LSU's Joe Burrow will be the first selection in the NFL Draft on Thursday night. If the Cincinnati Bengals don't take him, it will prove to be one of the biggest surprises in draft history. The selection has become such a foregone conclusion that it's easy to forget, at this time last year, Burrow was not expected to be the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Teams weren't tanking for Burrow. They were "Tanking for Tua."
Then the 2019 season happened, and while Burrow took the world by storm in leading LSU to a national title, Tua Tagovailoa continued playing the same outstanding football he'd played his entire career, but he also suffered a severe hip injury that ended his season. That injury, along with previous injuries to both his ankles, has raised the dreaded red flags about his draft stock. Teams are worried about his health, which leads to concerns whether he can be relied upon to be a franchise QB.
Make no mistake about it, if Tua went through his college career without missing any time due to injury, he'd be the No. 1 pick in this draft. It's a belief backed up by my latest annual rankings, where Tagovailoa earned the highest score given to any college QB I've ranked since I began doing this in 2012. He didn't just squeak by, either. Tua's score blew away the previous record, which had been held by Stanford's Andrew Luck.
Tagovailoa posted a score 13.71 percent better than the 2020 class average, which is a full 3.96 points more than Luck's 9.75 percent above average score in 2012. The reason I compare each QB's score to the average score in his draft class is because the average score of every QB class has gone up in each season I've done this, evidenced in the chart below.
This is due primarily to how much the college football landscape has changed in just this past decade offensively. Passing attacks are more refined and efficient, which leads to better scores for QBs. So to get a better understanding of how good a QB has been when comparing him to previous classes, I compare him to the class he was drafted in to "level" the playing field.
Here are the top 20 QB scores of all time. "All time" meaning since 2012.
Robert Griffin III
To determine these scores, I break down each QB's (I use the list of QB prospects on NFL.com's draft page) performances at the college level in three separate areas: against top 50 SP+ defenses, on third-and-long (seven yards+) and in the red zone. These are the situations I believe are more "translatable" to what a QB will face in the NFL regularly. I then plug the numbers into a formula I've created and, voila, I get the scores.
These scores are far from perfect. The most glaring weakness is that I only use a player's passing stats. That's why somebody like Lamar Jackson didn't perform nearly as well, finishing with a score of -2.92 percent in his draft class. So, you don't get a complete picture of the player. These ratings are looking at each QB as a passer, not a complete player. The fact of the matter is that mobility is a terrific trait to have, but the most significant factor in how good a QB can be will always be his ability to throw the ball. Another problem is that some QBs don't face a lot of top-50 defenses, which affects the sample size; for example, Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa play a top-50 defense seemingly every week, but then there are prospects like Jordan Love who might face two or three a season.
As for how accurate these numbers are at predicting NFL success, it's too early to tell on a lot of these players. Still, if I have any major takeaway from the first eight seasons doing this, it's that while the top can be a little hit-or-miss at times, the players with low scores seldom do well. The only player with a negative score to stand out in the NFL to this point would be Lamar Jackson, though the jury is still out on guys like Josh Allen (-1.65), Daniel Jones (-3.86), and Drew Lock (-5.37).
Here is how the 2020 class fared in its entirety.
|Rank||Quarterback||School||Fornelli Rating||2019 Stats|
2,840 yards, 33 TD, 3 INT
2,860 yards, 24 TD, 5 INT
2,714 yards, 28 TD, 3 INT
3,471 yards, 32 TD, 6 INT
3,851 yards, 32 TD, 8 INT
2,951 yards, 16 TD, 7 INT
5,671 yards, 60 TD, 6 INT
5,579 yards, 48 TD, 16 INT
4,135 yards, 33 TD, 14 INT
3,092 yards, 19 TD, 4 INT
3,132 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT
3,088 yards, 29 TD, 9 INT
1,954 yards, 14 TD, 11 INT
3,402 yards, 20 TD, 17 INT
2,215 yards, 15 TD, 6 INT
3,061 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT
San Jose St.
3,923 yards, 22 TD, 8 INT
3,079 yards, 17 TD, 13 INT
2,808 yards, 17 TD, 10 INT
2,560 yards, 14 TD, 5 INT
2,977 yards, 18 TD, 5 INT
I went into this exercise knowing full-well that Tagovailoa would post a strong score and would likely emerge as the top score in this class. What I wasn't expecting, however, was such thorough domination. The injury concerns here are legitimate, and I empathize with any general manager who is scared to draft him because of it. When you're the GM of an NFL team and you draft a QB early, unless you've got a long track record of success, you're essentially tying yourself to that player. If he succeeds, you're all good. If he doesn't, you'll be looking for a new job soon enough.
But, man, there is no QB in this class with a higher ceiling than Tagovailoa. While he had the benefit of being surrounded by a lot of outstanding talent at Alabama, plenty of other QBs have been on talented teams and didn't post results like Tua. Of all the QBs in this class, I'd say he has the best chance at being a Patrick Mahomes-like game-changer for a franchise.
What happened to Joe Burrow?
I also understand why Burrow will be the No. 1 pick in the draft. His 2019 season was not just special, but genuinely awe-inspiring at times. The problem for Burrow in this rating system is that his first three seasons as a college QB count in the final standings. Here's a look at Burrow's basic passing stats in his first three seasons compared to his final season at LSU.
|Burrow||Completion %||Yards||Yards per Attempt||TD%||INT%|
He's a guy who had everything "click" during his senior season. While it's simple to say that Burrow finally found himself in an offense that tapped into his abilities, it's unfair to pretend he didn't improve himself.
That does happen with players, you know! They can improve! Burrow did just that last season, and while I believe Tagovailoa has the higher ceiling as an NFL QB, Burrow has the far higher floor. Also, it's important to point out that while Burrow finished seventh overall, he's 1.68 points behind Jake Fromm in second place. For context: Burrow's score is 1.36 points better than the QB directly below him, Washington State's Anthony Gordon.
While Burrow doesn't have the overall arm strength of Tagovailoa, he has more than enough skill to be a better-than-average starting NFL QB for a decade. Those are hard to find. Trust me, I know ... I've been a Chicago Bears fan my entire life.
Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts
It's funny how people view both of these players heading into the draft when you look at how their careers stack up in college. Hurts, who spent the majority of his career at Alabama before finishing at Oklahoma, finishes 0.60 points behind Herbert. Yet, even though Hurts faced tougher competition throughout his career, he's seen as a second or third-day guy to develop. Herbert is likely to be taken in the first round, if not the top five overall.
Truthfully, they're both developmental guys,. The difference is Justin Herbert is 6-foot-6 with a big arm while Hurts is 6-foot-1, and NFL teams love big guys with big arms. Always have, always will.
As passers, Hurts performed a little better than Herbert in third-and-long situations, while Herbert was slightly better in the red zone. Both have high ceilings but low floors as well. I'd be interested in seeing how teams might view Hurts were he a few inches taller, kind of like this next guy ...
Jordan Love is the new Josh Allen
Jordan Love is tall, he's athletic, he has a big arm, he played in the Mountain West and anybody who wants to ignore some alarming results on the field can just blame his teammates. Seriously, that's long been one of my favorite things about teams and analysts trying to justify their feelings for quarterbacks they like.
How often in your life have you heard somebody say something to the effect of "he makes everybody around him better" when discussing the great QBs? All the time, right? Well, then if great QBs make everybody around them better, why is it OK to say that some QBs struggled because the players around them weren't good enough?
Now, none of this is to say that Love can't be a good NFL QB. I think he can develop into one, but there's a lot of work to be done. Sure, Love didn't have the greatest cast around him in 2019, but it's not like Utah State was playing great teams every week, either.
Opinions on Love are based on what people believe he can be, not what he is. Just like they were with Josh Allen. There's nothing wrong with this approach. Like I said about Burrow earlier, guys can improve. Still, I'm not sure I'd want to be using an early pick on Love. His success in the NFL will depend a lot on where he ends up and whether the team that drafts him provides the environment and time for him to continue to grow and reach his potential.
If I were ranking the QBs in the 2020 NFL Draft based on just my eyes and what I believe they can be, I would have Tua at the top of my board, followed by Burrow. After that, things get a lot more complicated. Those two are the two guys I'm confident will be good NFL players.
I have serious questions about the rest.
That said, I would have Jalen Hurts at No. 3, ahead of Herbert and Love, but just barely. The reason is simply that I believe Hurts has the higher ceiling. He's not ready to start right away in the NFL, but if he were to end up with the right team that could best utilize what he brings to the table, I think Hurts has a chance to be special. He also has the intangibles and work ethic needed to improve and reach that potential.
None of this is to say Herbert and Love don't, it's just that for every eye-popping "wow" play I've seen Herbert make at Oregon, I've seen three or four eye-popping "what are you doing!?" plays. Love's struggles against the better teams in college -- watch him against LSU last year -- provide plenty of concerns for him, as well.
As for the rest of the board, my ratings made me feel better about my thoughts on Georgia's Jake Fromm. Fromm has deficiencies that should not be overlooked, but I think he has a good shot at being a low-end starter in the NFL or a high-end backup. It's not the career kids dream of growing up, but it's still a useful commodity for an NFL team to have.
Finally, if there is a QB in this class that I'd want to take a late-round flier on to develop and see if I can get something unexpected out of, it's Utah's Tyler Huntley. He took significant steps forward in 2019, and he may be just scratching the surface of what he could develop into at the next level.