There are still over 2 months to go until Thursday 23rd April when Commissioner Roger Goodell will approach the podium to announce that “with the first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft the Cincinnati Bengals select….”, and at this stage the common consensus has been he will end that sentence with the words “Joe Burrow, Quarterback, LSU”. However, in recent days some doubt has been cast into that equation with first Joe suggesting he wanted to play for a team “committed to winning Super Bowls” and then his father Jimmy attempting to steer the chatter away from talk of Joe not wanting to play for the Bengals but with a rather ambiguous statement – “we are all excited that Joe has put himself in a position to be considered as a possible high draft choice”.
Naturally at this point in time no-one from Camp Burrow or from the Cincinnati Bengals is going to show their hand but the news did present an opportunity to look at the possible draft selection at number 1 and to mock both what we might expect and a blockbuster of a start to the 2020 NFL Draft.
Scenario 1 – Bengals select Burrow
It makes perfect sense. The Cincinnati Bengals finished the 2019 season 2-14. They need a spark, a reason to look to the future and sense their fortunes will change. The Bengals inhabit a tough division. The AFC North looks as competitive as it has ever been: the Baltimore Ravens were legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense embodies the famous Steel Curtain again and the Cleveland Browns have enough talent on their roster to challenge if they can just get out of their own way.
Joe Burrow could be the spark the Bengals need. His 2019 season at LSU was about as good as it gets: the Heisman Trophy winner and a National Championship. Burrow completed 76% of his passes for 60 touchdowns. When the big moments came he stepped up, with 7 TDs in the first half of the semi-final Peach Bowl against Oklahoma and 6 TDs in the National Championship game against Clemson. A high football IQ guy, great decision maker, a reader of defenses and a quick arm, Burrow takes care of the football. A least one college commentator (Joel Klatt) has whispered the word ‘Montana’ when asked who Burrow could be compared to.
Burrow could walk into the ideal situation in Cincinnati. If Andy Dalton was agreeable to sticking around he could start during 2020 giving Burrow a season to learn his trade in the NFL behind Dalton. Many teams are looking to follow the Alex Smith / Pat Mahomes model which worked out so well for the Kansas City Chiefs. Sit for a year and watch and learn. There are several pieces on the current Bengals offensive roster which would also help Burrow down the line. Joe Mixon at running back has completed back-to-back 1000-yard rushing seasons and the prospect of Burrow may help the Bengals to convince AJ Green to stick around and re-sign. Jonah Williams (2019 1st round draft pick) will be back in 2020 after missing all of last season. Burrow could expect to have a long and trusted relationship with Williams as his left tackle.
The Bengals could then use subsequent high 2nd and 3rd round draft picks to concentrate on further pieces on offense, possibly a Tight End to move on from injury-plagued Tyler Eifert, greater depth at receiver and on the offensive line. In this scenario Burrow learns from Dalton, the new rookie pieces on offense gain experience and the Bengals pick up enough wins to suggest turning a corner. Then build again in the 2021 draft and let Burrow loose. It only took the 49ers 3 seasons to go from 2-14 to 13-3 and a shot at the Super Bowl. Burrow could be playing for a team committed to winning Super Bowls sooner than he might think or popular opinion would suggest.
Scenario 2 – Carolina Panthers blockbuster trade
The 2020 NFL Draft is in Vegas people! This is going to make gamblers out of General Managers. Expect to see some trade fever in the first round and it could well be kicked off by a blockbuster right at the top of the draft. What if Joe Burrow is going cold on the idea of going to the Bengals? He is a graduate of Athens High School in Ohio and spent time at Ohio State University before moving to LSU; but what if he does not see Cincinnati challenging any time soon? What if the Bengals can see the merit in the value they would get for trading away #1 in this year’s draft?
Step forward the Carolina Panthers. Why Carolina? Two main reasons – owner David Tepper and new offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Tepper has already signalled his intent with the Panthers in the hiring of former Baylor Head Coach Matt Rhule to run the show. He signed Rhule to a 7-year $60 million deal and would not let him leave without signing the deal, in the knowledge that the New York Giants had Rhule as a front runner for their Head Coach vacancy. If the benefits to the franchise are clear, Tepper will strive to get what he wants no matter the cost. You can imagine Tepper casting that same magic on Burrow as he did on Rhule if he likes the prospect.
Rhule is set to rebuild the Panthers roster from the ground up and his track record at Baylor, and Temple before that, demonstrates a willingness to build for the future over any short-term fixes. He could see Burrow as the new franchise QB and seek to reunite him with his passing game coordinator from the LSU days, Joe Brady. Burrow and Brady were clearly a match made in heaven last year and there has been some discussion as to how much of the success was Brady’s scheme versus Burrow’s talent. At Ohio State Burrow was beaten to the starting QB role by Dwayne Haskins and nothing before his 2019 season at LSU suggested the #1 draft status he now holds as a general consensus. If the scheme and the comfort level between Brady and Burrow is a fit for Carolina what is the likely cost and repercussions?
In order for Cincinnati to trade, Carolina are going to need to offer a king’s ransom. There is a recent precedent for this in the 2016 draft when the Los Angeles Rams traded up with the Tennessee Titans in order to take Jared Goff. The Rams traded multiple picks (1st, 2x 2nd, 3rd plus the 2017 1st and 3rd, for the Titans’ 1st, 4th and 6th) to secure Goff and Carolina will have to stump up likewise to take Burrow. This complicates matters somewhat as the Panthers only hold a fairly standard set of draft picks, 1 per round.
Therefore, the Panthers need to pick up some more draft capital in order to deal with the Bengals. Step forward the Las Vegas Raiders and Jon Gruden. The draft is in Vegas, the Raiders are in Vegas, and they have draft capital available to spend. They are going to be big stars on draft night again. The widely held view is that long-term Gruden is not sold on Derek Carr and, if he feels he needs some gitz and glamour behind center in 2020, Cam Newton could be the answer. If the Panthers are going all in on Burrow then Cam will need a fresh start. Cam Newton and the Raiders, there’s a Vegas wedding if ever there was one!
What could Newton be worth? For the sake of argument lets say the deal is done for the Raiders later first round pick (19th) and their late 3rd round pick (91st). The Panthers could now deal with the Bengals and offer picks 7, 19, their 2021 1st rounder and their early 3rd round pick (69) for Burrow. That’s 3x 1st rounders and a third for their future franchise QB, and they manage to keep a pick in each round by taking that late 3rd rounder from the Raiders. It is a high price but the Panthers may see it in terms of the long-term investment, to go alongside Rhule’s 6-year deal.
For the Bengals part, that would give them 5 picks in the top 69, ample opportunity to take the calibre of rookie able to make an impact next season. At 7 they could easily be looking at Isaiah Simmons or Derrick Brown and double dip on defense at 19 with a top corner (maybe Kristian Fulton or CJ Henderson) or take one of the many stud wide receivers in this year’s draft (a Henry Ruggs or Ceedee Lamb). Either way the Bengals get to stack up in the 2020 draft, hopefully make an incremental improvement next season before possibly looking to 2021 for their next franchise QB (remembering they would already have an additional 1st rounder to deal if needs be).
Of course, for now, Cincinnati looks like the obvious destination for Joe Burrow but it is not the only destination, and for the Bengals Burrow is not their only option. Carolina is a legitimate player here if Burrow does not like the fit in Cincinnati, and David Tepper and the Panthers may just fancy spinning the wheel in Vegas come opening draft night.