The trend in the NFL over the last decade has been toward mobile quarterbacks. One thing hasn’t changed, though: the most important traits a championship quarterback must possess are those that enable him to play at a consistently high level from the pocket. Joe Burrow has those traits.
Burrow is a timing and rhythm passer. He gets the ball out within the framework of the play, as you can see below on his first career touchdown pass:
That ball was thrown into the boundary against Cover-2 where there really wasn’t a lot of room. Burrow was only able to connect because he got the ball out on time.
Burrow also has very good anticipation skills. This is a critical trait for any NFL quarterback to have. For Burrow, it’s especially important. He currently plays on a team that can’t protect (hopefully they address that this offseason). His receivers also don’t consistently create a ton of separation. The ability to anticipate turns tiny windows into open receivers and prevents the pass rush from getting to him.
The below 3rd-and-11 against a very good Ravens Defense is a great example.
At the point where Burrow had just started his motion, his receiver still hadn’t even gotten into his break.
Anticipation made all the difference against what was tight coverage here. It takes the ability to quickly process and respond to information to make that throw. Not all NFL quarterbacks possess this ability. Burrow does.
You could also see that Burrow did not have a ton of room to comfortably deliver the ball there. He wasn’t phased, though. Instead, he stood in the pocket like a poised 10-year veteran and fired a perfect strike. He did this throughout his rookie season. Burrow plays with a high level of poise and calmness in the pocket, even with bodies around him. On the below completion against the Eagles in Week 3, Burrow was throwing out of space no bigger than a phone booth. He still was able to make an accurate downfield pass.
What was especially impressive about this throw was that it took place in the 4th quarter of a game where he had been under constant duress. The Eagles finished with 8 sacks, yet the relentless pressure didn’t make Burrow play fast. That’s a trait that isn’t easily taught. History has shown that by the time a quarterback gets to the NFL, he either has the ability to be impervious to pressure or he doesn’t. Burrow clearly has it.
I’ve said many times that the attribute most important to Tom Brady’s success has been his pocket movement – his subtle ability to avoid pressure and extend plays in the pocket. It is this type of mobility that is more important for a quarterback than any other kind of mobility. It’s something that Burrow possesses as well, as you can see below.
Subtle movement to avoid the rush without losing his throwing base, all while maintaining a downfield focus, made this completion possible.
I don’t want to completely downplay how effective and important the ability to make plays outside of the pocket can be. However, to be a consistent quarterback, those plays have to come as an add-on. They have to be a last resort after the design of the play hasn’t worked or when the protection has broken down. Burrow is clearly comfortable making throws outside the pocket, and he has an evasiveness to his game that got him out of more than a few dangerous situations last season, as you can see here.
So where are there concerns about Burrow? The obvious one is how he’ll bounce back from his knee injury. The hope is he’ll return to full strength quickly, trust his knee, and be able to pick up where he left off in 2020. That said, it can take a little time for quarterbacks to get back to pre-knee-injury performance levels, even if they are predominantly pocket passers (See Carson Palmer 2006, Tom Brady 2009, Carson Wentz 2018). Hopefully, Burrow is able to return to form immediately and his pocket mobility isn’t too compromised.
The other main concern about Burrow is his arm strength. I wouldn’t call it a weakness. He can certainly make all the necessary NFL-level throws. For the most part, though, this needs to happen within the framework of the play. He isn’t going to make many miraculous throws off his back foot like Patrick Mahomes. He’ll need to learn to eat the ball on plays like the one shown below.
That ball hung in the air just a bit, didn’t it? Don’t worry, Bengals fans. Brady and Peyton Manning couldn’t make that throw either. In fact, I don’t remember either of them making many back-foot throws throughout their careers. A cannon for an arm is not a prerequisite for playing the quarterback position at the highest level. The skills described above are.
Joe Burrow has all of the necessary traits to be a great quarterback in the NFL. He is the foundation for building a championship team. It’s now up to the Bengals to start putting pieces in front of him and around him so he can develop into the quarterback he should be.