Setting expectations for Joe Burrow's rookie season based on Dak Prescott, Baker Mayfield

By Solomon Wilcots

After a 2019 season when he earned the highest PFF passing grade ever awarded to a college football playerJoe Burrow is now due for an encore.

No rookie quarterback is immune from growing pains, so setting realistic expectations will be an essential first step for Burrow and his early development in Cincinnati. Here, we look at some of the most recent and productive rookie performances in order to develop a reasonable picture of what we can expect from Burrow.

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The most stable metrics for measuring quarterback performance include performance from a clean pocket, performance on non-play-action dropbacks, performance on first- and second-down plays and performance on passes targeted beyond the sticks.

Joe Burrow put together one of the best college seasons of all time while showing projectable skills that bode well for his future in an NFL offense. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Burrow put together one of the best college seasons of all time while showing projectable skills that bode well for his future in an NFL offense. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Andrew Luck (2012)

Like Burrow, Andrew Luck was drafted with the first overall pick, and expectations could not have been any higher during his rookie season in 2012. Even though he led the Indianapolis Colts to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as their starting quarterback, Luck graded below expectations early in his career.

Andrew Luck’s PFF passing grade and rank in several stable aspects of QB play

(2012, ranks among QBs with 300-plus pass attempts)

Passing grade from a clean pocket, 71.3, 22nd of 31

Passing grade on throws from inside the pocket, 65.5, 19th of 28

Passing grade on first and second down, 56.5, 26th of 32

Passing grade on non-play-action dropbacks, 56.9, 29th of 33

Passing grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks, 70.0, 27th of 34

Luck’s volatile style got him into trouble early. He ended his rookie season with a 66.7 overall grade, 22nd among 39 qualifying passers, while his 5.9 percent turnover-worthy play rate ranked 37th among that same group.

The good news for Bengals fans is that Burrow’s final college season surpassed Luck’s in many critical areas, which should make for a smoother transition. Luck’s 48.9 percent accuracy rate on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield in 2011 pales in comparison to Burrow’s 2019 mark of 61.6 percent, while Luck’s final-season turnover-worthy play rate of 2.9 percent was almost a full percentage point higher than Burrow’s (2 percent).

Burrow also graded higher than Luck on passes from a clean pocket (94.8 vs. 91), passes from inside the pocket (93.7 vs. 90), passes on early downs (94.7 vs. 92.2), non-play-action passes (92.3 vs. 90.1) and passes targeted at or beyond the first-down marker (97.9 vs. 93.1).

Even if Burrow gets off to a rocky start in the Queen City, Luck’s career trajectory is proof that talented players can always overcome rough stretches.

Dak Prescott (2016)

As only a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, Dak Prescott quickly exceeded expectations taking over for Tony Romo in Dallas. Prescott was unspectacular, but he was also very methodical while operating the offense, protecting the football and limiting negative plays. Prescott’s turnover-worthy play rate of 2.6 percent ranked ninth among 39 qualifying quarterbacks that year, and it was a driving force behind his ability to manage games and perform effectively within his offense.

Prescott’s rookie season proved that replacing big plays with ball-controlled passing can lead to productive play. He finished the regular season with an eighth-ranked 81.5 overall grade, and he led the Cowboys’ offense to a third-place finish in EPA per pass play (0.204), beating the likes of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers (0.188, fourth) and Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints (0.154, sixth).

Dak Prescott exceeded expectations as a rookie in 2016. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Dak Prescott exceeded expectations as a rookie in 2016. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Baker Mayfield (2018)

As the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield inherited a suboptimal environment. After becoming the starter in Week 4 of his rookie campaign, Mayfield finished with an 11th-ranked 83.2 overall grade and unleashed 40 big-time throws, the third most among quarterbacks.

Despite the midseason coaching change, Mayfield concluded his rookie season ranked in the top half of the league in the most critical areas of QB play. His 86.1 passing grade from a clean pocket ranked 12th among qualifying passers, his 79.1 in-pocket passing grade ranked 11th, his 81 grade on early downs ranked 11th and his 76.1 passing grade on non-play-action attempts ranked ninth. 

PFF’s highest-graded rookie QBs since 2006 (regular season only, min. 250 dropbacks)

1. Russell Wilson, Seahawks, 2012, 89.7

2. Robert Griffin III, Washington, 2012, 83.7

3. Baker Mayfield, Browns, 2018, 83.2

4. Dak Prescott, Cowboys, 2016, 81.5

5. Matt Ryan, Falcons, 2008, 80.6

Burrow should hope to avoid the early dysfunction that can quickly engulf a rookie quarterback, but Mayfield’s first year also serves as a good example that a talented quarterback has the ability to lift his team beyond such dysfunction.

Before Kyler Murray and Burrow came along, Mayfield was the highest-graded signal-caller of the PFF college era. He earned elite grades from a clean pocket (95.6), on early downs (96.4), from the pocket (93.9), on non-play-action (89) and on throws targeted beyond the line to gain (96.7) — all of which are incredibly similar to Burrow’s 2019 grades.

Mayfield finished the 2018 season with the third-highest grade that we’ve ever given to a rookie quarterback, so it stands to reason that Burrow can challenge that standing in 2020.

What’s in store for Burrow in 2020?

Burrow inherits an offense that was deficient in many areas a season ago.

The most glaring weakness was the offensive line, which finished 27th in the league in pass-blocking grade (63.7) after allowing 215 pressures, the seventh most among teams. The shortcomings up front also extended to the running game, as the line had the 31st-ranked 46.9 team run-blocking grade. So, even with two talented running backs in Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard, the Cincinnati ground attack could managed only a 20th-ranked rushing grade (72.4) and a 22nd-ranked first down/touchdown percentage (21.9 percent).

Because of injuries, the offense was also forced to play the entire season without first-round offensive tackle Jonah Williams and superstar receiver A.J. Green, so the return of both of these players, along with Burrow’s arrival, should immediately upgrade this passing attack. Last season, the Bengals’ wide receivers and tight ends combined for a mid-level 5.11 yards per route run, ranking 18th league-wide. In 2020, Burrow will have an improved receiving corps with the veteran Green, Tyler Boyd and first-round rookie Tee Higgins. 

Burrow will now be looking to lift the Bengals’ offense that struggled in several key aspects of the passing game last year on its way to a 30th-ranked team passing grade of 57.5.

Cincinnati Bengals: PFF passing game grades in 2019

Passing grade from a clean pocket, 65.8, 32nd of 32

Passing grade on throws from inside the pocket, 60, 29th of 32

Passing grade on first and second down, 56.8, 29th of 32

Passing grade on non-play-action dropbacks, 53, 30th of 32

Passing grade on passes targeted beyond the sticks, 66.5, 29th of 32

To reach the lofty expectations surrounding him, Burrow will need to see an improvement in every area of the Bengals’ offense and provide leadership that inspires the increase in production.

Quarterback evaluation is never a slam dunk, but Burrow put together one of the best college seasons of all time while showing projectable NFL skills along the way. He has the physical tools and the professional acuity to function as an NFL quarterback, and his domination in every phase of the game bodes well for his future in an NFL offense.

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