Biggest questions facing top 5 QBs at combine

LSU’s Joe Burrow heads to the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week as the favorite to be the No. 1 overall draft pick. But there’s a growing sense in the scouting community three quarterbacks could end up going in the top five — and it’s still too soon to call Burrow a lock to be the first one off the board.

Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert also are on track to go early, provided Tagovailoa’s surgically repaired hip checks out. And the names of two other QBs — Utah State’s Jordan Love and Washington’s Jacob Eason — come up in every conversation about others who have the ability to rise through the pre-draft process and eventually land in Round 1. (The consensus on other big names, such as Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts, is they enter the thrust of the pre-draft process a notch below as potential Day 2 picks.)

The combine marks the first opportunity for NFL teams to spend significant time around the likes of Burrow, Tagovailoa and Eason, and the second around Herbert and Love, who were at the Senior Bowl in January. It won’t be the last time, with pro days, private workouts, “Top 30” visits and more ahead in an evaluation process that’s more extensive for QBs than at any other position.

Teams have all the game tape (even if many coaches haven’t dug into it yet). Area scouts have spoken to everyone they can find (even if they may not have shaken the player’s hand). So what’s left to figure out?

Here’s a look at the big questions facing each QB this week, based on recent conversations with veteran evaluators across the NFL, from decision-makers to area scouts. Players are listed alphabetically.

Joe Burrow, LSU

Can his rapid rise continue at the NFL level? Anytime a player’s numbers spike in one year the way Burrow’s did — from 16 touchdown passes and 2,894 passing yards in 2018 to 60 TDs and 5,671 yards this past season (on his way to a Heisman Trophy and the national championship) — NFL teams want to understand why. “A year ago, the guy probably would’ve gone in the third or fourth round, and this year, all of a sudden, he’s Andrew Luck,” an AFC executive said of Burrow. “And the [2019 LSU team] was very, very, very talented around him.” Of the 11 players LSU played most on offense, another exec said 10 will be NFL players, many of them high draft picks. LSU overhauled its scheme last offseason, ditching a huddle-up, pro-style system in favor of a wide-open, shotgun attack directed by new pass game coordinator Joe Brady, who’s now the Carolina Panthers’ OC. How much of Burrow’s improvement was related to scheme? How much of it was Brady? How much of it was his teammates? Nobody has much doubt about Burrow’s intangibles, leadership and ability to process, given rave reviews from everyone who’s been around him, dating to his stint as a backup at Ohio State before his grad transfer. “For me, it’s just a big-picture thing,” an AFC scout said. “OK, you went from this signaling offense, call it from the sideline and the press box, to the headset cuts off at 15 seconds (in the NFL) and you’ve got mass chaos in front of you — how are you going to handle that?”

How’s his arm? Burrow’s accuracy is a plus. But scouts rate his arm strength as average, and certainly below the likes of Herbert. “He’s going to be third out of those three (top) guys in terms of making true drive throws on the pro throws — the dig, the comeback, the tight-window throws,” an AFC scout said. “But it’s not a detriment to him. It’s not anything that caused you to pause.” Said a college scouting director: “Everybody’s evaluation of him from ’18 — that was part of the evaluation that had him down (in the mid rounds), was just [his arm strength]. And of course, that didn’t change. Burrow’s not a big guy (listed at 6-foot-4, 216 pounds in college). That’s why going to the Senior Bowl or going to the combine and getting compared with guys — it’s not what makes Joe Burrow special.” Burrow declined his Senior Bowl invite to spend time with family; no word yet on whether he’ll throw in Indianapolis or at for his pro day. “Watch Eason, Love, Tua and Herbert throw three balls, then throw [Burrow] on last,” another AFC executive said. “It just looks different. It’s not pretty. But we all know there’s more to his position than that arm. Is he Alex Smith? Or is he gonna ever be better than that?”

Jacob Eason, Washington

Has he grown up? A five-star prospect out of high school, Eason started 12 games as a true freshman at Georgia but ended up transferring after suffering a knee injury in the 2017 opener and losing his job to the less-talented, more dialed-in Fromm. “The thing that’s haunting Eason right now is he was Joe College when he got to Georgia,” an AFC scout said. “It’s out there he was a party guy, kind of punched the clock. He’s the one-year wonder who has talent oozing out of him, but he could’ve used another year.” An NFC scout who spent a lot of time on Eason said he’s matured and off-field activities weren’t a concern at Washington, where he redshirted in 2018 and — after a nearly two-year layoff — threw for 3,132 yards and 23 touchdowns with eight interceptions last fall. He has a likeable personality that will win over NFL people in interviews, which will be critical, since they still have a lot of questions: about instincts, decision-making, work ethic, etc. “My concern is from a mental processing and then from a leadership standpoint,” a college scouting director said. “But talent-wise — you can put his talent up against any of them. He might have the best arm, he’s athletic, he’s big (6-6, 227). It’s just the tape is very up and down. But I think someone is going to fall in love with this guy over the next two months. Someone’s going to see the talent and say, ‘I can fix this guy.’ ”

How good of an athlete is he? Eason won’t shatter any combine records, but he might do better than people think, especially for his size. He’ll do everything in Indy, including show off his arm in the throwing session. “I don’t think Eason’s going to test all that well in terms of running and jumping or anything like that,” an NFC scout said. “But he’s going to throw the s— out of it.” Said another college scouting director: “Herbert’s a big guy with a big arm, and Eason’s bigger and got a better arm. This combine thing should be good for him.”

Justin Herbert, Oregon

Can he put it all together? All the traits scouts look for are there. And Herbert helped himself with a strong performance at the Senior Bowl, where he won MVP honors. “The Senior Bowl is not always an easy place to walk right in and adapt and be functional in a completely new offense with a bunch of new receivers, and I would say he did it as well as anyone in recent memory,” a college scouting director said. “Not that that’s a be-all, end-all, but it’s a pretty good indication that the guy can handle some transition and adjustment.” That’s especially notable for a Eugene, Oregon, native who’d never lived anyplace else before relocating to California for pre-draft training. Herbert is the most experienced QB of this group, having thrown for 95 touchdowns and 10,541 yards in 44 college games (42 starts). He returned to Oregon for his senior year, won the Pac-12 title and ran for three touchdowns, including the 30-yard game winner, in Oregon’s Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. “I rank Herbert first,” an AFC scout said. “He’s bigger (6-6 1/8, 227). He’s stronger. There’s nothing more that kid needs to do.” Some scouts still have questions about Herbert’s instincts and innate playmaking ability, though neither the Ducks’ receivers nor their efforts to establish a power-running game did him many favors. One scouting director said he wished Herbert had made greater strides over the past couple seasons; instead, his development seemed to flatline. “What’s his signature game? The Rose Bowl, where he ran? You just wanted to see him cut loose and go make a play,” an AFC executive said. “Now, they didn’t give him any help schematically. It was a s— offense to watch. That’s where our coaching staffs come in: ‘Is it him? Or is it them?’ He’s got all the physical tools. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s athletic and he’s got a big f—ing cannon arm.” The plan is for Herbert to throw and do everything else at the combine.

How will his personality play in an NFL locker room? Several scouts say they were pleasantly surprised by Herbert’s interactions with them, and teammates, at the Senior Bowl. “Everybody’s just going to knock him: ‘Is he too nice? Is he too nerdy? Is he too introverted?’ All that bulls—. But he’ll be fine,” an NFC scout said. “He’s super smart. He’s tough as s—. He just didn’t have the Joe Burrow confidence that he’s a baller yet. He was a late-blooming dude, underrecruited, Eugene was his home, being a Duck quarterback was his pinnacle. He’s just growing up as a young man. He doesn’t know how good he can be. But the confidence is coming.”

Jordan Love, Utah State

How much football does he know? There were a lot of factors in Love’s dip from a breakout 2018 season (32 touchdowns, six interceptions on an 11-2 Aggies team) to 2019, when he threw 17 INTs. “This guy goes through his third or fourth offensive coordinator, a new head coach, nine offensive starters (leave) — how could that not affect somebody?” a college scouting director said. “He was forced to do too much and he tried to do too much and it hurt him.” Just the volume of turnovers raises questions, though, so Love’s board sessions will be important in meetings. “Everyone is going to drill into him about how much actual football he knows and processing fast and all that stuff,” an NFC scout said. “He was in [an Air Raid] offense his first couple years, so it was pretty simple and he was just playing free and letting it rip. When he actually had to sit down and read coverages and run more complex schemes that he’s going to have run at the next level and do more, he did not capture that this year.” There’s a lot to like with Love — size (6-3 5/8, 223), huge hands (10 5/8), a natural stroke, ability to throw on the move and a calm presence about him. He plans to throw in Indy. “I think Love’s going to be the interesting one,” an NFC executive said. “It’s a really lively arm.”

What was he thinking? Nobody thinks Love is a bad kid or really an off-field risk. But you can bet teams will have questions about Love’s citation, along with two teammates, for marijuana possession on Dec. 14 — days after he’d declared for the NFL draft and days before Utah State’s bowl game — even though the charges were later dismissed. “If he told someone that he smoked weed, they’d be like, ‘OK, whatever,’ ” an AFC executive said. “But putting yourself in that position — after having a down year — it makes you just think like, what the f—?” As a college scouting director put it: “Quarterback is a judgment position. So if his judgment is flawed, you’re in big trouble.”

Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama

How’s the medical report? It’s not just the hip Tagovailoa dislocated Nov. 16 at Mississippi State, ending his junior season. Tagovailoa also has had “tightrope” surgery on both his ankles — the left in December 2018 and the right last October. He also had surgery for a broken index finger on his left (throwing) hand last March and played through a knee injury last October. “It’s all (about) durability,” an AFC scout said. “Durability and just the play style, because obviously, he’s ultra-instinctive, just a gamer. The problem is the injury history.” The combine will provide the first opportunity for NFL doctors to examine Tagovailoa, who won’t be ready to work out in Indy but intends to hold a personal pro day before the draft. So, while all signs are good so far, each team — with its own doctors, and its own level of risk tolerance — will be able to come to its own conclusions about how well Tagovailoa’s hip will hold up, whether there are long-term risks such as arthritis, etc. “If you’re going to bet your job on [drafting him], you better be damn sure that he checks every other box, because there’s a lot of things to nitpick on with this guy — most importantly, the injuries,” an AFC executive said. “He’s a 6-foot quarterback who’s 230 pounds with a (dislocated) hip and it just doesn’t add up.”

How will his personality play in an NFL locker room? One NFC scout compared Tagovailoa’s personality to that of fellow Hawaii native Marcus Mariota: “It’s Type B, nonchalant, he plays the ukulele around the building — just a real laid-back dude.” That’s not a knock against Tagovailoa. Teams just will want to get to know him, as well as learn more about his family, including his father, Galu, who remains heavily involved in his son’s life. “The guy has proven he’s a real leader,” a college scouting director said of Tua. “It’s a little different style, but that’s all legitimate.” Though he won’t work out in Indianapolis, teams also can use meetings to learn more about Tagovailoa as a player. His production under three different coordinators in three years — 87 touchdown passes against just 11 interceptions in 33 college games (24 starts) while throwing to the Crimson Tide’s exceptional receiver group — suggests a high level of adaptability. “(Nick) Saban loves this guy. They love his instincts,” another AFC executive said. “I don’t think [handling pro concepts is] going to be a major issue, but you’ve got to put him through the ringer. You give him whatever your team has as far as testing a guy’s ability to learn and retain and you take him through that.” Tagovailoa has been doing board work in recent weeks with former NFL coach Ken Whisenhunt, who has been impressed.

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