NEW ORLEANS — The question prompted a long belly laugh from Urban Meyer, followed by an artful dodge. He recruited both of the projected No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the upcoming NFL draft — LSU star quarterback Joe Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State, and Buckeye defensive end Chase Young.
So when asked who he’d take first if he were the Cincinnati Bengals general manager choosing first in the upcoming draft, Meyer chuckled and ducked. “That’s going to be a story somewhere,” he said.
It will certainly be in Cincinnati, where the Bengals have the No. 1 pick and appear to need a quarterback after Andy Dalton spiraled to the bench this season. The Bengals franchise is generally viewed as one of the worst run in the NFL, and a star quarterback offers hope to even the most forlorn NFL franchises.
For the Bengals, the decision on Burrow hinges on one of the most compelling riddles looming over the NFL draft: Which Joe deserves the credit? Has Joe Burrow’s historic Heisman Trophy-winning senior season been because of first-year pass-game coordinator Joe Brady? Or has Brady’s rise from unknown 30-year-old pass-game coordinator to one of the most coveted coaches in football been because of Burrow?
Perhaps most important for the Bengals will be this: Is Burrow’s rise so inextricably linked with Brady that there’s worry he won’t be able to replicate his success?
“I can’t answer that question,” Meyer said by phone this week. “For me to answer in detail, you’d have to give me time to study it. That’s the job of the Bengals, and it’s hard because the guy behind him is a generational player in Chase Young.”
A year ago at this time, if Burrow’s name came up in NFL draft conversations it would have been as a potential fifth-round pick. He’d just completed his first college season as a starter and completed just 57.8 percent of his passes and threw 16 touchdowns in 13 games.
Burrow earned rave reviews for his moxie and finished strong with huge numbers against both Texas A&M and UCF to end 2018. But if someone suggested him as a No. 1 pick, you’d make them surrender their keys and Uber home.
Obviously, everything has changed with Brady bringing in the pass-game concepts from Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints, where he was a low-level offensive assistant last year. Burrow has put forth what could be considered the best individual season in the history of college football. He’s thrown 55 touchdown passes, just six interceptions and developed an uncanny synchronization with his three star receivers. Sometime around LSU’s win at Alabama in November, the notion of Burrow as the No. 1 pick went from a possibility to a likelihood.
“It’s all [Burrow],” LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger said. “It really is.”
Will the NFL be convinced? One NFL scout told Yahoo Sports that the Brady/Burrow debate is a fair question, but not a huge concern.
“Both Brady and Burrow will never have such a talent advantage,” the scout said. “I think it’s more Brady because Burrow has been so much better with his schemes and concepts.”
Everyone can agree that the improvement has been surreal. He’s completed nearly 20 percent more of his passes — an NCAA-best 77.6 percent — which is an outlandish jump.
Burrow points to the “biggest factor” of his jump being the amount of LSU players returning, including star receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall. Burrow only arrived in June and wasn’t named starter until two weeks before the opener in 2018.
So how big was the scheme change?
“It did play a big part,” Burrow said. “I think at the same time, with the guys that we have and the connection that we have. I think we’d have made it work with any scheme.”
Brady spent much of the day Saturday deflecting attention, media reports about job interest and credit for LSU’s success. Brady came off as humbled and poised, and he obviously heaped praise on his star quarterback.
“Joe Burrow is not a system quarterback,” Brady said. “Joe Burrow will fit in any system. If you want to be the most successful on offense or the most successful offensive coordinator, you’re going to develop a system that utilizes him and what he does best.”
Can Burrow continue to thrive without Brady? To former NFL executive Mike Lombardi, the answer is clear.
“I think it’s fairly obvious,” said Lombardi, who hosts the “GM Shuffle” podcast. “Every time the play breaks down or doesn’t go as planned, he’s improvised. He’s made plays with his mind, feet and his arm. All those things really matter. That’s how you tell. It just doesn’t always go off the script.”
What’s impressed Meyer about Burrow’s historic season is the caliber of competition that Burrow has thrived against. He’s beaten Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Auburn, a roll call of top teams.
“Not only is his body of work phenomenal,” Meyer said. “He’s played great teams with great defenses. Trevor Lawrence has played in a historically bad ACC, usually it’s much better. Miami and Florida State are bad. That makes Joe’s season that much better. He’s earned the right to say he’s going to be a very good pro.”
Just how high will he go in the NFL draft? It depends on which Joe NFL teams delineate credit to.
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