SAN DIEGO — When the 2020 NFL draft arrived, almost everyone's top quarterback was Joe Burrow.
The former LSU star was the runaway winner in longtime NFL reporter Bob McGinn's annual poll of NFL executives, collecting 15 of the 17 first-place votes. Scouts said Burrow's gob-smacking senior season — a 15-game highlight reel that yielded 60 touchdown passes against six interceptions, a completion rate of 76% and an NFL passer rating of 143.7 — was a masterpiece like few others they'd soaked up.
"I've never seen anything quite like this before," one scout with 30-plus years in the business told The Athletic's McGinn. "He totally dominated college football. He was fascinating to watch. He just reminded me of Peyton Manning. The way that nothing seemed to concern him."
Other than Burrow, who led LSU to a rout of Clemson in the 2019 national championship game after dicing up SEC defenses, the only other quarterback to get first-place votes was Tua Tagovailoa, the lefty from Alabama. The 6-foot passer's medical red flags, however, troubled several NFL scouts.
The bronze medalist in the NFL survey?
Justin Herbert, a 6-foot-6 prospect who had made 42 starts for Oregon.
Turned out, the NFL scouts predicted what actually happened on draft night: Burrow, Taglovailoa and Herbert went in that order, going first, fifth and sixth, respectively, to the Bengals, Dolphins and Chargers.
What the NFL scouts didn't foresee was this:
Herbert has made the NFL game look as leisurely as a stroll on the leafy Oregon campus in the fall. As if he were still facing the Arizona Wildcats, not the Kansas City Chiefs, young Herbert has amassed 44 touchdown passes and six rushing touchdowns in 20 NFL starts. In the latest quarterback rating (QBR) ranking — a stat that Hall of Fame talent man Bill Polian said NFL teams find useful — you'll find him fourth overall, one slot ahead of Tom Brady and two ahead of Bills star Josh Allen.
Tagovailoa's struggles aren't stunning, so it's not a shocker that Herbert has roundly outperformed Alabama's career leader in touchdown passes. Due to a hip injury that limited him through his first NFL spring camp, Tua was playing catch-up when he landed in Miami. While his career is just getting started, it also hasn't gotten off the ground. Tua has underperformed the No. 5 draft chip — which carried a $30.3 million contract — that Dolphins general manager Chris Grier invested him. If the Chargers care to pay back the football gods, they would anonymously send Grier a holiday present every winter. The metal of choice should be platinum, not gold or silver.
Herbert has acclimated so well, however, that it's not only Tua he has outshone.
While Burrow has done a very nice job for the Bengals, and that feat, alone, should earn him Great Ohioan status in the Buckeye State, this is also true:
Herbert has been the better NFL quarterback, on balance.
Start with what's obvious: Herbert is seeing the game well and displaying superior arm strength to go with similar accuracy. Though he does most of his damage from the pocket, he can roll out fast and spin tight spirals downfield, creating explosiveness that sets the Chargers apart.
It is startling to see someone so large — 235 pounds, Herbert resembles a lean NFL tight end — flip strikes while running.
Take the third-and-5 pass Herbert zipped nearly 40 yards Sunday with his team trailing the Browns, 42-35. He cut loose while running forward off a scramble-rollout. The ball cleared a defender, allowing Keenan Allen to catch it near the sideline. Passes like that one led to the 47-42 victory.
Burrow wasn't able to pass a similar test Sunday, when he tried to nail a 35-yard perimeter strike after darting to his right. The ball fluttered, enabling a Packers safety to cut in front of a Bengals receiver and snatch it.
Burrow, who should've have thrown the ball away, has plenty of arm strength to succeed in the NFL. Like many quarterbacks, notably Aaron Rodgers, he figures to fine tune his form and find additional RPMs. He can't match Herbert, though, laser for laser.
"He doesn't have that arm strength yet" to make extra-difficult throws on the move, said former NFL linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a CBS broadcaster.
Trait for trait, Herbert is making it tough for many QBs to match up. Even the QB who went first in Herbert's draft class can't scale as many tall buildings. When a longtime NFL-employed evaluator was asked Monday if he's seeing a trait from Burrow that exceeds Herbert, he said: "Not really. Maybe a little better pocket presence. That's about it."
The Bengals are thrilled with Burrow, who impressively has rebounded from a massive knee injury in Week 5 last year. The native of Ohio has held up under the potentially crushing burden of being asked to rescue one of the NFL's downtrodden franchise. His QBR (54.9) stood 15th this year entering this week. He is clicking with Ja'Marr Chase, the former LSU teammate Cincinnati selected fifth in April. Chase gave the Packers fits Sunday.
No QB in this young season is producing all-around playmaking that tops that of Kyler Murray, the 2019 top draftee whose Cardinals (5-0) own the NFL's only unbeaten record. Lamar Jackson set a very high bar Monday night: the 2019 MVP accounted 504 of Baltimore's 523 yards on offense.
Herbert, who'll face the Ravens this week, isn't far behind. He trails only one AFC player, Patrick Mahomes, in QBR. When those two squared off in Week 3, it was Herbert who had the better game.