Conversations with former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow began at the NFL Combine in February, but the Cincinnati Bengals found out what they wanted to know about the potential No. 1 draft pick early in the process.
The Bengals are expected to take Burrow with the top overall pick Thursday as they kick off the NFL Draft, which is being conducted virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Decision-makers involved in Cincinnati’s draft have tried to avoid specifically discussing individual players, but coach Zac Taylor said earlier this month they had completed their evaluations for that first pick.
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“We’ve done a good job at learning as much as we can about the top prospects that we can take at No. 1,” Taylor said in a Zoom news conference April 8. “There’s not much left to uncover at this point. We continue to visit with these guys as much as we can, just to see if we stumble upon something. But we feel pretty good about everybody who we researched and talked to. We had since January to do it, so we’ve spent that time wisely.”
Taylor re-iterated that in a pre-draft news conference Tuesday and said the organization finalized all of its draft preparations Monday, for the most part. He would not confirm whether any contract negotiations have begun with the player the Bengals plan to draft first.
Burrow has long been the expected top pick, but heading into draft week it seems unanimous among mock draft experts, despite the fact he blossomed later than some in his college career. The Athens (Ohio) High School graduate began his career at Ohio State but played just 10 games in a backup role over two seasons before transferring to LSU in 2018.
After a decent junior campaign, he had a record-setting final season, throwing for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns with just six interceptions while leading LSU to the national championship.
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“Talking in general about every player, there are always some positives, some negatives, some questions you want answered,” Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin said in a Zoom news conference last week when asked about whether it is a negative that Burrow had just one breakout season. “There’s always improvement over time. In Joe’s situation, you have to play to get into a rhythm and feel. The more he played the more the more he got into that rhythm and feel. Certainly, the coaching down there brought him along quickly. Their schematics were great. I think the way that he was brought in by his teammates was great. His leadership down there was great. When those things all come together your play on the field tends to build and be ever-improving. So, with him, the more he played the better he got, which is a good sign.”
Tobin said the coaches did a good job getting to know Burrow and other players during their meetings, whether they were face-to-face at the Combine or through video/phone calls.
“Just the personality comes across, the coachability comes across the more you talk to these players and how they see football; what they like and dislike about the game of football,” Tobin said. “(You learn) what they’re comfortable doing and what is new to them and what is maybe uncomfortable and how that would fit with your schematics and what you want to do as a football team and you try to kind of find commonalities. … We want a good fit both from the player’s standpoint and the team’s standpoint. The more you talk to them the more that stuff comes across.”
NFL draft analysts aren’t the only ones writing Burrow in at No. 1. Fans already have been buying Bengals jerseys with Burrow’s name on them, and many are looking for him to bring hope back to Paul Brown Stadium, where attendance continued to dwindle last year through a 2-14 season.
Bengals owner Mike Brown spoke last offseason about trying to win back the fan base after disappointing results in recent years, but Tobin said the organization isn’t relying on one player to do that.
“The No. 1 thing we know our fans want is a winner, so our focus is on putting together the best possible team and how best to do that,” Tobin said last week when asked if there is pressure to draft Burrow considering how fans already have embraced him as the team’s next quarterback. “And so that’s always been our focus, taking advantage of every opportunity we get and putting together the best team possible because we believe that’s what our fans want, more so than any one name, but a team that’s going to be competitive. And ultimately, if we give them that, I think they’ll be happy.”
It might just take more convincing if the Bengals don’t draft Burrow.
Thursday: Round 1, 8-11:30 p.m.
Friday: Rounds 2-3, 7-11:30 p.m.
Saturday: Rounds 4-7, noon-7
TV: ABC, NFL, ESPN