Two of the top young quarterbacks in football are poised to terrorize the AFC, and the league as a whole, for the next decade or more if all goes well. Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert were both first round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. Burrow went first overall to Cincinnati while Herbert went sixth overall to the Los Angeles Chargers.
As Burrow prepares to play in Super Bowl LVI, he’s taken an early lead in what will be a career comparison for the ages. But Herbert isn’t as far behind as one might think.
Joe Burrow’s Rise
The two star-studded QB’s, both selected in the 2020 NFL draft, have more than lived up to the hype. Burrow, entered his senior season as a projected day three pick if that. What came next was arguably the greatest season from a quarterback in college football history. Burrow led LSU to a perfect season, resulting in a National Championship, in a game where he threw for 463 yards and six total touchdowns.
Burrow threw for 60 touchdowns that year in 15 games, meaning he threw for an average of four touchdowns a game; a nearly unheard of pace. His performances meant that the Bengals, who had the number one overall pick, selected Burrow as their obvious franchise quarterback for the future.
Herbert’s Road to the NFL
Herbert had a very different college experience from Burrow, the latter of whom only played two seasons at the helm after transferring from Ohio State. Herbert started at least 8 games all four seasons of his college career, improving each year.
Entering his senior season he was projected as a first-round quarterback. However, his season saw some mixed results. Even when Tua Tagovailoa’s injury opened the door for Herbert to climb into the top
Both quarterbacks were drafted onto teams where they had plenty of offensive weapons to work with. Burrow had fellow rookie Tee Higgins and longtime Bengal Tyler Boyd, as well as Joe Mixon in the backfield.
Herbert had all-pro receiver Keenan Allen and a complimentary piece in Mike Williams, with Austin Ekeler in the backfield. Herbert dazzled in his rookie year, while Burrow was often caught running for his life.
Last season, Herbert started 15 games and threw for over 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns on the way to the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Maybe Herbert’s biggest flaw from his rookie year was his ball security, and that doesn’t mean interceptions necessarily.
He threw 10 picks, but in 15 games that isn’t terrible, but he fumbled 8 times. While that didn’t often result in an official turnover because his time recovered it most of the time, it represents the reckless attitude he carried into his first season. Herbert wasn’t shy, and some of the throws he made were just ridiculous.
In Burrow’s 10 starts before his devastating injury, he won just 2 of them, and it looked like Herbert was going to finish the better selection.
Herbert’s Sophomore Season
Their sophomore year highlights were still to come. Herbert managed to improve upon his stellar first-year season, throwing for over 5,000 yards and almost 40 touchdowns. Herbert was 9-8 in his full season of 17 starts, and a devastating loss on the final play of the regular season sent Herbert’s Chargers home for the playoffs wondering what went wrong.
There’s plenty to say about how head coach Brandon Staley managed that final game against the Raiders, but they shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. In fact, the Chargers actually almost blew out Burrow’s Bengals earlier in the season, until Burrow rallied a comeback, only to fall short.
The Chargers were good, and they should’ve been really good. They had some flaws, but one of them was Herbert’s decision-making. Herbert threw for 15 interceptions in his second year, but they were costly ones in close games, at inopportune times.
Herbert led his team down the field in impressive fashion, oftentimes only to throw an interception to lose the game. Herbert was the reason that LA won 9 games, but he may have also been the reason they lost a few.
Burrow came back firing, with a slightly better offensive line, and former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase as the team’s newest weapon. He won 10 games as a starter, leading a Bengals team to the payoffs who were projected to finish last in their division, only to finish at the top.
Healthy once again, Burrow threw for 4600 yards and 34 touchdowns, but like Herbert, his interception issue lost him a few games. Notably, against the lowly Bears early in the season, Burrow threw three straight picks on three straight throws, tanking his team’s chances at making a comeback. But, Burrow was also sacked an NFL-high 51 times in the regular season.
A Battle for Years to Come
Herbert has the better arm, and the more natural talent, and there’s no one who can really argue that. But Burrow has the winning factor, he has the look in his eyes and the confidence where you know the game is never over, which he proved in his first playoffs and throughout the regular season.
So who is the better quarterback? Well, that depends. If Herbert can become a winner, he’ll rise up in the conversation. But it’s not all on him; the Bengals did a great job building around Joe, and the Chargers need to do the same with Herbert.
Herbert and Burrow will likely be compared for the rest of their careers, but right now, Herbert has the statistics, and Burrow has the wins. Herbert will make the top five throws of the game, but Burrow will win the game.
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