The name of the game in player evaluation is identifying traits and skills that will translate to the pros; in this case, the NFL. When we watch quarterbacks, we talk about arm strength, field vision, pocket management and, of course, accuracy.
Those skills translate into prototypes: toolsy quarterbacks with big arms and fearless throws, point-guard passers with pop-gun arms or scramble-first QBs who only win outside of structure. And those prototypes fit into scheme fits, where offensive systems can take imperfect quarterbacks and maximize their strengths, hide their deficiencies and generate success.
We've talked about how good Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, Jordan Love and Jacob Eason are. Now, we have to reorient the conversation, not just on what they do well, but how what they do well fits into what they'll be asked to do at the next level.
This will be the third examination of team fits for these top quarterbacks using the information offered by The Draft Network’s Contextualized Quarterbacking portfolios. Here, we'll look at how Joe Burrow fits with his new team, the Bengals.
Examining The Scheme
Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor is a product of Sean McVay’s coaching tree and accordingly ran McVay’s West Coast-style offense in his first year as the Bengals’ shot-caller. That looked just like we expected. No team ran more 11 personnel across the course of the season than the Bengals did, with over three quarters of their total offensive snaps coming from that base package. That, and the occasional push to 12 personnel, comprised about 95% of their offense.
Out of 11 personnel, Cincinnati used zone blocking schemes in the running game. This, like most things on offense in 2019, did not go well. The Bengals were one of the worst rushing teams in the league for the first half of the season before transitioning to more power-blocking, puller-oriented blocking schemes helped them find daylight behind a leaky offensive line; it also opened up running back Joe Mixon's in-space ability. This was a key move away from McVay’s system, and it wasn't the only one.
The Bengals were also willing to let their quarterbacks take snaps from the gun, which is a critical note when discussing Burrow's transition. Burrow was a gun thrower at LSU, and won on 0- or 1-step drops from the mesh point which allowed him to execute the quick run-pass-option game that was part of its base rushing attack. The Bengals were just a hair above league average in their total number of shotgun snaps, while the Rams had the third-lowest number of shotgun snaps in the league.
The final difference was in the usage of play-action, which is such a critical aspect in the Los Angeles’ intermediate to deep passing game. Jared Goff attempted a play-action pass on 33% of his throws last year, which was the third-highest number among starting quarterbacks — both Ryan Finley and Andy Dalton were below average qualifiers, at 22% and 23%, respectively.
The Bengals based out of 11 personnel, and so did the Rams. But by the end of the season, it was clear: Taylor wasn't really running the McVay offense in Cincinnati at all. There was more shotgun, less play-action and pullers in the running game.
Is this good news for Burrow? Yes and no. Burrow's offense was shotgun heavy, RPO heavy and based on 5-man protections. It was about as spready as spready can get, and while Taylor isn't exactly McVay — a West Coast acolyte who doesn't utilize many spread ideas, besides maybe the jet sweep — he isn't all the way into the spread revolution just yet.
But the hope is that Taylor's adjustments on offense were based on collaborative coaching staff efforts to respond to the strengths and weaknesses of the roster; that largely seemed to be the case. The Bengals started pulling interior offensive linemen because their interior offensive linemen just weren't that good last year, and they were at their best on the hoof. They started running Mixon more as a bell cow when the running game improved, and he stayed efficient at a higher volume. They got a quality depth/spot starter out of an ex-undrafted free agent, Auden Tate, by targeting him on those limited routes, which he was productive and effective.
There isn't really an offensive identity in Cincinnati just yet, and that's because Taylor had the maturity to avoid copy/pasting the Los Angeles’ offensive identity. Now, with a quarterback in Burrow — who exploded into college football history largely due to the marriage between his skill set and LSU’s scheme — Taylor has an opportunity to continue evolving the offense by borrowing from LSU offensive coordinator Joe Brady, continuing to increase his shotgun snaps, look for more empty protections and hot routes for Burrow and moving towards a spread-based offense.
Examining The Weapons
If Taylor was willing to move away from McVay on a lot of things, why were the Bengals so reliant on 11 personnel last season? It was largely the product of a depleted roster. Cincinnati drafted tight end Drew Sample shockingly early in 2019, but he wasn't able to see the field over incumbents C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Eifert even before a season-ending ankle injury. Eifert and Uzomah generally rotated snaps, with Eifert as the primary receiving threat and Uzomah as the primary blocking threat. Neither were overwhelmingly successful. At wide receiver, star A.J. Green never saw the field as a result of his ankle injury, so the Bengals rotated Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate and Alex Erickson for most of the season.
The only top-flight talent the Bengals had on offense last year was Mixon, who was in a timeshare with Giovani Bernard before they really started to lean on his talent. Despite the uptick in snaps and carries, Mixon hardly saw an uptick in his receiving usage or efficiency, which forces an interesting question for the Burrow-led Cincinnati offense; Burrow loved to work checkdowns to his running backs and worked with one of the best receiving RBs in the nation, Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Burrow is a tremendous play extender who can evade pressure, and much of the RB target game in LSU was an extension of its base-running game, but the point remains that Burrow is comfortable throwing to his backs early in his progressions. If that tendency remains, Bernard may be in for a renewed focus in the passing game after he started his career as a high-volume receiving back.
The Bengals retained Green while adding Tee Higgins. The build of the average Cincinnati receiver is humongous. Green, Higgins and Tate are all alpha body types with leaping ability and large catch radius while Boyd is above average for a slot receiver. The pairing with Burrow is interesting here. He’s a wicked accurate quarterback who doesn't need elite catch radius players given his ball placement; he had success at LSU by targeting shifty separators underneath more so than skyscrapers down the field. Burrow's highest area of target density in 2019 was 0-9 yards down the field, where 44.4% of his targets went — only Eason had more. There's a good chance that Boyd is initially a high-volume target for Burrow accordingly, especially if Green isn't athletically what he once was. Consider Erickson as potentially passing Tate as WR4 if Burrow needs better underneath route runners.
The biggest weaponry concern in Cincinnati must circle the offensive line, where it once again has under-invested and look to reap what it has sown. Burrow was elite at handling pressure in 2019; he had the best accuracy score of all 2020 prospects when pressured, but that does not give the Bengals a free pass for neglecting the offensive line. They only added Xavier Su'a-Filo in free agency and Hakeem Adeniji via the draft. Jonah Williams' return from injury after missing his entire rookie season is also a de facto addition. Cincinnati is still on track to start Bobby Hart and Trey Hopkins in 2020, neither of whom are plus starters in the league. Michael Jordan and Billy Price’s battle at left guard isn't a thrilling proposition either.
Protection issues will only quicken Burrow's process and stunt his depth of target, potentially exacerbating the issue of having so many downfield receivers as well as the question of the primary receiving back between Mixon and Bernard.
Examining The Fit
The inevitable truth is the Bengals weren't just picking first overall because they needed a quarterback; they had the worst record because they had one of the worst rosters, and this offense is at least another offseason away from having all of the pieces it needs. There is reason to be excited about Taylor's willingness to work his scheme around his players and Burrow's ceiling. It will likely be the case that Cincinnati isn’t very good in 2020, but if its young offensive linemen improve, Higgins proves ready for a big Year 2 role after Green leaves and Mixon develops as a pass-catcher, the Bengals won't ruin Burrow in Year 1 and be able to orient themselves for a more productive Year 2.