first year post-Philip Rivers, Lynn wants an offense built around a mobile quarterback, which is why Taylor fits. Herbert’s mobility, Lynn said, means they wouldn’t have to change much about the offense whenever they do end up making the move to Herbert — whether it’s during a game should something happen to Taylor, or at some point down the road when it’s time to turn over the reins to him.
Lynn said his two quarterbacks are alike in other ways, too.
“Tyrod and Justin have similar personalities,” Lynn said. “Justin’s a little bit of an introvert. That was kind of a knock on him coming out, and introverts, they get tagged with that a lot. People say they aren’t leaders. I know. My son is an introvert. So I know what they’re about and where they’re coming from. What matters to me is how people respond to him. I watch the way his teammates respond to him, and I love the way this team has responded to him so far.
The Chargers’ first-year expectations for Herbert are, basically, for him to get better at everything. Lynn is comfortable going with Taylor, and their ideal situation would be Taylor starting every game and leading them to the Super Bowl while Herbert gets his seasoning in the background.
“My expectation for him is to get better every single day, and I think he has,” Lynn said. “He’s a tireless worker, very sharp, tremendous skill set, and he just needs to keep working and improving in any way he can. He hasn’t had a perfect day of practice yet, and I don’t expect him to and I don’t want him to. I want him to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and get better. And if the time comes when we need him, I believe he’ll be ready.”
Pick: No. 26 | College: Utah State
The pick that shook up the first round was the Packers’ selection of Love even though they have one the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Aaron Rodgers, under contract for four more years. Financially, the Packers are going to have a tough time getting out of Rodgers’ contract until after the 2021 season. They could theoretically trade him after this season, but that would require either a down year from Rodgers, unexpectedly rapid development from Love or both.
No, Love is really a project — even more so than Herbert. Green Bay kept 2019 backup Tim Boyle, mainly because it isn’t ready to put Love in a game should something happen to Rodgers. In an offseason in which players haven’t been able to spend nearly enough time on the field, Love is a player who needs a lot more work.
“Our guy, it’s a different situation, what he’s going into,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think it’s great for him. He’s got one of the best ever to sit behind and observe how he goes about his business. And I can’t say enough about how awesome Aaron and Tim have been with Jordan in terms of the interactions they have. You don’t necessarily know what to expect when new guys come in, but it’s been awesome to see the way they’ve taken him under their wing.”
LaFleur told a story about a film session the team had after a scrimmage. They were reviewing a play in which Love was at quarterback in the red zone, and Rodgers took over the meeting.
“We were in the high part of the red zone, and you try to teach them how much faster stuff happens down there,” LaFleur said. “Jordan ended up throwing the ball a little bit late for the room we had. Would’ve been fine out in the middle of the field, but not in the red zone. Aaron stood up, unsolicited, and just broke everything down for him. ‘What are you seeing here pre-snap? If the ‘backer on your left blitzes, where are you going with this ball?’ Talking to him about the timing and how your mechanics and your footwork have to change when you’re down there because you don’t have time to cross over. It was just really cool to see Aaron take that on himself when we didn’t ask him to, and I think that speaks to how he sees his role with regard to Jordan.”
Rodgers has spoken publicly about how he wasn’t thrilled with the team selecting a quarterback in the first round, and his disappointment over what it means for his chances to finish his career in Green Bay. But Love poses no threat to Rodgers this season. At this point, he’s just trying to get some practice reps.
“I don’t know how anybody could expect anything, because he’s not coming into a situation where he’s getting the majority of the reps,” LaFleur said. “Aaron’s getting the reps with the ones, and [Love] and Tim are kind of splitting up the twos. He’s definitely into it, and he’s shown improvement on a daily basis, and I think his footwork and his mechanics have come a long way, and that’s the foundation for quarterback play. I think you’ve just got to show consistent improvement whether you’re getting the reps or not. The challenge is, when you get into the season, you’re not getting the reps. So how do you stay into it? You’ve got a lot of time you’re going to have to put in after practice to get that muscle memory and make sure your mechanics stay sharp.”
Louis Riddick provides perspective on Aaron Rodgers saying he envisioned playing in Green Bay for life before the Packers selected Jordan Love in the draft.
Love is the kind of player who suffers from the lack of preseason games, because it robs his team a chance to evaluate his progress. But what LaFleur saw of Love at Utah State and during the pre-draft process convinced him he was the right guy to quarterback the Packers down the road.
“He’s a really good athlete,” LaFleur said. “He’s able to get out on the edge and create off-schedule, and that’s something that can make it hard for the defense to defend against. He’s a natural thrower. I thought he showed fearlessness on tape, the ability to stand in there and maintain poise and confidence when things were falling apart around him. That’s a prerequisite for playing in this league. You’ve got to have that ability where you’re not going to flinch under pressure. Demeanor-wise, he’s really even keel, which is good. He’s pretty intelligent. His recall of what he did at Utah State really stood out when we had him on a Zoom interview. I thought he handled himself well in the interview. And he took accountability. Not everything we showed him was great. We gave him a lot of ‘What happened here?’ and he owned it every time it was a bad play.”
Pick: No. 53 | College: Oklahoma
Hurts is another quarterback surprisingly drafted into a situation in which a franchise quarterback is already in place. Carson Wentz is under contract in Philadelphia for five more years, and the structure of his contract means the Eagles are effectively locked into him for at least three of those. Using a second-round pick on a quarterback was a surprise move.
There have been indications that the Eagles plan to use Hurts in specific packages that would take advantage of his throwing and running abilities — maybe some short-yardage and goal-line stuff that coach Doug Pederson has drawn up for a quarterback with unique athleticism. We’ll find out.
Hurts is a quarterback, first and foremost, though, and whatever the Eagles might ask him to do in 2020, his long-term focus is on developing as an NFL quarterback. He worked this offseason with Quincy Avery, whose quarterback tutees famously include Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Washington’s Dwayne Haskins and others. Avery said his conversations with Hurts this summer have been about how to get and stay ready in case something happens to Wentz, who has seen two of his four professional seasons so far cut short due to injury.
“What we’ve been talking about is just really being able to develop in the offense and understanding what they want you to do,” Avery said. “During camp, with the limited reps you get, just dive all the way in and get prepared. Just in practice, standing behind the pocket, going through the rep in your head along with the guy who’s out there taking it. Let’s try and steal every rep available even if it’s not the rep I’m getting. Because it’s really pre-snap that’s the real tricky part. Not so much being able to throw the football, but understanding what you have to do pre-snap in terms of identifying what the defense is trying to do to you.”
Hurts’ path to the NFL was unconventional — starter at Alabama, lost the job to Tagovailoa during a national championship game, won the SEC championship in relief the following year when Tagovailoa got hurt, transferred to Oklahoma, put up big numbers under Lincoln Riley, got picked in the second round — and people close to him believe those ups and downs conditioned him mentally in a way many star quarterbacks aren’t.
“There aren’t many second-round draft picks that will be able to go in and win you a game,” Avery said. “Jalen Hurts is a guy like that. So if he can just do everything he can to stay ready, and if he gets in there and he does win a game or two, that only sets him on a path for whatever comes in the future, whether it’s becoming the starter or even setting himself up as a trade chip down the road.”