What Super Bowl LIV taught us about the 2020 NFL draft, and how Bengals, Redskins can benefit

I filed my Feb. 6, 2022 story just a bit early, and my editors couldn’t be more happy about that. Here’s how it goes:

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Quarterback Joe Burrow recaptured some of his college magic on Sunday, leading the Cincinnati Bengals back from a 17-7 halftime deficit to deliver his franchise its first championship, 28-23, over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium California.

In doing so, the Bengals also became the first NFL team to turn a 2-14 season into a title within two seasons since Joe Montana, Bill Walsh and the 1981 San Francisco 49ers. 

Burrow threw a bad first-half interception but rallied to lead three touchdown drives in the second half. He finished 28-of-41 passing for 309 yards and two TDs.

“He was just Joe being Joe,” Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said, returning to the city where he cut his teeth as a Rams assistant to bring home a championship at the age of 38, the second youngest head coach to win a title. “[Burrow] had a tough first half but made the biggest throws when we needed him to. That’s why we drafted Joe.”

Burrow and the Bengals finally got on track offensively after being harassed most of the first half by Redskins second-year pass rusher Chase Young. After collecting only six sacks as a rookie, Young tallied 17.5 sacks in the regular season and six more in three playoff games, including 2.5 in the Super Bowl.

“We had a good game plan,” said Young, who also added a forced fumble and a batted pass. “We just couldn’t finish it off.”

If your fever dream has broken, or maybe if your cackling has ceased, please allow us to explain.

Yes, predicting the Bengals to win the Super Bowl in two years risks a label of stupidity, and calling for it to come against the Redskins adds a creative, daring layer of naïveté. The point isn’t for this to be thrown back in my face two years from now when it doesn’t happen. It’s to show how the 2020 NFL draft could work out in the favor of those two franchises, and perhaps one more, based on what we saw unfold in Super Bowl LIV.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes reacts during the second half of Super Bowl LIV. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The Kansas City Chiefs won because they had the better quarterback, with Patrick Mahomes possessing as much toughness as he has talent. And the San Francisco 49ers were in a position to win, up 20-10 with seven minutes left, because of Nick Bosa leading a raucous pass rush.

If you don’t have a Mahomes, you had better have a Bosa — and something else. That’s one of the lessons we can take from LIV. If that feels too repetitive or simplistic, we understand. We also know games don’t boil down to one player on each team. Well, not always.

The other primary game changer for the Chiefs was Chris Jones. The fourth-year defensive tackle turned in about as disruptive a performance imaginable for a player who logged only one official tackle. Jones batted down three passes, all of them crucial, and pressured 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo on his first interception of the game, which the Chiefs turned into points and a 10-3 lead.

The big takeaway from this game is that there are draft offerings — ones that fit the profiles of prospects who shouldn’t last too long — that can help teams up high in the draft this spring. Likely in very big ways.

LSU QB Joe Burrow

He’s not Mahomes, but Burrow possesses that same get-on-my back toughness and leadership — a quotient that’s hard to quantify, but you know it when you see it. 

It was on display in the late victory against Texas, completing a third-and-17 pass for the knockout blow. It was there when LSU trailed Florida by a touchdown against Florida, with Burrow completing 11 of his next 13 passes for 172 yards to lead the win. And it certainly was there when he was getting harassed, down 17-7 in the national championship against Clemson, erasing that deficit as well.

Burrow’s creative, off-script playmaking ability can’t be overstated. It will be tougher to pull off in the NFL, but the longer I’ve looked at quarterbacks and projecting their potential greatness, this is the characteristic that I’ll never undervalue. They either have it or they don’t. The same goes for toughness.

Even with chatter that Burrow’s camp might be sending mixed messages about his desire to play in Cincinnati, the Bengals have to tune that out — if it actually exists — and do the right thing.

LSU's Joe Burrow carried his team to a college championship with toughness and improvisation. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

At the very least, Burrow possesses those two Mahomesian qualities.

It’s not an exact mirror in Cincinnati of what the Chiefs were building before they drafted Mahomes and started building a redoubtable monster. But Taylor easily can surround Burrow with enough talent over the next few years to put him in position to make a young head coach with a .125 win percentage look pretty smart and effective in a couple of years.

Perhaps Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa possesses enough of these same traits — in a different package — to have this type of impact on NFL games. But with his health concerns, even if Tagovailoa receives good medical reports this spring, we’ll take our chances on Burrow instead. 

Ohio State EDGE Chase Young

Bosa might have emerged from his truncated OSU career (17.5 sacks, 29 TFLs in 29 games) as the more advanced technician and hand fighter than where Young is right now as a prospect. The difference isn’t massive, and Young possesses skills that might surpass the gifts of Bosa, his former Buckeyes teammate.

In Young’s 34 college games, he racked up an amazing 30.5 sacks, 40.5 tackles for loss along with a whopping nine forced fumbles (seven in 2019 alone). For measure, Bosa had only two forced fumbles in his career.

There’s a narrative floating around out there that the Redskins should consider auctioning up their No. 2 overall pick and let someone else take Young. The theory is that — brace yourself — pass rusher isn’t their biggest need, they can add more draft picks on the way down and still add a good player.

Forget all that silliness. Pass rush is always a need; you can never have too much of that. Where is it written that teams can and must have only two good bookend rushers, and can we immolate said document immediately?

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Chase Young is a true difference maker up front. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s a farce, and Bosa is a great example. The 49ers had invested a lot in their defensive front prior to the 2019 draft, which led to some believing that Bosa was too much of a luxury to take with the second overall pick. Anyone who watched Bosa terrorize Mahomes most of Sunday would know how disastrous passing on Bosa would have been for the Niners.

The biggest mistake the Chiefs might have made in the victory was not doubling Bosa sooner. They left Eric Fisher on an island most of the game, and it almost cost them. Had the 49ers won, Garoppolo might have been named game MVP because quarterbacks always win that award — 30 times in 53 Super Bowls. But the man most deserving of that hardware prior to the Chiefs pulling it out was Bosa. He registered a sack, hit or hurry on 30.8 percent of his pass rushes in the game, per Pro Football Focus. That’s an incredible win rate. No other defender was north of 20 percent. 

Young can be this type of disruptor. Maybe he won’t elevate to elite status quite as quickly as Bosa has, but Young enters the NFL as one of the more dangerous rushers we’ve seen in recent years.

Passing on Young would be a mistake for the Redskins. There’s a decision that has to be made on bringing back Ryan Kerrigan, but independent of that there would be room for Young, Montez Sweat and Kerrigan in that situation. 

Pass rush remains a need for Washington, even if QB Dwayne Haskins also needs more help. One mountain to climb at a time, please.

Auburn DT Derrick Brown (and possibly one more DT)

Let’s say Burrow goes No. 1, followed by Young at 2, as most are projecting now. They’re our top two ranked players, and they might be a tier of their own. Pick No. 3 belongs to the Detroit Lions, and in their case, there is a reasonable scenario where trading down makes sense.

The ideal would be to slide down to No. 5 with the Miami Dolphins, who might want to draft a quarterback at No. 3. Then, no matter what the New York Giants do at 4, the Lions could snatch one of the best two interior rushers in this upcoming draft — their version of Jones, if you will.

Our first choice would be Brown, who appears to be one of the more well-rounded DT prospects over the past five or so drafts. He’s likely going to earn a pre-draft grade from us that’s higher than last year’s No. 3 overall pick, Quinnen Williams, our highest-graded player entering the 2019 draft.

Brown has the skills and scheme versatility to make the Lions — or any other defense, if Detroit passes — better immediately. He shares the same length, force and disruptive qualities that Jones possesses.

Auburn Tigers defensive tackle Derrick Brown (5) during the Outback Bowl against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

And right behind Brown is South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw. In some ways, Kinlaw’s game might mirror that of Jones more than even Brown does. They share the same freakish physical traits (great mass, length, power) and finishing ability.

We talk so much about edge rushers providing pressure, and that’s certainly their job. But no one ever should discount what interior disruptors such as Aaron Donald, Kenny Clark, Cameron Heyward, Fletcher Cox and Jones can provide. Quarterbacks who face chaos in their face aren’t likely to get much accomplished.

Three players took over Super Bowl LIV. And as unfair as it might be to compare untested players in the 2020 class to Mahomes, Bosa and Jones, there’s enough skill overlap in these prospects to make them very difficult to pass on come April. They’re not only elite prospects, but they also play highly valued positions in today’s NFL game.

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