NFL rookie QB projections: Ranking Burrow, Tagovailoa, Herbert for '20

Modeling rookie quarterback contribution is always my favorite -- albeit most daunting -- offseason task. And given the extremely limited scope of available information in this particular offseason, I've been forced to dig even deeper to find relevant comparable metrics while adjusting for context, personnel and scheme.

Below you'll find an early look at my rookie quarterback rankings, cultivated from the logic and research (mostly working with coaches to help refine expectations) that I've been plugging into my pre-training camp model. The projections will certainly adjust as we get closer to the season -- and thus, collect more relevant intel -- but here's how the top three rookie QBs stack up in terms of Year 1 production/fantasy value:

1) Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

Drafted: Round 1, No. 1 overall
College: LSU

The Bengals' offensive line flags as an area of concern when it comes to projecting production from the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Jonah Williams' return from the shoulder injury that cost him his entire rookie season certainly helps at the left tackle position, but my model projects a lot of pressure coming for Burrow. Fortunately, last season at LSU, Burrow was spectacularly effective under pressure, throwing 17 touchdown passes against just one interception while completing 66.4 percent of passes at 11.4 yards per attempt (numbers that all ranked first in FBS, per Pro Football Focus). For context, Andy Dalton had an 82.3 passer rating when he wasn't under pressure in 2019 (the lowest figure in NFL among qualified QBs, according to Next Gen Stats).

Obviously, we'll have to wait and see how quickly Burrow can develop chemistry with a new crop of pass catchers, a process that has been curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Veteran star A.J. Green will be shaking off rust, to boot, having missed the entire 2019 campaign with an ankle injury. Tight-window passes, which rely on a QB's trust with his receiver, were a source of strength for Burrow last year, as he threw 16 TD strikes on such passes with a 47.6 completion percentage at 8.8 yards per attempt (figures that also all topped the FBS, per PFF). It's probable that play-action will be a staple of the Bengals' offense in 2020, both due to their personnel (RB Joe Mixon's efficiency makes him a constant ground threat) and because of Burrow's resume. The 2019 Heisman Trophy winner had a 150.3 passer rating off play-action last season (highest in FBS, min. 100 play-action dropbacks, per PFF) and a 74.1 completion percentage.

Unsurprisingly, Burrow has the highest snap-count projection for any rookie quarterback, helping him claim the top spot on this list. Right now, Burrow is the No. 17 overall QB in my model. He should be on your fantasy radar for spot starts (think: Week 4 against the Jaguars or Week 13 at the Dolphins).

2) Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall
College: Oregon

My model forecasts Herbert starting sooner than Tua Tagovailoa, driving his No. 2 ranking in this file. One of the most useful proxies for assessing the best-case scenario for QB potential is clean-pocket performance. Over the past two seasons, Herbert threw 52 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions from a clean pocket (fourth-most TDs in FBS during span, per Pro Football Focus). That said, he also excelled against man coverage in 2019, completing 62.2 percent of his passes (sixth-best in the FBS, according to PFF) and threw 11 touchdowns against the blitz (the most without an interception among FBS QBs). That's a lot of encouraging production, especially when considering that Herbert's receivers dropped an exceptional number of passes: 32 in 2019, which was tied for sixth-most in the FBS, per PFF.

Herbert earned 713 passing yards on screen passes in 2019 (second-most in FBS, per PFF) and 1,212 since 2018 (also second-most), with eight touchdowns on such passes last year (tops in the FBS). Given Austin Ekeler's prolific pass-catching prowess out of the backfield -- see: 92 catches for 993 yards and eight touchdowns last season -- Herbert's production fit in this Chargers offense appears pretty ideal. After all, the Oregon product also threw the fourth-most deep passing touchdowns since 2018 (25), which bodes well for Keenan Allen and Mike Williams on the perimeter. Lastly, play-action is another area where the Bolts can exploit Herbert's skill set. The athletic signal-caller boasted a a 134.7 passer rating off play-action (5th-highest in FBS, min. 100 play-action attempts, per PFF) with 16 touchdowns against just two interceptions and a 69.1 completion percentage.

Right now, my estimate is that Herbert will play in 10-to-12 games, slotting him at No. 27 among all fantasy quarterbacks in my model.

3) Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall
College: Alabama

My model flags a number of concerns pertaining to the 2020 Dolphins' offense overall, as well as Tagovailoa's role in it -- especially given the context of a highly abbreviated offseason. From Miami's O-line to the team's receiving corps to anticipating how long Ryan Fitzpatrick will be the starter, Tagovailoa's projection contains a ton of variance and currently leaves him ranked as my model's No. 30 overall quarterback.

According to PFF, over the course of his college career, Tua threw an almost equal number of touchdowns to short (less than 10 air yards: 28 total), intermediate (10-to-19 air yards: 29 total) and deep (20-plus air yards: 30 total) targets. Tagovailoa also threw 27 touchdown passes when facing the blitz since 2018 (fourth-most in the FBS) and averaged 11.1 yards per attempt (third-highest figure in the FBS, min. 75 attempts vs. blitz, per PFF). Furthermore, Tua racked up 15 touchdowns against zero interceptions off play-action passes last year, the best TD-to-INT ratio in the FBS, per PFF.

When Tua does become the starter, quick passes (less than 2.5 seconds to throw) could be a key driver of his success, as he averaged 11.4 yards per attempt on such throws in 2019 (the best mark in the FBS, per PFF).

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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