Barry Jackson

Another rising college QB can make his case on Saturday. Dolphins will be watching

The Dolphins’ admiration for Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa — from owner Stephen Ross to the front office — is well known and certainly warranted; the junior quarterback has an absurd 27-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio this season.

But the Dolphins, determined to find their quarterback of the future at the top of 2020 draft, have smartly gone about this process with an open mind.

And now — with the real possibility the Dolphins could miss out on the first overall draft pick — it’s a good thing that general manager Chris Grier has been closely evaluating all of the top quarterbacks prospects. On Saturday, LSU’s Joe Burrow — on the road at Alabama, against the best defense he has faced all year — can make a case for the Dolphins to consider him wherever they pick high in the draft.

Tagovailoa remains the heavy favorite to be the top quarterback selected, according to multiple analysts, but Burrow could make this interesting — and surpass Oregon’s Justin Herbert as the No. 2 QB prospect — if he’s brilliant against Alabama on Saturday and if Tagovailoa returns for that game from ankle surgery and struggles.

Burrow, 6-4, has been exceptional, ranking second in the nation in passing yards (2805) and touchdowns (30) and fourth in passer rating. He has just four interceptions and is completing 78.8 percent of his passes. And his 151.6 passer rating when facing a heavy pass rush is best in the country, per College Football Focus.

So could Burrow catch Tua as a prospect? One longtime NFL personnel executive, who requested anonymity, told me he doubts it.

“He’s a great kid and has great intangibles, but arm strength is the question,” the executive said. “To me, he’s mid first-round pick.” That evaluator has Tagovailoa and Herbert atop his QB board.

The two most prominent draft analysts — ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay — still rank Burrow third behind Tagovailoa and Herbert, and McShay has Burrow as a mid-first round pick, ranking him 15th among draft eligible prospects, one slot ahead of Washington quarterback Jacob Eason.

“Burrow appeared to be a fringe NFL prospect a year ago, but now he’s become a potential first-rounder,” McShay said. “He is making quicker decisions with the football, displaying complete control of the Tigers’ offense and extending plays. He’s a better athlete than people give him credit for. And he’s shown good accuracy throwing into tight windows, too.”

McShay, incidentally, has Tagovailoa second among all draft-eligible prospects (behind Ohio State defensive end Chase Young) and Herbert fourth.

Kiper is somewhat more bullish on Burrow than McShay, noting: “Burrow has ascended way up the board, reminds me a lot of Tony Romo with his delivery and the way he manipulates the pocket. Burrow all of a sudden is a top 10 guy.”

Draft analyst Tony Pauline also doesn’t see Burrow challenging Tua to go first overall at this point. On profootballnetwork.com, Pauline said: “Burrow could move into the top half of round one if he has a productive and mistake-free game against Alabama, continues to play at the level he’s been playing, and then — and this is most important for Burrow — shows up at the Senior Bowl and plays well.”

But there are some who believe Burrow should be placed alongside Tua as prospects.

Pro Football Focus, which analyzes every snap, has Burrow going first in its 2020 mock draft and says: “Burrow has sustained elite play every game for half a season. We’ve never seen a quarterback with a higher passing grade through the first seven weeks of the season. He may not be at the top of boards right now, but he’s shooting his way up there.”

PFF surprisingly places Tua 10th on its draft board, adding: “There’s a good chance the NFL won’t be as high on Tua as the general media. He also really hasn’t had to do much this season. Tagovailoa has only seven big-time throws on the year, which ranks 48th in the country.” (I have not seen evidence to support this from NFL executives, who generally love Tua.)

Longtime film evaluator Ian Wharton said in a fansided.com piece: “Burrow is blossoming into a terrific prospect. It wouldn’t surprise me if he overtakes Tagovailoa as the top quarterback for teams worried about the latter’s ankle injuries. I still want to see a defense press onto these receivers and disrupt the quick passing game Burrow benefits from since a lot of his reads are immediately open.

“He’s easily the No. 2 quarterback in the class and there’s a case he’s the top guy. His ability to play under duress and adapt his play to the situation... is an NFL trait that can help him succeed early in his career.”

And this is interesting: On passes thrown at least 20 yards, Wharton notes Burrow has been accurate on 63 percent of those throws this season, compared to 44 percent for Tagovailoa and 47 percent for Herbert.

Mock drafts in November often don’t resemble the actual drafts. Nobody had Kyler Murray going first overall at this time last year. So Burrow has a legitimate chance to at least make this a debate, if he closes this season as well as he’s started it and if Tagovailoa and Herbert struggle down the stretch.

And he and Herbert — with strong play the rest of the way — have the chance to lift the Dolphins out of a great depression if they don’t get the top pick.

Herbert has had a good year (24 touchdowns, two interceptions, 69.2 percent completion rate), and as McShay said, is “the most physically gifted quarterback” in this class.

The concern — and it’s a big one — is “he’s got to process quicker,” as McShay said. In other words, the same problem hindering Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen.

And, per Wharton, Herbert is at 64 percent accuracy this season on passes thrown between 11 and 19 yards - compared with 79 for Tua and 78 for Burrow.

NEWS NOTE

The Dolphins cut defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, who played 18 snaps in two games. We’ll have another post soon with roster moves and a lot more notes.

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